As penniless teenager, I used to sometimes find myself (paradoxically) in the spotless showroom of Ferrari of Houston, just to stare. All of my heroes from the magazines I studied — here they were. It was a serene place: you step softly around the showroom, more like a museum than a car dealership. If I had dragged anyone with me, we whispered instead of spoke. We treated it like a library of unobtanium. I'm not sure if we were trying to be respectful of the staff, since we definitely weren't there to purchase a car, or to be respectful of the machines themselves, which I regarded as deities. I was in their temple.
Ferrari of Houston sits on a large, gated piece of property off Route 59, and the showroom occupies just a tiny part of it. There was so much more, but the rest of it always eluded me. What else was beyond those closed doors?
As you may have gathered from the opening image, the facility is also the site of Risi Competizione, a leading international racing operation, and the premier Ferrari racing team in North America. In advance of their home race at Circuit of the Americas next weekend, Risi let me bring in cameras and finally see what was beyond the closed doors.
First we pass through a large shop, where Ferrari road cars from every era receive maintenance and repairs. It looks like a repair shop, only more spacious and more expensive. We continue on to the next building. Inside, this workshop is a clean, bright, well air-conditioned laboratory with a row of cars on lifts. It's eerily quiet. A few random road cars are parked around the space, the highlight being a Ferrari Daytona casually parked in the middle, while technicians are busy operating on a pair of Ferrari 458 Challenge racing cars.
The second 458 Challenge was being prepared to have its engine reinstalled. Ferrari Challenge is a spec series of Ferrari racers that dates back to 1993. Owners compete against one another in closely matched cars, getting the full motorsports experience in a high-profile racing series organized by Ferrari and sanctioned by IMSA.
We pass through another door, into yet another workshop, and I get a sense that this is the last one, the center of Risi Competizione's racing operations. My eye immediately goes to a row of gleaming 458 Challenge cars. Without the busy racing graphics, and parked mirror to mirror, it's a spectacle. I can't help but reach for my phone.
"Why do you shoot some pictures with your iPhone and some with the professional camera and tripod?," I'm asked.
"I …need to share this with some friends."
My inner 16-year old had suddenly taken over and wasn't particularly concerned with appearing professional.
But the focal point of the shop is off in the opposite corner: It's the No. 62 Ferrari 458 Italia GTLM. This is the car that competes in the TUDOR United Sportscar Championship and was fresh off a victory at Virginia International Raceway the weekend before. Half-assembled with hoses dangling, elevated high off the ground, and being scrutinized by technicians, it brings to mind a space capsule after its return from a successful spaceflight. From the rear, it's barely recognizable as a car.
A bay door opened and the car's rear subframe was rolled in from outside, still wet from cleaning. The subframe is the aluminum rear structure on which the engine, transmission, rear suspension, and basically everything on the back half of the car bolts up to. It's all designed to be quickly disassembled and put back together. Maintaining a car for top-tier motorsports requires (among many other things) being aware of the condition of every last component on the car.
The heart of the Risi Ferrari 458 Italia GTLM is the 4.5 liter V8. Series regulations require an air restrictor to balance the performance across different models of cars. In the case of the 458 Italia GTLM, that results in a power output of around 465 hp; down from 570 hp in the road going version. To achieve this performance with significantly less air, the motor is tuned to create a broader torque curve utilizing a lower shift point.
A Hewland 6-speed sequential transmission bolts up over this lightweight flywheel. The motor is built by longtime Ferrari GT racing contractor Michelotto in Italy.
The car sustained some minor contact during the closing laps of the previous race, and was having its lightweight carbon fiber bodywork repaired. It's an involved process. The paint is removed from the damaged areas; the pieces are fitted and held in place with glue and external clamps. Then new resin and carbon fiber are laid down to give it strength.
Once the resin has cured and the piece is structurally repaired, it's removed and taken to the on-site paint shop to be sanded and sprayed with a fresh coat of signature Rosso Corsa.
The tools of the trade for carbon fiber repair resemble (and smell like) those used for assembling a model kit, not a racecar.
This is where Formula 1 superstar Giancarlo Fisichella and 24 Hours of Le Mans GT winner Pierre Kaffer share driving duties. GTLM is the top-level GT class in the TUDOR United SportsCcar Series.
Unlike prototype racing cars, which are designed from the ground-up to go racing, GT cars a based on road going cars. A prototype is built so that every system is accessible and easily adjustable. GTs, like this Ferrari 458, have to deal with some compromise of a road car platform that has the opposite goals — for example, no one wants to buy a luxury sports car with exposed oil hoses running through the cabin or access panels all over the bodywork. But the developments learned in GT racing do make their way to Ferrari road cars, and then future road cars are designed to be better racers. It's the reason the subframe of this car can come off without much fuss. The racing benefits both sides.
This past spring, Ferrari introduced the 458 Challenge EVO, a mid-cycle upgrade to the 458 Challenge racecar that adds aero improvements for more stability when cornering. It's easily differentiated by the large rear wing and altered front fascia.
The last part of my tour was the most special for the team. The sight of exotic Italian racing cars is routine for these guys, but the trophies, and the success that they represent, never gets old. That's the motivation, and the reason for all of this. This is the collection of trophies from events dating back to 1997. It's amazing to see the variations in design, materials, and thought that go into each trophy, and how well each of them represents the atmosphere of the event or the racetrack.
Risi Competizione feels they have a good shot at adding to the trophy collection at their home race here in Texas this weekend. Tune in to the Lone Star Le Mans at Circuit of The Americas in Austin on Saturday, September 20. The 2 hour 45 minute race begins at 11:35 AM CST.