Ferrari F458 Italia Introduction - Grand-Am Rolex Teleconference

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Daytona International Speedway

An Interview With:Tom Bledsoe, Mark Raffauf, Eddie Cheever And Joie Chitwood


HERB BRANHAM: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to what you have to say is a very special edition of our Grand Am teleconferences coming from Daytona Beach, Florida, where the new Ferrari 458GT is testing at Daytona International Speedway today and tomorrow. That's in preparation for Grand Am Rolex Series competition in the GT class and obviously an exciting look ahead to next January when the new Ferrari will be in the 50th anniversary running of the Rolex 24 At Daytona. Rich history at Daytona for Ferrari.

We have four special guests today. Grand Am president Tom Bledsoe, Grand Am managing director of competition Mark Raffauf, Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood, and Eddie Cheever, former Indy 500 champion and Grand Am competitor, who has been central to this process of the new Ferrari entry coming together. We have a great lineup.

Jaime Melo tests the new Ferrari 458 Italia
Jaime Melo tests the new Ferrari 458 Italia

Photo by: Grand-Am Road Racing

Like to start off with an opening few remarks from each of these gentlemen, giving us their individual perspectives on what exactly this Ferrari test means and for the future of Grand Am.

We'll start with Grand Am president Tom Bledsoe.

TOM BLEDSOE: You know, the most important thing that means to me is the fact that Grand Am started over a year ago to open up discussions with manufacturers, premium manufacturers like Ferrari.

What we've been able to do is accomplish working with these manufacturers and creating relationships. The fruition of that is the car at Daytona that looks like it's winning standing still. It's a sharp looking car.

The most important thing that we can accomplish is homologating these type of cars. Very excited about that.

HERB BRANHAM: Mark Raffauf, you're over at the racetrack where the car is. Give us your thoughts.

MARK RAFFAUF: Well, as Tom said, if there's a brand and mark that's significant to sports car racing in the world, it's Ferrari. To see after almost a year and a half actually I think the project come to the point where there's a car sitting in the garage, the engine is running, it's fueled up, they have spent most of the morning getting the suspensions setting right for the track. From a historical perspective Ferrari is 'the brand' in sports car racing. It is kind of what this whole game has been based on since the second world war.

The car is absolutely spectacular. I'm just really pleased to see it. I think everybody that has seen it, it looks fast standing still. To have a Ferrari car made specifically for the Rolex 24 and the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series is really important and sets the groundwork for a lot of other relationships.

I'm just excited. It sounds good idling, so I think when it is at full song here shortly, it will be pretty impressive to hear as well as to see.

HERB BRANHAM: Joie Chitwood, a big non race event going on at your speedway this week. Tell us about it.

JOIE CHITWOOD: Absolutely. You think about the history of Ferrari at Daytona, it's pretty unique and special, especially in the '60s with the battle with the other manufacturers in the U.S. in terms of GM and Ford. So it's nice to see Ferrari back in that fold, back in that mix. Special things happen at Daytona. I look for that to happen during the 50th anniversary coming up with Ferrari's participation again.

On a personal note, I have to tell you a couple weeks ago I got to drive a 458 out on the streets, a production Ferrari 458. It is as close to a racecar coming off the production line as any vehicle I've ever driven. I can't imagine how the drivers are going to feel running on the high banks of Daytona. I wish I were one of the drivers personally.

When you think about moving forward and the future of the sport, it's nice to celebrate our 50th anniversary with a competitor who has been part of our past and will be part of our future.

HERB BRANHAM: Eddie Cheever, who has been so important to this thing coming together, what are your thoughts?

EDDIE CHEEVER: There's not very much left to say. They've covered every topic.

I am, like everybody here at Daytona, very anxious to see Ferrari return to the Speedway and see it hurtling itself around the banked corners.

I am a history buff. When I started following racing in the '70s, it was all about sports car racing and Ferrari against Porsche and Fords. I think we're returning to that era again, and this might be a beginning to some of those great battles we've seen in the past with all those great manufacturers.

certainly the focus for Ferrari and their customers, people wanting to run this car, for the 50th anniversary of the Rolex 24.

Mark Raffauf

What is important at this point is that Americans are coming out with some really good sports cars. They'll have a chance to race against and beat Ferrari. Ferrari will have to work hard to beat them. I think we're setting the stage for some great competition. There's a lot of room here for growth.

We have to all remember that Grand Am is called 'Grand Am road racing'. It's important that we have marks and companies like Ferrari being involved in them. I can't wait to get off this call and see the car run the track.

HERB BRANHAM: We'll go ahead and go to the media now for questions.

Q. The stories leading up to this keep mentioning how there has been Ferrari representation in 47 of the 49 sports car races at Daytona. To someone who is not sports car oriented, not automobile oriented in any way, when they see that, what makes this a big deal if Ferrari has always been in 47 of the 49?

MARK RAFFAUF: The big significance is the fact that this car was conceived, worked with the manufacturer to build a car produced by Ferrari officially to contest the race.

As Joie mentioned earlier, the Ferrari based product car has always been one certainly well into the 2000s was one you could buy as a road car, pretty much bring it to the racetrack and get in the game with. A lot of those representations have been just that. They produce that kind of an automobile for the street in whatever era you want to look at.

But the significance of this is that this is a Grand Am specific car, built specifically for the Rolex Sports Car Series, specifically to participate starting maybe even at a test event late in the schedule this year, but certainly the focus for Ferrari and their customers, people wanting to run this car, for the 50th anniversary of the Rolex 24.

So the big difference is that this car has been built specifically for this application in this series here in North America. That's only happened a couple of times in those 47 out of 49 races in the past. A lot of those other references are people taking their regular street product and hopping it up a little bit on their own. But this one is straight from Maranello, right with their engineers, right with their people, and that's the significance is this is really a Grand Am car.

EDDIE CHEEVER: If I can add something to that.

In all of the meetings we had in Italy on this topic, their focus was definitely on wanting to participate in the Daytona 24 Hours. For them there's a lot of history, and it goes back all the way to Bill France, Sr. and Enzo Ferrari talking about how they're going to get Ferrari cars to compete here in the States. I wouldn't say we're replaying history; we're starting a new story.

As Mark said, it's important to note that this car was built specifically to participate in the Grand Am championship. I think having a brand like Ferrari tie itself to a championship like Grand Am is very important and speaks for itself.

Q. Mark, when homologating this Ferrari, what were your main concerns?

MARK RAFFAUF: Well, the car is obviously a super car on the street. It's actually probably, as Joie mentioned, if you ever get the chance to drive one, it's a pretty spectacular piece of equipment to start with.

There weren't really any concerns because we involved ourselves with the process from its inception in a configuration as a racecar a year and a half ago. It's been conceived. I think the biggest hurdles to overcome have to do with the engine and driveline and the power potential it has relative to our category that it races in.

Those were easily I think solved and resolved in a way. I think the importance is the cooperation that's existed between Grand Am and certainly with Eddie's help as well and with Ferrari directly with this car to understand where it needs to be, how it needs to be. And being involved from its inception allowed us to sort of branch off of a tree that was already growing with this particular new car which was introduced to the world at the end of last year as a road car. It's a new car. It's a new generation of a Ferrari car that replaces an older generation of road car. All of those things worked together.

Technically the only big problem was making sure we had control over the engine, which has tremendous potential. I think we're pretty close to where we want to be and that's part of what we're testing.

Jaime Melo tests the new Ferrari 458 Italia
Jaime Melo tests the new Ferrari 458 Italia

Photo by: Grand-Am Road Racing

Q. What is the game plan for how many Ferraris we might be looking at for next year's Rolex 24? What is the game plan for the test this afternoon?

MARK RAFFAUF: I don't want to speak for Ferrari, but I think initially they would like to see anywhere from four to half a dozen of them in our series starting at Daytona and beyond.

I can't speak for their ability to how quickly they can produce them and how ramped up certain individual teams will be able to get them in time to do some further testing at the end of the year with everybody else in the Rolex open test. There are two scheduled, one in November, one in December. I think four to six is a good number, realistic number.

I can't say that will be achieved out of the box. They build quite a bit of customer cars from over a hundred challenge cars to 20 European versions and 30 more GT3 types, Grand Am types. They've got a small production line that produces a lot of racecars. So I think four to six would be kind of the range that we would be hopeful for. At least two or three, as many as six.

Really the test today is to try this car on the banked track, on the superspeedway, which it has no real legacy on. A lot of the work being done is making sure the tires work right, making sure they understand the suspension settings that were needed here, do a little aero tuning, see how the car performs. Under the configuration we've sort of agreed to to start the testing process on it to see how it fits in where we are.

It's a little awkward because the only track times we have on the new asphalt here at Daytona were from the Rolex this year. So the air and the quality of the atmosphere at that time of year is quite a bit different than it is here in July. So I don't expect it to be super fast, I expect it to be consistent. That's what we're trying to get out of it, some consistent performance out of it. Tire, aerodynamics, some tuning of that during the two days will help us dial the car in to make sure it's competitive. That's the process, it to get it where it needs to be so it's ready to go for a win here in January.

Q. There have been a number of reports in different places about the possibility of certain teams and drivers already being at least talked about. Eddie, could you talk briefly about some of the conversations you've had that you can talk about with different driver combos, some of the people that have shown interest in this.

EDDIE CHEEVER: If I can, I would like to stay away from the names because they're still private conversations going on.

But Ferrari has a very deep base of clients around the world that are interested in participating at races like LeMans and the Daytona 24 Hours, to mention but a few.

I know there has been interest from a NASCAR team which has already done some deals with Ferrari in the past. And I think we'll be very surprised when we see the type of teams that will participate. I could see a lot of backing coming from Ferrari dealerships and people that are intimately involved with the brand.

I haven't been party to all the discussions, but I know of at least five groups that are seriously entertaining racing one. I might even be one of them.

I have an 18 year old son racing Formula 3 in Italy. I would lie if he hasn't asked me over the dinner table more than once if we're going to run a Ferrari at the Daytona 24 Hours. As any good dutiful father would say, if he can raise they money, we can go race the car. We're still in the process of doing that.

It's a very alluring car. It's a very passionate brand. You'll find people from all walks of life all around the globe that are having a renewed interest of wanting to participate in the Daytona race because Ferrari is returning.

I think it's a very cool brand to have added to those that are already inside of Grand Am.

Jaime Melo tests the new Ferrari 458 Italia
Jaime Melo tests the new Ferrari 458 Italia

Photo by: Grand-Am Road Racing

Q. Tom, I know this is the culmination of a lot of work on Grand Am's behalf. Is this an effort or is there more to come down the line with different manufacturers being welcomed both into GT ranks and the Daytona Prototypes or is that further down the road?

TOM BLEDSOE: Yes, it certainly is. That is kind of what I was alluding to in my opening remarks, is that we have taken a fresh look at things and we definitely are looking at ways to introduce new cars into the series.

You're right, it's a lot of work. It's not easy. But I got a good team working on it. Thank goodness I got guys like Eddie that can be on the forefront of these kind of deals.

But, yes, we are definitely opening up more cars to be involved.

Q. Joie, it's good news. I was wondering how the test is going to energize participation from the Ferrari car clubs and enthusiasts for this test in the Rolex 24?

JOIE CHITWOOD: I actually know Al DeLauro. He's the president of the Ferrari Club of America, based out of Texas. So I've actually entertained some dialogue with them about participating at some of the future Rolex 24 events.

Al actually came and toured the property a couple months ago. Of course, this was before the announcement on Ferrari participating again. I'm actually going to be meeting with the Ferrari Club of Florida here in the next week or so to discuss next year's Rolex 24.

I think the one thing I found at events in which Ferrari participates, the Ferrari Club of America is very active in supporting racing, and they show up in droves to support their team. I expect we're going to see a lot of red in the infield next year supporting Ferrari's participation.

We already had great interest from the Ferrari Club of America to figure out what kind of opportunities we might enjoy together.

Q. Mark, there was a story today talking about how Ferrari is not only running in the Rolex 24, but they may be seeing them in the Sahlen six hour and two hour race at Watkins Glen. Do you see this spreading as a wave throughout the entire Rolex Series?

MARK RAFFAUF: Absolutely. There are some principals in the garage looking at the car from some of those other entities. Their goal is not just the Rolex 24. It's the ideal place to start. They're talking about running teams for the entire championship. This is not just a one race deal. The Rolex is the one to start with. It's a tough one to start with. It shows your true worth when you start with that.

I don't think they're looking for one race; I think they're looking at this for the whole season and beyond.

Q. Housekeeping question. I know we've been informed there will be no media availability with the Ferrari people today after the test. Will we be able to get comments from drivers, managers, from the test today regarding how it went?

HERB BRANHAM: We expect to be able to get a post test summation from Ferrari tomorrow after the end of the two day session.

Q. So nothing today?

HERB BRANHAM: Not anticipating. We will check on it and find out for sure.

Thank you to our four guests today for helping us out with this. Great event both for the present and future of Grand Am. We appreciate you taking your time out to help us.

Also thanks to the media for participating. As always here at Grand Am, we appreciate the coverage.

TOM BLEDSOE: It's in the lane with slicks on it so you should hear some noise pretty shortly.

By: grand-am

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Series GRANDAM
Tags bledsoe, cheever, chitwood, daytona, ferrari, grand-am, melo, rolex