Come September, I’ll be racing against Jackie Heinricher, the former president and chief executive officer of a sustainable bamboo company who lives in Washington state. With at least 30 other competitors, we’ll each be piloting $345,000 Ferrari race cars at Watkins Glen International in New York, one of the scarier tracks in the U.S.
This will be my first ever wheel-to-wheel race, and I have a feeling Heinricher is going to wallop me pretty good. Heck, they probably all will.
It is also Heinricher’s first season in the Ferrari Challenge North America, an eight-race series that takes place on tracks around the U.S. and Canada. I called her to ask advice, and even over the phone I pick up signs of a good businessperson -- and a racer. She’s serious and highly competitive.
“I don’t think most people know how difficult racing is,” Heinricher tells me. “Driving a Ferrari for 35 minutes requires intense endurance.” Her first race was in January at Daytona International Speedway in Florida, where she got to “more than 185 miles per hour on the banking.” Um, wow.
Heinricher has entered the world of “gentlemen” racing, in which non-professionals drive very fast and expensive cars against one another. It isn’t cheap, so drivers tend to be middle-aged and successful. Often they’re businesspeople who bring their hard-charging styles to the racetrack.
The Ferrari Challenge is one of several single-model race series, where all of the cars on the field are exactly the same. Those who make it to the podium do it on the strength of their driving and not the superiority of the car.
“You’re going to love it,” Heinricher says. “But be prepared.”
Just how does one prepare for your first race driving a 562-horsepower race car, anyhow?
“The only way to learn to race is by getting out there and doing it,” says Mark Raffauf, a series director for the International Motor Sports Association, or IMSA, the sanctioning body behind the Ferrari Challenge.
“But before we give you a racing license, you need to get the driving side down first,” he says, explaining that drivers must learn how to navigate around a racetrack quickly and safely. I’ve spent many hours on different tracks testing cars for Bloomberg News, so I know my way around one. But I’ve never had the chance to actually race.
This opportunity came after I attended the Ferrari driving school at the Formula One racetrack in Austin, Texas, last year. At the end a representative mentioned that Ferrari North America owned a Challenge race car used for publicity and marketing. Would I be interested in borrowing it for a race?
Was Enzo Ferrari Italian? Yes, please. Fine, they said, but I’d need to get my racing license first.
So I applied to IMSA, a process that includes filling out many forms, a physical and a separate medical exam called ImPACT that tests for impairment from concussions. In the forms, I listed all of driving schools I’ve attended and provided references from famous pros such as Hurley Haywood and David Donohue who had ridden in my right seat and didn’t seem to think I was an utter idiot.
Raffauf granted my license, which arrived in the mail as a vertically oriented card the same size as a regular license, photo and all. I was suddenly very cool indeed.
“We judge applications on a case-by-case basis,” he tells me later, saying that many applicants start by attending driving schools like Ferrari’s or the ones founded by Skip Barber. Others hire private coaches. Once granted, the license is provisional.
“We keep an eye on you and make sure you don’t get into too many incidents too soon,” Raffauf says. (Even small crashes in the 458 Challenge EVO cars result in tens of thousands of dollars of damage, and most drivers are self-insured.)
During the season, it’s mandatory that drivers train with a professional coach, who also attends the races.
“Most of our guys are preoccupied with business careers,” Raffauf says. “They do it because it’s fun, and they don’t have time to be a pro, so you need a coach to help you along.”
IMSA sanctions other single-marque series, including the Porsche GT3 Cup in the U.S. and Canada and the new Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America. Serious drivers sometimes move up to the bigger leagues like the Tudor United series or buy their own racing teams. Even top-tier events such as the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans have a number of gentlemen drivers participating.
My own goals are much more modest: surviving my first race at Watkins Glen. First I’ll need time both in the car and on the actual track -- items to check off before the race weekend of Sept. 19.
I get a call from Ronnie Vogel, vice president and director of motor sports at the Ferrari of Fort Lauderdale dealership in Florida. We schedule two days of testing the car at Watkins Glen, and he assigns me a coach, a pro named Mike Borkowski, who has raced everything from prototype cars to Nascar.
The Challenge Series is designed to be turnkey racing: The drivers only need to show up on race weekend. In keeping with this, selected dealerships like Fort Lauderdale actually run the team and the car. You might buy the Challenge car from them. They then store and maintain it, deliver it to the tracks, and change tires and refuel during the races.
“There are 11 cars in my stable which I manage and run,” Vogel says. “About 30 percent of the drivers are local. The rest are from all over the world, from Ecuador to the U.K.”
As for cost, Vogel says: “Figure it’s somewhere between $350,000 and $500,000 to race for an entire season, not including the cost of the car. It’s a big time and financial commitment for the guys, but most also say it’s one of the most fun things they do all year.”
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)