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Catching Up With.... Giuseppe Risi
On Four Decades in Motorsport

You know how sometimes you pick up a totally different impression of a person after you actually get to sit and talk?  That was the feeling after I had some quality time with Giuseppe Risi in the busy paddock at Long Beach.  Observing Giuseppe from a distance, he appears to be a very stoic individual, sharply focused on what is happening on track.  To me, he was just one of those individuals that you just didn’t interrupt – he seemed that focused.

A brief exchange at Sebring broke the ice for what ended up being a very entertaining conversation at Long Beach – one that really didn’t go as expected.  An inquiry about his background in racing seemed to open up the memory banks and pretty soon I was off on a ride through history, including such diverse topics as Ford Escorts, James Hunt, Enzo Ferrari, Ronnie Peterson, Lotus, McLaren, Ian Dawson, etc…  While it may not have been a textbook type of interview from my part, it was nonetheless a very enjoyable conversation that brought forth a very charming side of the gentleman that I really hadn’t expected to see.

First off, it’s good to have Risi back on track in the ALMS where they belong – it just was weird to not see them over the course of the 2012 season. 

“It really was a case of sponsorship.  You can’t do this half way and for us to do it right, I felt that we needed to take the year off and regroup.  We’re in a much better position now, budget wise, in which to be competitive.

“The rules are a big part of the success in the GT class right now.  It used to be simply a question of ballast or an engine restrictor, but now the sport has become much more technologically advanced.  Now it truly is a balance of performance that we have.”

So what about moving ahead, when the ALMS and the Grand Am combine?  Have you been in discussions about what is next, especially for the GT class? 

“No, I haven’t really spoken with anybody about it.  It’s difficult to say how it’s all going to work out.  Will we have the same format?  I sure hope so – it’s been very successful.  I don’t know why anyone would want to mess with it and make it lose some of its luster.  Championships come and go, but IMSA has been an example of what sportscar racing is and can be.

“One of the difficulties the sport faces now is that road cars are not what they were; they are much more advanced than they used to be.  That makes the regulations more difficult to work with and to equalize the cars is a challenge.  Another thing is the drivers; gentleman drivers have been a part of the sport forever, and you’ve got to have a place for amateurs to be able to compete.  A top tier amateur has the culture, the speed and the ability to mix with the professionals.   I was a little guy, but you just can’t have only little guys either in a major championship. Having said that, one of the most important races in the world for GT cars is the 24 Hours of Le Mans which has survived to this day through the private teams which supported the race at the times when the manufacturers went away.”

It was right here that I started to venture off the path and once we started down this path, I was simply amazed at where we went – I simply asked Giuseppe about his history in the sport. 

“It really started with hillclimbs in Spain and the 2 liter Escorts that we ran for Ford in 1971 and 72.  We were successful with them, winning our category in the European Touring Car Championship in 72.  The series was something then, the names that we had racing: Hunt, Lauda and so many others.  It was really an amazing time.”

James Hunt again features in the story.  While traveling through Spain, Giuseppe got together with Emilio de Villota and started a journey into F1.  The car they started with was a McLaren M-23. 

“We got the budget pulled together and I called around looking for a suitable car to run.  One of the calls was to Teddy Mayer at McLaren and he said they had a car available.  I went to check it out and recognized it as James Hunt’s spare car from his championship season.  When I looked in the cockpit, I saw the bulkhead that was in front of the pedals was trimmed, allowing room for James’ big feet in the foot box and to not get hung up on the bulkhead.  One thing instantly recognizable about James in the paddock was his shoes – he always had the toes of the shoes cut off when he drove.”  That was for the 1977 season (I hope “Rush” gets this detail right.)

In 1978, there was more F1 involvement, with Hector Rebaque entering the picture.  They were able to get their hands on a Lotus 78 and from there a relationship with Geoff Aldridge came about. 

“Geoff was part of the design crew for the revolutionary Lotus 78.  The car was so advanced that different parts of the design were the responsibility of different designers, who were not allowed to work with each other for fear of the concept leaking out to the other teams.  We started with an ex-Gunnar Nilsson 78, but the following year (1979) I was thinking about moving to the USA so we never ran the 79.

Out of this relationship with Aldridge came the beginnings of a venture into sportscar racing, again with Emilio de Villota.  Giuseppe had worked with Ian Dawson back in the Escort days, and then again with the Lotus, so the two of them paired up to for a new program – the GRID (Giuseppe Risi Ian Dawson) – which raced in Europe and later on in the States in IMSA competition.  The Aldridge-designed car was rather advanced for its time, but unfortunately it just never got developed.  “The car was good.  It was very good; we just didn’t have the funding to do it properly.  You can ask David Hobbs – he drove it and he saw the potential.  Geoff did an outstanding job with the car, but the lack of development and the Ford Cosworth motors let us down.  It had so much potential – it was a heck of a car.

“The Ford motor was good, but it wasn’t smooth enough.  It vibrated so bad – the 3.9 liter version shook the car to pieces, literally, as there were rivets popping out of the tub.  It’s too bad that the development version of the Ford Cosworth motor, with the counter-rotating shafts meant to smooth out the motor, was dropped.  With that motor and the Tony Southgate-designed C-100, Ford might have had a winner on their hands.  But even with the motor problems, we led Sebring with the car in 1983, only to lose a wheel bearing with 20 minutes to go.”

Through the years, Giuseppe had kept in touch with Ferrari.  As a manufacturer, the Ferrari presence in North America was pretty shaky in the late ‘70s as the distribution of Ferraris was done primarily through Chinetti Motors.  Under new Federal regulations, Ferrari had to become the sole importer and distributor for their products in North America in 1980. “It had been rough in North America for Ferrari,” Risi recalls.  “Sales were down to around 500 cars a year in North America and new regulations were coming into play.  This was the era when catalytic converters were becoming mandatory and the industry was changing.  There was a shake up and Ferrari asked me if I’d consider moving to the States and establish a dealership in Texas, the first dealership named under the new FNA umbrella.

“When we came over, the Ferrari North America offices were here in Long Beach and I remember that the offices really weren’t much bigger than this office area here in our race trailer.  Times have sure changed…”

Although Risi wasn’t all that involved in the early days of the Ferrari 333SP in IMSA, they became part of the scene in 1998, in a joint effort with Doyle Racing to campaign the Ferrari 333 Prototype.  That partnership resulted in some considerable success including a class win at Le Mans, plus wins at Las Vegas and the inaugural Petit Le Mans, and a World Sportscar Championship title to top it all off.

Unfortunately by the 1999 season things were changing and the 333sp was getting a bit long in the tooth due to engine restrictions.  No wins came forth for the team, and then for 2000, Giuseppe took over control of the team, naming it Risi Competizione.  They started 2000 in a big way, debuting at Daytona with a star studded line-up featuring Allan McNish, Alex Caffi, Ralf Kelleners and Mimo Schiattarella.  Unfortunately the gearbox gave up in the race, causing the team to retire.

As the 333SP faded on the international racing scene, Giuseppe did what he could to keep racing, all the while hoping to bring Ferrari back at some point.  To fill the gap, Risi Competizione ran the Rand Racing Lola effort in the SRPII class, sweeping the 10-race Grand American series, all while developing a Ferrari 360, which they debuted late that season.  They campaigned the F360 through the 2004 season, finally breaking through for a long awaited win at Lime Rock.

The 2005 season was essentially a futile one, supporting the factory entry of the controversial Maserati MC12.  The season was especially frustrating for the Risi team, as the car was held back by the rules makers and also the decisions of the factory team.

By 2006, the F430 debuted, and Risi and Ferrari became well established in the sport and started to become one of the premiere teams in the ALMS paddock, winning the GT2 team class titles in 2006 and 2007 and also taking class wins at Le Mans in 2008 and 2009.

Thus far, the F458 has not been as friendly to the team, as they only have a win at Road America in 2011 to show for their efforts.  But 2013 started well, with a strong second-place finish at Sebring and two pole positions – a sure sign that Risi was back.

Racing again is a good thing for Giuseppe Risi, but winning again will be even better for the team.  But while they were away in 2012, the class got even tougher and now with the improved competition, a win is even more difficult to come by.  “We’re glad to be back and competing, but winning is what it is all about. 

"While we are back, we’re not back yet to where we want to be; and that is winning.  It’s what we’re about and it’s what Ferrari is about.”

Gary Horrocks