DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ten years ago, AF Corse’s journey into American sports car racing took off with a very American – and very unlikely – driver.
Michael Waltrip, the two-time Daytona 500 winner, teamed with Rob Kauffman, Travis Pastrana and Rui Aguas for the Rolex 24 At Daytona in a Ferrari 458 Italia prepared by AF Corse, the legendary Italian racing team.
The unlikely pairing of different types of racing from different continents led to something more permanent. Since that race, AF Corse has competed regularly in endurance races in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“Our story in the U.S. starts at that time,” AF Corse manager Didi Cazzago recalled. “From that moment, we fell in love with American-style racing, and we kept doing it.”
It wasn’t the team’s first foray into American sports car racing, though. Months earlier, AF Corse won the Grand Touring (GT) class at Motul Petit Le Mans with Gianmaria Bruni, Giancarlo Fisichella and Pierre Kaffer in a 458 Italia. But the Daytona adventure with Waltrip was the race that garnered the most attention in the U.S.
The Rolex 24 result wasn’t spectacular – 25th in GT, 35th overall – but the introduction to Daytona led to AF Corse’s continuing annual pursuit of the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup, which continues next week with the 25th annual Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
The Michelin Endurance Cup’s four races – the Rolex 24, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts, the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen and Petit Le Mans – carry prestige for AF Corse and other European teams that make a point of competing. Other European teams – including High Class Racing, Cetilar Racing and Racing Team Nederland – also compete regularly in the four races.
“We found that the American races were very interesting and particular and different from what we were used to,” Cazzago said. “We run anything, basically, but anytime we are in the U.S., we want to be at those tracks and in those races.”
One of those races is next for AF Corse. On Oct 1, the team will field its No. 21 Ferrari 488 GT3 with drivers Toni Vilander, Simon Mann and Luis Perez Companc. The car finished third at Sebring and fourth at Daytona and is second in the Michelin Endurance Cup standings heading into the season finale.
AF Corse competes globally in a variety of series and categories, including the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), the European Le Mans Series and GT World Challenge. The team initially needed time to adapt to IMSA rules, Cazzago said, but as the 2011 Petit victory showed, it didn’t take long to get accustomed.
“Once you understand how it works, it’s very beneficial to every team,” Cazzago said. “With the full-course yellow and the pass-around system used in the U.S., a car is always able to be back in the game, which is something good for the public and the fans and also for the team itself. Anything can happen in endurance races.”
Founded in 1995 by former driver Amato Ferrari, AF Corse has won championships in numerous racing series, including the WEC, FIA GT2, FIA GT3 and Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM). The value of the American market to Ferrari – and the team’s commitment to endurance racing – will keep the organization in the WeatherTech Championship in 2023, Cazzago said, perhaps on a grander scale.
“The spirit of AF Corse has always been the endurance races, and the history of AF Corse has always been long-distance races,” Cazzago said. “We don’t want to leave the American market or IMSA. I think we’re going to be present with more than one car from Daytona (in January) onward. Let’s see what’s going to happen.”
The relationship between European teams and IMSA benefits both, Cazzago said.
“We have a very good relationship with IMSA,” he said. “We’re always very welcome. We are Italians. We’re very friendly, and we’ve found a very special family in IMSA.”