The prancing horse has always attracted strong personalities, and the most successful individuals have always maintained an elegance even during the most competitive moments. Alfred Momo, Luigi Chinetti, and others were names that gave Ferrari more than just a foothold in North America. Keeping that unique tradition alive is one Mr. Giuseppe Risi of Houston, Texas, his dealership, and more importantly, a race team that has been widely successful on the world stage. You know the cars. This is the man and how he makes it work.
EC: How did you get involved in motorsport?
GR: My parents wanted me to be a doctor... I did not have time for that. But motorsport was something I liked. I was flying in Kenya, came back to Europe, and was on my way to South America when I stopped in Spain. I noticed just how much motorsport was going on. It was very difficult to bring cars into Spain and I just sort of looked around and made some friends and really it just started. In those days Spain was still under Franco.
EC: You began with touring cars and went on to open wheel?
GR: We raced those in the European Touring car series so we helped Ford win the two-liter division in 1972. These were serious touring cars. I mean when everybody was involved. The 24-hour race at Spa in 1972. Niki Lauda driving an Alpina car; James Hunt, the Texaco Capris; Hans Heyer; it just went on and on. I can't recall all the names. We then went on to the Aurora F1 series, were competitive, but needed to improve. I called up Teddy Mayer at McLaren and he said, "Yeah, we'll sell you a car."
EC: And you got ex-World Champion James Hunt's M23?
GR: We got the M23, chassis 11. We entered that and qualified for the Spanish Grand Prix; that was the same year Gilles Villeneuve came on the scene. It was one of the magic moments. After that the team was running out of money. We couldn't get into Monte Carlo, we couldn't get in because of qualifying, we just couldn't make it. I learned a great deal at that level.
EC: After you opened the Houston Ferrari dealership in 1980, how long did it take before you were back in racing?
GR: We always were, but not on an international scale. It really came back right about 1997 and Wayne Taylor came to me and asked if he could get a Ferrari 333 because they were going to stop making them and he had sponsorship with Toshiba. We put that whole package together and that's when I brought John McLoughlin in.
EC: In terms of the bonds of loyalty and the ability to work with one another-everything has changed so much that the term "Golden Era" is such a cliché. But how the sport was run, it was something you had to really want to do and the bonds that were formed made it possible for you to have a successful team today.
GR: Yes, and very much so. The team that is Risi Competizione today is based on this. Most of these guys have been with me for a long time, as long as 35 years. I mean, we are running a one-car team. I've not let one person go. We still have the same amount of people.
EC: Having the late John McLoughlin on your team was something special.
GR: Absolutely. I hadn't seen John in quite a while and I was at the Grand Prix of Mexico, won by Gerhard Berger in a Benetton B-186. I remember because it was the last F1 race won on Pirelli tires. John was the engineer on that car.
EC: When John brought Allan McNish to the team and you finished second at Daytona, that was an incredibly strong driving lineup. Later you probably had the best lineup ever when it became Risi Competizione, except the 333 SP really couldn't cut it by then, could it?
GR: It was one year when we had a hell of a driving lineup. To this day, if you ask Allan, he said it was the most exciting engine noise he ever heard. At Daytona, he'd go right up against the wall just so he could hear the engine. We were revving it to 12,000.
EC: The 333 had run pretty successfully during what we call the darker years, when IMSA didn't know which way the series was going.
GR: We were having some issues with Micholetti and we didn't do that great. We were beaten by the Dyson Ford quite a lot, and then Ferrari told us it was the end of the 333. So as a stop-gap we raced those two Lolas for Rand Racing. But we were racing, and it was successful. We won ten races from pole and had ten fastest laps. We finished second overall at Daytona with that car.
EC: I recall the way the crew came in and ran everything. You were the class act of the field as far as car preparation.
GR: We basically ran the car the whole year for Rand. Then Rand ran out of money. We were looking at running a 360 at the time, as that's when they came out. John McLoughlin left to form MSB Motorsport purely to develop the 360. I told him at the time: "You know, I can't join you on that because it's all against Ferrari." It was ill-fated because I think that put an awful lot of stress on him, and of course the car never worked to his standard.
EC: Sebring 2002, self-sponsored by Phil Bennett, and basically with almonds for the crew from Burkhart Farms. A total of 12 laps, which was a shame because there were some good ideas he'd put into it.
GR: Very much so. I mean, the suspension design. He addressed all the weaknesses. But his ideas didn't go wrong, it was the engine, and the builders they used didn't know what they were doing.
EC: I always felt that there was a lot of indifference from Maranello as to a really serious development program on the GT cars until you started winning. Did it take an impetus to come from this, like, "Hey guys, we can win if you will actually spend some time on the car"?
GR: Well, it really wasn't us. JMB pushed that program in Europe and that was called the NGT. The paddle shifting was in its infancy and it gave a lot of problems. In Europe it worked better, but over here it just didn't. John McLoughlin developed a straight gearbox with the H pattern. We started running it here and had a good run in 2003 at Daytona. From there they started seeing the car's potential; we kept telling them we didn't have enough power to beat the Porsches. We did the whole IMSA thing all of 2003 and 2004 and weren't going anywhere; we still couldn't beat the Porsches. I had had enough with the 360, and that's when Ferrari started taking an interest. But by then I said enough is enough, and we took on running the Maserati MC12 in ALMS.
EC: Was that also considered a stop-gap?
GR: Yes. The MC12, though, was a factory deal. We were just providing the support and logistics. We didn't manage the team.
EC: The story that never got out is how good the MC12 was in Europe, and then it comes over here and looks like a grid-filler. It was detrimental to that class to have the Maserati treated so-
GR: Horribly. They wanted it here, they promised us stuff, every race they said, "We're going to do this and that." Nothing happened. IMSA wanted the car, but we weren't allowed to score points, and we also had the biggest failing with the Pirelli tires. The car was too stiff, but we couldn't convince Maserati to change the setup. It was theirs to run. We painted our transporters blue and so on, but we really didn't have any engineering input.
EC: That must have been a really empty feeling, showing up and going through the motions.
GR: Absolutely. They brought their guys there, but we were just going through the motions. It was a stop-gap of key people. Then came the 430 in 2006 and the new GT story began.
EC: What has been the most emotionally satisfying win since the program really got its start in 2006?
GR: Le Mans has a very special place in my heart. My first trip was in 1969 as a spectator and I remember two things: During practice, I was standing up against the fence and this guy wearing dark glasses and a cap was on the other side. He came up to me and asked me the time. Then he took his glasses off, and it was Steve McQueen. And then the horrendous accident with John Woolfe in the 917 during the first lap.
EC: As for 2006?
GR: That was a great year for us because we won absolutely everything. And then in 2007 to hit water and go off when we had a four- or five-lap lead... In fact, McNish was right behind in the Audi R10 and said if the Ferrari hadn't gone off, he would have gone off instead. Going back to 2004, we won the IMSA team prize with the 360, so that was promising, and then to have a season like 2006, one of our best years... we won nine races out of ten. Then we went back in 2008 and won again.
EC: Do you consider this season an anomaly with some of the things that have happened on the shorter races? When the car is so good in an endurance race and then the nagging things that have happened in the sprint races?
GR: Yes, we had a couple of those. In St. Petersburg we had a wishbone issue. The suspension didn't break, it just had bolt problems. Whether it was over-tight or not tight enough, or a shim broke loose, it happens. So that sidelined us, and then we had another issue at Long Beach.
EC: You have some good guys overall, the difference between parts replacers and true mechanics.
GR: These men really know this car. Look at the preparation, for example. Guys make the components themselves. I mean, this is Formula One stuff that we're using out there.
EC: Are you in the process of looking at what it's going to take to come back in 2010?
GR: We've been looking at 2010 for the last five months to see what we can come up with.
EC: Have we reached a point in motorsport finance where we've over-extended the projection of what it takes?
GR: We have to a certain extent. But it really isn't the car itself. It's the travel, hotels. And Le Mans is a killer. You get there three weeks before and stay in one of those little ratty hotels for €60, then you go back race week and it's €220 and a minimum stay of ten nights, whether you like it or not.
EC: How many people are in your crew that travel to La Sarthe?
GR: We took, I think, 18, and then we had some guys from England, a few extra. Probably a crew of about 23, which you need for a 24-hour race. Because it's so intense, people get worn out.
EC: There aren't many teams in America, or for that matter worldwide, that do well in GT or sports car racing. What does it take today, or what advice would you give someone who wants to go racing?
GR: Too many people try to take shortcuts. The person providing the finances often does not have the knowledge or ability to control the situation, even though that person may be very clever. They don't have enough knowledge about the racing side of the business. It doesn't mean that the guy running the team is putting money in his pocket. He's just making the wrong decisions. I question everything, every single thing. I open all my mail, everything that comes across my desk. Every single thing, they've got to tell me about it.
EC: Accountability is an extremely important factor in your success.
GR: No question. You've got to have accountability; otherwise things can run amok. I want to know how much it's going to cost, I want to know what it's going to do, and whether it's going to improve us.
For example, get your trucks serviced before they leave. If I have to spend $2,000, I spend it here. I don't want to get a call from El Paso telling me something has happened. Because it's going to cost the same to repair it in El Paso, but you're going to be two days off the road and you're going to be frenzied. It starts with taking care of your equipment.
EC: What was your first car?
GR: My first was a little Fiat 600.
EC: Did you get some Abarth stuff?
GR: Oh yeah. I remember once I ran the bearings on it and I didn't know what I'd done and I went to this old man who used to really abuse me, telling me how stupid I was and how I didn't take care of stuff. He had this little garage and I would always go there; his fingernails were always dirty and he'd been chewing on garlic and everything else and I'd come in and he'd say, "So now what?" It was never "Hello." Sheepishly I'd come in and I'd say, "You know, Mr. Julio," and he'd say "So what?" and I'd say, "I've got a red light that's on," and he'd say, "Red light, huh?" and he'd crank it up, fix the light, listen to the engine and say, "Let's pull it out, how much money do you have?" And I'd say, "Not very much," and he'd say, "You had better park it." And he said to me-and this was so classic-he said to me, "Risi, you are a very stupid, ignorant young man, do you understand that? And if you go through life like this you will not even be able to have a bicycle."
EC: But you remember his words. And today you may not be a micro manager, but know enough and are smart enough in the important areas and know that you'd better be prepared.
GR: Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head.
EC: We all know that for Ferrari, success means F1, and if there's something left over, sports cars. Risi Competizione has won all the big races. Does Maranello recognize that?
GR: The first thing you have to remember about Ferrari is that when you win a race, Ferrari wins. When you lose a race it's the team, but Ferrari never glowingly tells you, "Thank you," but it's shown in their way. One has to recognize their way.
EC: That's not going to change.
GR: No, that's not going to change. But it's shown through extra help.
EC: Have you ever wanted to go back to the fellow with the little garage who was so mean to you? Wouldn't you have loved to have given him one of your trophies?
GR: No question, I should have. Oh yeah.