When one considers the history of Ferrari, a history in which racing plays at least as much (and some might argue more) of a role as production and sales, it seems only fitting that the company should provide a means of enjoying its products to their fullest capabilities. The Ferrari Challenge Series, originally founded in 1993, has given Ferrari fans just such a venue for over 10 years. The idea behind the series, as stated on the Ferrari North American Web site, is "to allow Ferrari customers to enjoy their cars in a structured, competitive environment, racing against other Ferrari owners on some of the great racetracks of North America."
Put simply, it allows Ferrari owners to experience the upper limits of Prancing Horse machinery in a "gentlemen-drivers" series. The cars are not production vehicles, but carefully and identically prepared race cars with appropriate safety equipment, such as roll cages, safety harnesses and fire suppression systems. Other hardware, such as the suspension and braking components, are also upgraded for race purposes, but the engines are left completely stock, with no modifications allowed. This has the dual benefit of ensuring close competition between drivers while also showing off the power and durability of factory Ferrari powertrains.
The original Challenge vehicle, when the series began in 1993, was the 348. This model was replaced by the 355 in the late 1990s, while the current 360 model became the featured vehicle in 2000. To help promote both the series and the capability of the 360 Modena, Ferrari created the 360 Challenge Stradale, a thinly veiled race car that is street-legal and sold in limited numbers. Like the vehicles campaigned in the 360 Challenge Series, the Challenge Stradale offers no sound insulation, carpeting or audio system (it does still have air conditioning).
As you might imagine, the racing action between Ferrari 360 Challenge cars is as close and competitive as anything seen on Speed Channel or ESPN. The "gentlemen" drivers are often family men with their wife and kids in the grandstands. Yet these drivers, and their sponsors, take the Challenge Series seriously. Walking through the pit area at this season's opener at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., we spotted over a dozen tractor trailers with Ferrari shields and colors painted on the side. During the two days leading up to the Challenge event, Infineon Raceway was awash in red, yellow and silver 360s wailing around the 2.52-mile race course. Between practice sessions, the paddock teemed with drivers, mechanics and crew chiefs collaborating on suspension settings and fuel management.
Beyond the thrill of the 360 Challenge, this year's opener at Infineon included the Shell Historic Challenge, a collection of classic Ferrari and Alfa Romeo race cars dating from the 1930s to the 1980s. Because all of these cars are real (no reproductions allowed), the Historic Challenge offers spectators a unique opportunity to see everything from original Testa Rossas and GTOs to 365 GTB/4 Daytonas and 512 BB/LMs driven like they were meant to be driven. For fans of vintage Italian race cars, it simply doesn't get any better than this.
The 2004 Ferrari Challenge season opened at Infineon Raceway on March 19-21; it continues at Road Atlanta on May 14-16 before heading up to Quebec's Circuit Giles Villeneuve on June 11-13 and the Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant in St. Jovite on June 25-27. The final two events are at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut on July 8-10 and Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif., on August 17-19 (Ferrari, by the way, is the featured marque this year in Monterey). The Historic Challenge will occur at all of these events, except for the June 11-13 race at the Circuit Giles Villeneuve.
If you're a Ferrari owner who simply can't get enough of the Prancing Horse, or if you're just a Ferrari lover with the same malady, the 360 Challenge and Historic Series can help sate your Ferraristi cravings.