Luigi Chinetti Jr may be the only racing driver in the world who downplays his results, and the other colourful elements of a varied life. But then, he only finished fifth at Le Mans..?
By Richard Heseltine
This clearly is not a yes-man. Warm, animated and quick to laugh, Luigi Chinetti Jr is winningly indiscreet. He has just voiced his opinions on the (over)usage of the Cavallino Rampante on products unbecoming of Ferrari’s heritage and is now ruminating on the evils of PR speak. He is, in short, excellent company. But then his opinions are formed from experience. As variously a Ferrari concessionaire, racer, designer and son of multiple Le Mans winner Luigi Chinetti Sr, he has plenty of it.
In Modena to oversee assorted restoration projects, ‘Coco’ also lets slip that he’s working on a new coachbuilt Ferrari which will lead to a revival of the NART name. “I was thinking on my way over here,” he muses, “what am I, an adolescent masquerading as a man, or a man masquerading as an adolescent? I’m 70 years old and still messing around with cars. One of these days I’ll get a real job.”
Somehow we doubt it, but then in many ways Chinetti was indoctrinated from the start. “You know, my mother never wanted me toget involved in the whole car thing,” he counters. “Nor did dad, at least to begin with. You have to remember what it was like back then. Dad came over to the US during the war — he was part of Lucy O’Reilly Schell’s Indy 500 team and, just like Rene Dreyfus, he never went home. In those days you needed a sponsor during the naturalisation process and Dad’s was [illustrious Chevrolet engineer] Zora Arkus-Duntov; can you believe that? But it was tough and I swear if Dad hadn’t have been a famous racing driver, having an Italian surname would have been a difficult obstacle for me to overcome. Italians weren’t real popular in the States at that time. Anyway, I grew up in New York and, at my mother’s insistence, I attended one of the best schools; my classmates included General MacArthur’s son and one of the Guggenheims. We then moved to Connecticut when I was 12. Anyhow, Dad won Le Mans for the third time in 1949, which was also Ferrari’s first victory in the 24 Hours, and he pretty much established Ferrari in the US. Then in 1958 he set up the North American Racing Team. It was hard not to be influenced by that.”
More than 100 drivers raced for this often underfunded equipe, active until 1982, with the NART acronym also being applied to several show cars conceived by Chinetti Jr. “I didn’t so much get involved in the business as butted in. Dad introduced me to driving without upsetting my mother: he went on a business trip and left a car in the garage with the key in the ignition and dealer plates on the passenger seat. What was I supposed to do? I was 17 years old and it was a gold Ferrari 250GT Pininfarina coupe, that I remember. From there I got involved at the shop, first as a broom pusher and then as a valve grinder. I eventually became a demonstration driver which was an important position. One of our customers once asked me, ‘What’s the pedal on the left for?’ I replied, ‘It goes with the stick in the middle…”
With equal predictability, it wasn’t long before he embarked on a racing career of his own. “You call that a career?” he scoffs. “Before I did any road racing I entered the ’65 Shell 4000 rally in a Ferrari 330GT 2+2 and seem to remember being disqualified for driving across someone’s lawn. Anyway, my first proper race was at Watkins Glen in our old 275P the following year. I then shared it with Charlie Kolb at St Jovite. That thing was outgunned, but we were running second to Lothar Motschenbacher’s McLaren when an Elva crashed in front of me and I drove through his fire. The P got burned up, but not too badly. I still own the car.
“My aspiration, if you can call it that, was to be a good second driver. I was happy to be a number two guy to a really good number one. I thought I had the potential to be pretty good, but I did relatively few races.” It’s just that those he did start tended to have the names ‘Le Mans’ or suchlike somewhere in the title. “I took the view that if I wasn’t able to race all that often, and don’t forget NART only entered a small number of races each year, then I would make the most of any opportunity that presented itself. The thing is, after the accident at St Jovite, I didn’t race again until the Daytona 24 Hours in 1970.”
NART had hedged its bets that year, entering six cars for the January classic. “People would ask me, why are you driving a 250LM? I mean that thing was old. I would answer ‘It’s all I got’. That was true. It was just an obsolete racing car that was sitting in the shop. I swear nobody wanted it, but then I convinced Gregg Young to take it on for about $9000. When we got to the Speedway, the car was jumping out of gear and the brakes didn’t work. The gearbox specialist from the factory rebuilt it but he told me quite bluntly that ours wouldn’t be a long race. The gearbox in the LM always was the weak link and ours began to jump out of gear again soon after the start. The damn thing then resolved itself, but I swear the ‘box went bye-bye the second the race was over. We did OK, I guess.” They finished seventh overall.
“A few months later, I shared our 312P coupe with Tony Adamowicz in the Sebring 12 Hours, but the water pump shaft broke so our race was run pretty quickly. I couldn’t see well out of the coupe and realised that both ends of the car were too heavy so we set about modifying the whole thing. We came up with a really light spider body. Nestor Garcia-Veiga, Alain de Cadenet and I were fifth in the ’71 Daytona 24 Hours in it and I finished fourth overall and first in class in that year’s Sebring 12 Hours sharing with George Eaton. That was a wonderful car.”
He has rather less affection for the 365GTB/4 Daytona in which he made his Le Mans debut in ’71 alongside Bob Grossman. “It was an OK taxi, but a bit of a comedown after the prototypes. That was a really difficult race for me as I was on Dad’s home field. He was a legend at Le Mans and I was a wannabe. I was so slow in practice, it was embarrassing; what a cold shower. The night before qualifying I called my wife and told her about my problem. She then told me, ‘That’s not your only one — I’m leaving you’. For good reason, I might add.
“Anyway, the next day things happened in a big way. I asked Teodoro Zeccoli, who had raced for us previously, what gear he was using for Maison Blanche. He said he was taking it near flat in fifth. Great — I was in the upper end of third! Anyhow, I managed to qualify and remember Dad telling me how to nurse the engine to last the distance when Masten Gregory interrupted, saying, ‘Coco, you listen to your old man. He knows this goddamned place.’ Coming from someone who who’d won there for us in 1965 — which was Ferrari’s last win in the 24 Hours, let’s not forget, well… At any rate, we finished fifth overall and got the Index of Thermal Efficiency prize. I didn’t really care for GTs, though. When we were running prototypes, we’d treat them as mobile chicanes: we’d cut them up, do awful things. It was a different story when you were on the receiving end! Later on, we built a Daytona with a ‘cheater’ nose: if you looked closely, it didn’t have front fog lights. There wasn’t room for any. We raised the back a little, too, but nobody ever figured it out.”
And it was aboard this car and the team’s 512M that Coco would enjoy one final hurrah as a driver. “I did Le Mans three times, Daytona and Sebring a bunch of times, but there never was any money. NART was a small team, and we rarely had the latest equipment. I think there were maybe four or five mechanics.
“Anyway, my hero growing up was the record breaker Ab Jenkins and, over a few drinks back in early 1974, a group of us came up with the idea of going to Bonneville. We had the cars just sitting in the shop. We went to our sponsors and told them it would cost about $30,000 and we’d return the money if we didn’t set any records. No pressure! We then started looking for drivers. There was Milt Minter and me and then we thought, ‘How about Paul Newman and Graham Hill?’ We went to NBC but they didn’t think we’d get Newman, but he was just great and it was through him that we got the CBS TV deal.
“Of course, we got out there and it was big! We had a 10-mile oval course on the salt and the highways department put up stakes so you had at least some idea of where you were going. They also dragged the course to eliminate as best they could the bumps, holes and cracks in the salt. It was like driving on gravel. I went out there in the 512M and the left rear tyre blew: it took out a chunk of bodywork. I was going flat out — about 220mph — at the time. Our guys managed to patch it together again, though.” The team left Utah having set International Class C records at 10 miles (174.763mph), 500 (171.255mph), 500 miles (166.173mph), and 1000 kilometers (166.445mph).
“We had a blast. I remember us travelling back to base in Wendover, 15 miles away from the salt. The M went on the trailer, and I drove the Daytona on the road. There was a gas tank where the passenger seat would have been and I was driving to the hotel with my then-girlfriend wedged in somehow. The road was as straight as a die and I was going through the gears when in the distance I just about made out the shape of a car — it had a gold shield on the door and a light on the roof. By the time I went past it I was flat out. We got to the hotel and I shouted to the guys, ‘We’ve got problems!’ They took the car into the garage, jacked it up and took off the wheels. They were underneath the Daytona and I was in my room by the time the cop arrived. He was madder than hell!”
While the NART squad would continue into the following decade, Chinetti sold the US Ferrari concession in the mid-70s. “We had nothing to sell,” he says. “Seriously, nothing was homologated for the US aside from the Dino 308 GT4. One arrived in the shop, finished in brown with a mint green interior. I just stared at it and thought ‘How has it come to this?’ I knew the game was up.”
In the meantime, Coco has continued to intermittently release NART-bodied Ferrari road cars, past collaborators including the likes of Giovanni Michelotti and Alfredo Vignale. “I loved those guys. They were true artists but really humble, too. They wouldn’t stick their noses in the air at guys like me. It was the same on the racing side. The true greats, guys like Colombo, Lampredi and Forghieri, would never crow about their achievements.”
Nor, it must be said, does Chinetti. “I have no idea how I’m perceived,” he ponders. “I guess — hope — that anyone who is interested in racing history will acknowledge that I did some interesting things and that I didn’t disgrace the family name. I’m just glad I had the chance to do those races and that I can say, ‘I was there and I did that’. That’s pretty nifty…”