This Ferrari's owner didn't think I'd be able to fully appreciate his car on the street. Nor did the thought of me probing its limits on mountain roads sit well with him. So rather than risk anything, he made some calls and found an open track day at Buttonwillow.
When the day came, I felt like I had been thrown to the wolves. I'd never driven Buttonwillow and would have to learn it and the car at the same time. Plus, the track was still drying out after a morning shower. I could've said no.
Instead, I put on a spare helmet while the owner, Rick Salvino, revved the engine prior to taking me out for a few laps to show me the line. It's been said a 360's exhaust note is the closest thing to an F1 car this side of street legal, and given the gene pool that's no surprise. But this note was a little different from stock, a bit more insistent, a bit angrier. Like the bark of an F1 engine when it's fired up in the garage, Salvino's 360 snapped like a rabid Doberman when the Stradale exhaust went to clear its throat.
Salvino got hard on the throttle as we exited the pits and merged onto the track. He went up through the gears before we reached the first braking point and a tight left-then-right turn. He was late, late, late on the big 14-inch Brembos as the semi-automatic blipped the throttle before each downshift. The 360 was unfazed as it sliced into the quick left-right. As we exited the slow right-hander, Salvino jumped hard on the throttle again and went up through gears. The acceleration was different. As it's a high-revving, overly square engine designed more for horsepower than torque, it doesn't plaster you against the seat like a like turbocharged flat six or big displacement V8. Salvino made effortless progress nonetheless as the speedometer surged into the mid-triple digits on a short straight. I saw 140 on the back straight before we entered a left-hand kink. Salvino stayed flat through the turn.
While the acceleration was deceptively fast, the cornering was literally breathtaking. Through some of the fast sweepers my lungs struggled to function because of the g forces. And this was while the tires were still cold.
Mess with a Ferrari and most people would think you should be institutionalized. Those lucky enough to own one will probably only go so far as to change the grille on the back of their 360 or lower it for a more aggressive stance. Fewer still will ever flirt with the limits or even think the potential hasn't already been fully realized by the factory. And then there are those like Salvino who look at the 360 as the perfect starting point.
In this case, he started with a Euro-spec model because he believed it to be lighter and slightly more powerful. Soon after the car arrived, Salvino had it out on the track and that's where two shortcomings reared their ugly heads: too much understeer in tight corners and a tendency to oversteer in high-speed sweepers. Instead of waiting for someone to remedy the problems, Salvino and his crew at the Exotic Car Outlet (ECO) in Corona, Calif., decided to sort things out themselves.
The most obvious changes are at the front and rear. Part of ECO's GT body package, the new front bumper is all carbon fiber. It incorporates a carbon splitter and the center air intake can be sealed for maximum downforce. The flared side rockers are also by ECO, as well as the Challenge Stradale-reminiscent side mirrors. Because the stock engine cover couldn't handle the stress of a wing, ECO made its own. The company reckons its composite pieces weigh only 25 percent of the panels they replace, and they've managed to shave more than 300 pounds off a stock Euro-spec 360 (2,968 pounds vs. 3,317).
Underneath, stiffer springs from a 360 Challenge sit over the electronically actuated shocks. The front end has been lowered by 1.5 inches and 2.5 were taken out of the back. There's two degrees of negative camber at each corner and the car has been corner weighted for optimum balance. The front and rear tracks all have 7mm spacers for a slightly wider stance. Slotted 14-inch rotors and calipers similar to an F50's sit up front while 13-inch rotors are used in back. Porterfield's carbon-Kevlar pads are the only pads Salvino trusts. As pictured, the car rides on BBS Challenge series wheels, which were powdercoated flat black and wrapped with Toyo RA1 tires (225/40-18 front, 305/30-18 rear). When he takes it to the track, Salvino switches over to the original 18-inch five spokes with shaved Toyo RA1 rubber.
Inside the engine bay, ECO put in a couple of K&N filters and the mentioned Challenge Stradale exhaust system. The biggest upgrade came from a Digi-TEC ECU. Digi-TEC claims it's good for an 11-percent increase in torque and 40 hp. The rev limit has been raised from 8700 rpm to 9800 and the top-speed limiter has been shut off. All told, ECO claims 495 hp. ECO also reprogrammed the transmission control unit to click off faster shifts.
Salvino rolled into the pits after a few intro laps, and when we came to a stop the brake pads let off a little steam and smoke. His crew checked the tire pressures and then it was time to drop myself into the carbon Cobra race bucket and tie down the five-point harness.
Still overloaded on adrenaline from the wild ride with Salvino, my right leg shook uncontrollably as I turned the key. I eventually gained full control of it as we exited the pits. Salvino, a self-professed bad passenger, was to my right and visibly nervous. I told him not to worry (although I wished I hadn't drunk all that cough syrup a few minutes before).
It became obvious after just a few turns how well Salvino and ECO sorted the car. The turn-in response was razor sharp, with hardly any body roll. The front end is so tied down, you'd think the earth could spin on its axis. After every turn, you realize you could've gone in a little deeper, gotten back on the gas a little earlier. You realize it's still waiting for you to come up to its level.
The acceleration is much more impressive when you're in control of it (and your own fate). The engine seemed capable of revving to infinity and a couple times I bumped the stratospheric rev limiter when I was too busy making mental markers for the next turn. Exiting a corner and getting on the throttle with too much enthusiasm will make the tail start to step out, but in my case, Salvino set the traction control on sport mode, which allowed the rear to step out for a split second before it was reeled back in, and it makes you think you're better than you actually are.
There were times when the car asked me to abandon my sense of self-preservation, to trust it completely. After a few laps, I eventually kept it flat through a left-hand kink and let the black magic of downforce and ground effects keep me pressed to the tarmac. The brakes were phenomenal, a firm, linear progression that didn't fade during my session. The steering feel was exceptional; the tires' contact patches felt like extensions of my palms.
With a few laps under my belt, I started to get into a groove. Limits, my own and the car's, were pushed, braking points were shortened, and my foot was more eager to get on the throttle and more resistant to lifting. The 360 encouraged and rewarded. And then it happened. Drops of rain started building up on the windshield. My session was over. I put in one more lap just to savor the sound of a high-strung V8 wailing at 9000 rpm down the back straight, to get the ass to wiggle out of a tight corner, to thank the car for an unforgettable ride.
Longitudinal mid-engine,rear-wheel drive
3.6-liter V8, dual overhead cams,five valves per cylinderMods: DigiTec ECU, K&N air filters, Challenge Stradale exhaust
Six-speed F1 sequentialMods: ECO custom TCU software
Mods: Challenge Stradale springs,PRS camber plates
Mods: Race Technologies/Brembo six-piston calipers, 14-inch rotors, Porterfield carbon-Kevlar pads (f); Race Technologies/Brembo six-piston calipers, 13-inch rotors (r)
Wheels and Tires
BBS Challenge, 8.5x18 (f), 10.5x18 (r)Toyo RA1, 225/40-18 (f), 305/30-18 (r)
ECO GT front bumper and splitter, flared rocker panels, side mirrors, decklid and rear wing
Peak Power: 495 bhp
Peak Torque: 315 lb-ft
Top Speed: 215 mph