Luigi Chinetti, who passed away recently, knew Enzo Ferrari way back in the ’30s, but though the former scored the first of the latter’s nine victories at Le Mans with the 166 Mille Miglia Ferrari in 1949 (and owned the car that took the last of them), and though he sold countless of II Commendatore’s products as North American distributor, theirs was a relationship based on ambivalence.
As a racing driver Chinetti had a sound career, for he had also won Le Mans in 1932 and again in 1934, both times in Alfa Romeos. In between those triumphs, he was second in the 1933 race, sharing with Philippe Varent.
After cruising through Europe he fell into a wonderful opportunity when he was engaged by Lucy O’Reilly Schell (mother of Grand Prix driver-to-be Harry) to run a pair of Maseratis in the 1940 Indianapolis 500, and thus he went to North America via New York. He decided to stay, and in 1946 gained American citizenship. On a subsequent brief return trip home he chanced to meet Ferrari again, and one way or another they agreed a deal whereby he became the US importer, running out of 49th Street in New York city. His Le Mans triumph in 1949 did wonders for Ferrari’s growing reputation. Back in the ’30s Chinetti had actively encouraged the emergent Raymond Sommer, a gallery-playing society gentleman driver with a fantastic talent and a fierce belief that the way you played the game far outweighed the result you obtained. Now, via deals with entrants such as Temple Buell, Frank Arciero and Tony Parravano, Chinetti indirectly helped a whole new generation of stars such as Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, Masten Gregory and Richie Ginther to establish their reputations on the North American sportscar scene.
Later, he formed his own North American Racing Team (NART) which campaigned Ferraris with great enthusiasm and no small measure of success. It was in one of his cars that Jochen Rindt and Gregory won the 1965 Le Mans, after a flat-out drive.
He was also responsible for introducing the Rodriguez brothers, Ricardo and Pedro, to the Sarthe, where they staged such a terrific fight in the 1961 race with his 250 Testa Rossa. Later that year, he would help to massage Ricardo’s passage into the works F1 team.
Luigi Chinetti could be an irascible man with his customers and in many ways he was far ahead of his time, for while he would rarely shrink from giving true talent a chance in one of his cars, he understood only too well the value of charging wealthy amateurs for the privilege. D.J.T.