Will it Play in Peoria?

We visit the typical American city to drive an atypical Ferrari—a 620-horsepower 612 Scaglietti.

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September 30, 2008

Peoria, Illinois is not known as a hot bed of Ferraridom. When I conduct a small, very informal and completely unscientific survey about the Midwestern city of around 112,000 people, most of my Northern California neighbors think of corn and, in the automotive realm, hot rods. It’s appropriate, then, that the latter notion perfectly describes Peoria resident Alexis Khazzam’s 612 Scaglietti.

The point is driven home as I watch the big, heavy GT light up its rear tires on a runway at Peoria’s tiny Mt. Hawley Airport in preparation for a timed 0-60 mph run. Khazzam and a group of his sports car-owning friends rented the airport for an hour to do some low-key drag racing, but there’s more to it for this Ferrari owner; he is on a mission.

“I wanted my 612 to be faster than other cars,” says Khazzam. “I didn’t want a Corvette or a Nissan GT-R to be able to beat me to 60 mph. It got to 60 in 4.2 seconds when it was new, but I wanted to see if I could get that number lower, a lot lower. I was dreaming of 3 seconds flat.”

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Three seconds in a two-ton vehicle? More than a half-second quicker than the 599 GTB Fiorano and Enzo, both lighter and more powerful cars? It’s an ambitious goal, but this Ferrari just might have the goods—an extra 80 horsepower and 112 lb-ft of torque, combined with what’s thought to be the world’s only custom 612 gear set, specifically designed to turn this daily driver Gran Turismo into a drag-racing sports car.

Burnout over, the 612 creeps up to the starting line. Can it hit the 3-second mark? I’ll know soon enough.

THE FERRARI is Khazzam’s third exotic car: The first was a Maserati GranSport, the second was an Aston Martin DB9 convertible. “The GranSport was beautiful, but I just wasn’t crazy about it,” he says. “The Aston sounded great, and was as gorgeous and as elegant as could be, but it was British and I’m from Italy, so I thought, ‘Let’s do a Ferrari.’ I like that the 612 is not an in-your-face car, that it won’t make anyone do an immediate double-take. And I have three kids, so I need the back seats.”

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The 38-year-old entrepreneur bought the Scaglietti new in 2007, and soon turned to Michael Benét, owner of local tuner Kauth & Mayeur, for some added zest. “We started with a Tubi muffler, then tried a Fuchs unit,” says Benét, who also updated the car’s sound system, installed a remote radar detector and fitted the 9 and 12 × 20-inch HRE wheels. “Soon, Alexis decided he wanted to go to the next level, so we investigated how far we could go without damaging the integrity of the engine.”

This meant sticking with natural aspiration rather than forced induction, so Benét looked to the basics: intake, exhaust and electronics. Kauth & Mayeur improved the incoming airflow by fitting free-flowing air filters, removing the factory’s noise-cancellation baffles inside the airboxes and smoothing the inside of the tubes running to the inlet manifolds. “Alexis wanted it to still look stock, but there’s a lot going on under those intake boxes,” says Benét.

Next, he contacted Phil Caggiano of Eurotek Designs in New York to redesign the Ferrari’s exhaust system and reprogram its ECU. “Michael and his guys took all the measurements underneath Alexis’ car, with calipers and micrometers, and sent them and detailed photographs to me,” explains Caggiano. “I had some ideas, and sketched out a flow chart of how I wanted the system to work. I sent everything to my partners at Fuchs in Germany, they had some ideas, and we went back and forth until we figured it out.”

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The new exhaust is very different than the factory setup. Where Ferrari fits four exhaust manifolds (each with a small pre-catalytic converter), two 400-cell main cats and a maximum pipe diameter of 60mm, the custom Fuchs system utilizes headers sans catalysts, two 100-cell racing cats and significantly larger tube diameters (70-73mm throughout). “Removing the restrictions in the factory system really lets the engine breathe,” notes Caggiano. “The mufflers and intake were good for around 35 hp and 40 lb-ft of torque; the complete exhaust almost doubles that. But it was tricky. For example, you want bigger tubes, but not so big that you lose torque. We got the torque from the header design.”

The biggest challenge wasn’t making the power, however—it was making sure everything fit. “We had to overcome a lot of stuff, like heat in the engine bay,” Caggiano says. “Ferrari uses big heat shields, which take up space and dictate the size and design of the manifolds. We wanted bigger tubing and smooth bends, so we had to design everything a certain way to get it to fit without melting anything. There was a lot of fine-tuning involved.”

To make sure the finished system would fit Khazzam’s car perfectly, Fuchs rented a 612 to test clearances. “They had the rented car for a week, and when I sent the exhaust to Michael, he told me it was quicker to put the new system on than to take the factory one off!” says Caggiano. “At this level, when you’re doing something so extreme, the only way to make sure it will fit is if you have the car there.”

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Eurotek next moved on to the ECU. “We went back and forth with Michael a few times, removing the speed limiter, increasing the rev limiter and developing a proprietary series of ignition and air-fuel ratio maps,” Caggiano says. “It’s funny, this car wouldn’t run on the stock ECU anymore. It would probably start, and then shut down, throwing codes everywhere, since the four cats aren’t there, the oxygen sensors are in a different location, all that stuff. Modern cars are really difficult to tune; you have to know what you’re doing to make it all work.”

When run on a Peoria DynoJet dynamometer, the Ferrari recorded 620 horsepower and 546 lb-ft of torque (assuming a 20% driveline loss), compared to the factory rating of 540 hp and 434 lb-ft for the 5.7-liter V12. When I ask Benét if he had expected this kind of increase, his response is adamant: “For a naturally aspirated car, absolutely not. But Phil believed we could, based on his experience, and he made a believer out of me.

IT HAD TAKEN A COUPLE OF MONTHS, but the Ferrari was now significantly quicker than when it left the factory. Khazzam was happy to have it back for a while, but Benét knew it wasn’t yet quick enough, so he turned to the hot-rod world for the next step. “I’m a drag racer, and we’re always playing with gears,” he explains. “Alexis wanted a low 0-60 mph time, and I knew how to get it—I just didn’t think it would be so hard.”

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The Ferrari went back onto the lift, and the ring and pinion was removed. “Ferrari wouldn’t sell us a new pinion gear to copy, so we had to remove the one from the transaxle and reverse-engineer it,” says Benét.

To get the desired balance of acceleration and top speed, Benét and crew decided on a 4.70:1 final-drive ratio versus the stock 4.18:1, and sent the pinion off to a shop that specializes in NHRA gears. Three months later, it was back. “They said they couldn’t do what we wanted,” Benét grumbles. “Luckily, in the meantime, I had met an Italian guy who could.”

A batch of metal blanks, designed specifically for motorsports gearing, was ordered from the UK, and soon made its way to Japan. “The American shops that we tried couldn’t cut the metal, their bits kept breaking,” Benét explains. “The Japanese softened the metal and successfully drilled it, but when it came back to America, we had to anneal it to get the hardness back.”

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This time around, the car had been sitting in the Kauth & Mayeur shop for five months, so a guilty-feeling Benét came up with a surprise for his client. When Khazzam came to pick up the car, the first thing he saw was his name on the brake calipers. “It blew me away,” says Khazzam. “It was a complete surprise, and I really liked it.”

Finally, it was time for the owner’s first drive with the shorter gearing. “When we gave the car back to Alexis, I told him, ‘The engineer wants you to slowly bring the gear up to temperature and then let it cool down, run it easy for a couple of days,’” Benét remembers. “I think he was about a block away when we heard him floor it and take off. But that’s the kind of enthusiast he is.”

I CAN DOUBLY APPRECIATE that sentiment after driving the modified 612 myself. It’s clear from as little as 4,000 rpm that Khazzam’s car pulls harder than stock, and the difference is really noticeable when the revs climb above 5,000. The changes are most impressive in the higher gears; in sixth gear at 4,000 rpm (roughly 100 mph), the tuned Ferrari accelerates like a regular 612 would in fourth.

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The speed is effortless, as well as addictive. Like all great drivetrains, this one encourages me to push it harder and harder. The newfound grunt also meshes well with the car’s traditional manual gearbox. When I last drove a 612 with a stick shift [“Fantasy Junction,” FORZA #77], I felt that the notchy, gated shifter just didn’t match the Scaglietti’s calm, luxurious nature. But in this car, with its added power and sense of urgency, it feels right at home.

At startup, Khazzam’s Ferrari sounds like a normal 612. Once it’s on the move, however, its sound is higher pitched and more intense than the stock car’s, though not so much as the shrieking F430; it’s somewhere in between, a raspy, metallic, purposeful turbine-like sound, with a popping, crackling overrun. In addition, the lower gearing and resulting higher revs translate into a noticeably louder-than-stock car at highway speeds.

That’s okay with Khazzam, who simply loves his Ferrari’s newfound urge. “I drove the car around after all the engine mods, and it still felt like a touring car,” he says. “Once we added the gear set, it felt like a real sports car, like a V8-powered car.”

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NOW IT’S TIME to find out just how quick the 612 really is. The Mt. Hawley Airport is impressively suburban—it sits about two blocks behind a shopping plaza—and unassuming. Light-colored cinder-block buildings and corrugated metal hangers combine with the concrete tarmac to amplify the Illinois heat. At least for me: None of the locals seem bothered.

The lineup of cars is impressive: Four Corvettes (one a Ligenfelter-modified Z06), Benét’s Porsche 911 GT3, a 911 Turbo, two Ford GTs, a Dodge Viper or two, a Lamborghini Gallardo and a few others pull up next to the Ferrari. There’s a quick safety talk, then the cars filter out onto the twin 3,000-foot runways. As Khazzam heads past in the 612, one of the 40 or so onlookers comments, “That doesn’t sound like a Ferrari, does it?”

Benét will drive the Scaglietti during the timed runs, for which he has fitted a V2000 data logger. For the test, the car wears shaved 305/35-20 Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires in back—the usual rubber is P Zero Rosso, 285/30 in front and 315/35 in back—and Benét lights ’em up before creeping up to the line. He then launches the car, which leaves two long stripes of rubber and a cloud of smoke behind it as it buzzes along like a squadron of angry wasps.

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After a few runs, Benét hands the car back to Khazzam, who, if anything, pushes the Ferrari even harder. The cars soon begin to line up against each other—Vette versus GT, GT vs. GT, GT vs. GT3, GT3 vs. 612, 612 vs. Vette—and the smell of burning rubber and clutches drifts through the muggy air. From my vantage point, it’s hard to see which cars are the fastest at the end of the runway, but the 612 looks to be in the thick of things.

The very informal show lasts about an hour, after which I finally have a chance to ask Khazzam how quick the Ferrari is. “We got to 60 mph in 3.24 seconds!” he says, laughing excitedly. “It’s not quite what I was hoping for, but, wow, it’s awesome. I’m pretty happy about that.”

And with the time set, is the 612 finally finished? Khazzam hesitates for a second, then nods. “This is just what I wanted, so I think the car might be done,” he says.

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Then he ruins it all by pausing again, and smiling a true hot-rodders’ smile. “Well, maybe I’ll let this sink in a little bit before I decide anything.”

Also from Issue 90

  • Phil Hill remembrance
  • F1: Massa vs Hamilton
  • 2008 Pebble Beach Concours
  • 246 GT restoration
  • Ferrari Formula Uomo
  • 250 GT Coupe and Cabriolet
  • ALMS: Ferrari vs Porsche
  • 2008 Goodwood Revival
  • Market Report: The Modern 12s
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