Report from Pit Lane at COTA

Austin 20 marzo 2022

The 30th season of Ferrari Challenge kicked off Saturday afternoon with the first rounds of the 2022 North American championship! Each weekend, competitors get a day of testing, a day of practice, then a qualifying and race session on each weekend day. This year, the calendar includes Circuit of the Americas, Daytona, Watkins Glen, Montreal, Indianapolis, Sonoma, and a trip to Italy for the World Finals. It’s an enviable schedule! I was privileged enough to be half of the on-air broadcast team, and here's some of the stories you might’ve missed!

The Coppa Shell Am qualifying was waived off after two red flags prevented meaningful running for the competitors. That grid was set based on combined practice times for Friday. This meant that Todd Johnson from Ferrari of Rancho Mirage in his first start was to start first! The overall polesitter for the Coppa Shell race was Frank Chang, a man who’d made two starts at Road Atlanta in 2020 but none since. Both drivers went on to win their respective categories, but that does a disservice to the battling that ensued during the race though neither was able to repeat their performance on Sunday.

The Trofeo Pirelli pole winner for both days was Manny Franco. He raced twice last year with Ferrari Challenge: Road America where he won a race in Coppa Shell and at the World Finals, where he represented the North American championship well by coming 3rd globally.  Manny and his girlfriend Alicia have recently taken up residence in Austin, and he had a cheering section of friends and family who, each race, shouted loudly as he crossed the start line of every lap. His neighbor in Austin is none other than fellow Ferrari Challenge driver Dan Cornish, but more on him in a second. Manny won the first race on Saturday, but was caught out on a restart in Sunday’s race, ultimately coming home just off the podium.

Dan Cornish is one of a handful of drivers who call Austin home. Along with Joe Rubbo (2nd in the race Sunday) and Manny Franco (double pole and first race winner) amongst others, Cornish has the advantage of being able to sleep in his own bed on this race weekend.  But for Cornish, this weekend was a little extra special as well as he was able to drive his own personal Ferrari road car to the track and then hopped in his Ferrari race car each day. Cornish’s wife and son both were also on the entry lists, but for the Club Challenge program.

And speaking of coaches, we’ve got some seriously notable ones in the paddock as each driver is required to have one.  Who might you find wandering around, lending knowledge? In no particular order so as not to offend any friends: Tyler McQuarrie, 2019 Pilot Challenge champ, helped Michael Petramalo to his first podium in the Saturday race. Lisa Clark’s mentor of a few years now is 2016 and 2017 GTD champion Alessandro Balzan. We’ve got both Matt Bells, British and American, helping Paul Kiebler and the Holdens respectively. Colin Braun is here. Ryan Eversley and Joe Rubbo are hard to separate, as are Eileen Bildman and Katherine Legge. James Gue lends his knowledge to Brad Horstmann. Ian James has worked with Yahn Bernier for a couple of years now. We’ve got Nic Jonsson in the paddock for the weekend with Samantha Tan. Andy Lally is actually coaching multiple people this weekend! Tristan Vautier is Dan Cornish’s guy, although you’ll see Alex Premat helping out too! Nick Longhi, Kyle Marcelli, Thomas Merrill, Aaron Povoledo, Joel Miller, Anthony Lazzaro Johnny O, Jon Miller, Oz Negri, Jon Morley, Sebastian Saavedra, Cedric Sbirrazzuoli, the list goes on and on! Oh I forgot Stefan Wilson, Jeff Westphal, Aaron Telitz, Jeff Segal…

Debutant to the series Joe Vitalaganio was very excited to race at COTA, mainly because his eldest son is a student at the University of Texas! It was a great excuse for the Ferrari of Long Island driver to have a night for dinner with his boy. He also races with the initials of his kids on the front of his helmet.

Brian Kaminsky returned to the paddock this weekend for the first time in 3 years. The New Yorker, coached by Stevan McAleer, missed 2021 after a long illness. He made it to the podium on Saturday, finishing third, but Sunday was his day to shine! After a four year drought, Brian found victory and a pole to round out the weekend.

There were several Ferrari VIPs on hand for the races, and both the Italian and American national anthems were performed live before Saturday’s races.  Matteo Torre, president of Ferrari North America, gave the command for the drivers to start their engines, then watched the start from the pit wall! The excitement on his face was noteworthy. This is a man who clearly has a lot of passion for motorsport of every level! It was also fun to see several team owners on site who otherwise might not be: Giuseppe Risi of Risi Competitizione, Mr. R. Ferri himself, and even Giacomo Mattioli from Scuderia Corsa were all present.

On Saturday night at an event in downtown Austin, 6 drivers were honored for their loyal participation in the series. Lisa Clark, Eileen Bildman, Mark Muzzo, Al Hegyi, Mike Louli, and Martin Burrowes were all honored.

Several people had their new Ferrari 488 GT Modificata in the garage, but none stood out more than that of Al Hegyi. Al has painted his to match the original Ferrari red, and the deep, almost garnet color sparkled in a way that few other cars do. It was simply stunning.

30 years of history was on display for all to enjoy, in the form of each Challenge car with true to era decals. The most attention grabbing version was the 1993 348 Challenge. It made 320 hp and weighed just under 3,000 lbs. The 1995 F355 Challenge was parked adjacent, then the introduced in 2000 360 Challenge, another beauty! 2006 saw the introduction of the F430, but 2011 is when things shifted gears with the 458. By 2014, we were running the Evo version, and in 2017 the 488 came about. When we got to 2020, we got the Evo kit for the 488 Challenge, and that’s the version still being utilized today. It’s kind of crazy to think the Evo weighs only 44 lbs less than the 1993 Ferrari 348, yet it boasts more than double the power!

Race 2 for Trofeo Pirelli was especially meaningful for Mark Muzzo, who won on his birthday! The Canadian capitalized on a restart, when, from third, he got the perfect jump and passed both Jason McCarthy and Manny Franco. Muzzo wasn’t challenged again for the win.

Paul Kiebler, winner in the Coppa Shell Am race on Sunday, claimed his first victory in 20 years! His coach, British Matt Bell, was first over to celebrate with him after the race was ended behind the safety car. Paul was in a bit of disbelief after getting the win. He only had one visit to the podium last year, so matching that accomplishment so quickly in 2022 has given him new hopes of doing well in the championship.

Tune in for an extra special week from Daytona International Speedway, April 6th-10th. It’s Racing Days, so you won’t want to miss it!