Today’s Ferrari Challenge seems so well-established in enthusiast circles that it’s almost hard to imagine things being any other way. Back when it was founded, however, Ferrari itself was at a low ebb, and the series’ success was anything but guaranteed.
The early 1990s were not kind to Ferrari: Its new 348, the much-anticipated replacement for the beloved 308/328 series, arrived to mixed reviews. The 348’s performance was strong but not exceptional—though it was a marked improvement over the 328—and early examples displayed twitchy handling at high speeds. Poor reviews, combined with a worldwide recession, kept sales slow.
Ferrari needed to generate some positive coverage and provide a “halo” effect for the cars sitting forlornly in showrooms, so the company decided to take the 348 racing. The 348 GT/C proved successful in European events, so a further development, the 348 GT/C LM, was produced for the 1994 season.
Ferrari also decided to race the 348 in-house. The idea was to convert street cars into race cars suitable for a single-marque series aimed at wealthy amateurs. Modifications would be limited, hot-shoe drivers would be banned, and Ferrari dealers would prepare, maintain, and transport the cars. This last facet would both keep the money in the Ferrari dealer network and prevent racers from illegally souping up their machines.
Ideally, all the owner would have to do was show up, enjoy a catered lunch, and drive. No prize money would be awarded, but drivers would be allowed to find sponsorship as long as it didn’t conflict with the series’ sponsors.
Launching the Challenge series took a fair amount of bravado on Ferrari’s part. Earlier one-marque series were usually high-profile curtain raisers for Formula 1, where F1 drivers showed off for the crowds and pounded their steeds into scrap metal in the process—BMW’s 1979-80 M1 Procar series is the most famous. In contrast, the Challenge’s gentlemen drivers would be discouraged from overaggressive driving and paint swapping.
At the other end of the spectrum, Porsche had successfully started a club-racing series for owners of any Porsche product, but the car built specifically for that type of event, the 1988 911 Club Sport, tanked in the marketplace. Obviously, this was the last thing Ferrari wanted.
The 348 Challenge series debuted in Europe in 1993. Two separate championships were held—one for Italy, one for the rest of Europe—and at the end of the season there was a run-off for the top teams at Mugello. It turned out better than Ferrari likely expected: The series was an immediate success. The enthusiast magazines were full of praise for the concept, and 348s with Challenge conversion kits were quickly snapped up.
Gian Luigi Buitoni, then the boss of Ferrari North America (FNA), wanted to get American owners in on the fun. He turned to David Seibert, then the executive director of the Ferrari Club of America (FCA), for help developing the American series. Seibert defined the basic series structure, wrote the regulations, worked with Ferrari expert Dick Merritt at the Department of Transportation to iron out the details of importing the cars, and served as series administrator.
In July 1993, FNA brought two 348 Challenge cars to an FCA event at Lime Rock. Three demonstration events were held later that year at Savannah, Road Atlanta, and Willow Springs. The Willow event introduced the new series to the press, and 21 shiny new Challenge cars were shown. There were no races that year, but the North American 348 Challenge series began in ’94, with seven events organized by FNA, the FCA, and authorized Ferrari dealers.
The F355 Challenge car was introduced in 1995, and the series was renamed the North American Ferrari Challenge. A separate class was introduced for the new model, but only one F355 showed up—the rest of the competitors ran 348s. The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) took over sanctioning duties, and the now ten-race series became the support event for professional races at Sebring, Mosport, and Watkins Glen that featured the sizzling Ferrari 333 SP.
The F355 became the main focus of the series in 1996, and the 348 was relegated to a support class. The 348 was dropped entirely from the Ferrari Challenge for 1997, much to the dismay of owners who had hoped to continue in a subordinate role.
SO WHAT EXACTLY was the 348 race car that spearheaded the Ferrari Challenge series? The 348 Challenge was based on the 1992-93 348 Serie Speciale, a 100-car limited-edition street model built only for the American market.
The Serie Speciale featured a number of cosmetic changes for a more aggressive look, in particular a revised front spoiler that also provided more downforce. Special wheels with greater offset wore sticky Pirelli P Zero tires and the rear track was widened by 50 mm. The model also featured a lower final drive bevel gear for better acceleration, along with a taller fifth gear to compensate on the top end. An improved exhaust system raised the 3.4-liter V8’s output to 312 hp, 12 more than the standard 348.
To build a 348 Challenge for the North American series, an owner took his or her U.S.-specification 348 Serie Speciale, 348 tb, or 348 ts to an authorized Ferrari dealer for the installation of a factory-made Challenge racing kit. The “lesser” 348 tb and ts were allowed to be updated to SS spec before the kit was installed. (The rules note that converting a lighter European or Swiss 348 for U.S. racing would be considered on an individual basis, though there’s no record of a European car running in the North American series.)
The Challenge kit consisted of a number of components, most relating to driver safety. A bolt-in roll cage (which was beefed up for 1995) attached to brackets that were welded to the floor, while an OMP fire extinguisher assembly was bolted to the passenger floorboard. Eyebolts were added front and rear to aid towing by emergency vehicles, and a remote kill switch allowed the car to be shut down from the outside in case of an emergency.
A pair of lightweight OMP racing seats replaced the stock seats, though the passenger seat could be removed entirely in 1995. The original two-inch, four-point racing harness was quickly traded for a three-inch, six-point setup and a driver-side door net. Drilled pedals from the F40 enhanced feel, as did Ferrari’s optional small-diameter, suede-covered steering wheel—though any wheel and/or shift knob could be used. Ferrari also recommended disabling the steering lock.
The 348 had marginal stopping power for its speed potential, so the Challenge kit came with air scoops and tubing for cooling the front and rear brakes. Unused turn signal holes could be used for additional brake cooling. The stock brake rotors had to be retained but racing brake pads could be fitted; Pagid offered a set specifically designed for the 348 Challenge. Drivers could either retain or disconnect the stock Ferrari anti-lock braking system.
Plexiglass covers for the front turn signals helped prevent breakage. A special battery and battery mount were fitted: Early 348s had the battery in back, later cars carried them up front. A new silencer assembly replaced the stock system—the catalytic converters remained—while an alternate, louder setup was available for use on tracks without noise restrictions.
The Challenge cars ran on a spec Exxon fuel (Agip in Europe), so a special fuel line and sampling valve used to check for illegal additives were part of the kit. A racing fuel pump was optional.
The 1994 348 Challenge cars rode on one-piece 17-inch Speedline racing wheels, but these were exchanged for 18-inch rims in 1995 to match the tire sizes of the new F355 Challenge cars. Series sponsor Pirelli provided a spec slick tire (245/645×18 front and 305/645×18 rear) for dry-weather usage and rain tires for the wet.
Ferrari soon offered a Challenge car “package” that included a new 348 with all of the required welding and bolting done at the factory, though the Challenge kit itself still had to be installed by a dealer—no ready-to-race cars were built by the factory. A chrome 348 Challenge badge was supposed to be fitted to the deck lid of factory-prepped Challenge cars, but not all were installed so this is not a sure test of authenticity. In any case, there are basically no differences between one of these factory-prepped cars and a converted street car.
The basic Challenge kit could be augmented with a number of optional parts, which meant that some 348s ended up “more equal” than others. All legal hardware was documented in a comprehensive 348 Challenge catalog, which also included installation instructions.
While the engine had to remain pretty much stock, the ECU from the 348 Spider provided an extra 200 rpm and could be installed in any car, although Challenge officials could exchange a competitor’s ECU for one of their own at the track. Cam timing could be altered using the factory holes in the drive pulleys. Competitors could use any 348 bevel gear—the Serie Speciale’s 25/29, the Mondial t’s 25/27, or the standard 348’s 26/27—and adjust the differential with factory shims to change the breakaway point.
A metallic racing clutch disc was available for use with the stock pressure plate, while optional beefed-up second and third gear selectors strengthened the gearbox. The air-conditioning condenser could be swapped for an extra oil cooler, and while the air-conditioning compressor couldn’t be removed, its belt could be.
It was legal to lower the car with Ferrari’s optional springs and dampers—the Challenge kit didn’t include new suspension pieces—but the rules stated all cars had to clear the ground with both tires on one side deflated. Solid suspension and anti-roll bar bushings were also allowed.
To further improve performance, competitors could remove carpets and tool kits, and install lightweight front and rear bumpers. Weight reduction was limited, however, as the cars had to meet a strict 3,050-pound minimum weight; limited ballasting was permitted. Electronic data acquisition could be used during practice, but not during qualifying or the races.
A vigorous debate surrounds the number of cars built and, not surprising given the wide range of possible parts, the technical differences between them. According to period records, 50 individual 348s competed in the North American Challenge series, though many were driven by multiple owners over the years. The 50 cars break down as follows: nine tb’s, 14 ts’s, 14 Serie Speciales, 11 factory-prepped tb’s, and two factory-prepped ts’s. However, a number of 348s were converted to Challenge spec but never raced in the series; the same applies to some factory-prepped cars.
Few (if any) of these cars still compete, due to their rarity, relatively modest performance, and lack of available racing classes. On the plus side, the 348 Challenge’s rarity doesn’t mean the model is unaffordable—today, excellent examples sell for $85,000-90,0000.
This story was excerpted from issue #54’s “Meeting the Challenge.”—Ed.