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I Drove a Ferrari Challenge Race Car on the Street ... And It Was Horrible

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Used 2008 Ferrari F430 Coupe
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author photo by Doug DeMuro August 2016

I was recently given the opportunity to drive a Ferrari F430 Challenge race car through the streets of Philadelphia. After 5 minutes, I wished that I hadn't taken the opportunity -- after 10 minutes, I wished I hadn't been born.

Before I explain what it was like to drive this vehicle (spoiler alert -- it felt like I was seated inside a jackhammer), allow me to provide some details. First, the car: A Ferrari Challenge race car may look like a standard F430 road car, but it's very, very, very, very different. There aren't enough "verys" in the world to describe how different it is -- it's like the difference between a parking meter and a diplodocus.

Here's what I mean: The regular F430 has interior carpeting, sound-deadening materials, windows that roll down, a stereo, climate control, door locks and a key to turn it on -- you know, things we've had in cars since that huge monkey climbed the Empire State Building. Well, the F430 Challenge has none of that. I'm serious. It doesn't even have a key. To start it, you flip a kill switch.

Mechanically, the F430 Challenge offers a similar setup to the standard F430 with a few race-oriented revisions. It still has the same 500-horsepower V8 in back, but it also contains upgraded brakes, center-lock wheels and a more aggressive suspension. The new suspension brings the F430's overall ground clearance from the low level of the road car to a whole new realm in the race car, likely to elicit such exclamations as, "Oh, no, someone left a note card in the road. I'd better find a different way home."

I mention all this stuff because I want you to understand this isn't some regular F430 that's been modified and lowered, such as a '94 Integra. This is a Ferrari-built race car, designed for racing on racetracks and next to other race cars. It has a roll cage and an exhaust where the license plate should go. Under no circumstances should you operate this vehicle on the street!

So, naturally, I decided to operate it on the street -- complying with all laws by using a dealer license plate, of course.

This opportunity came about from my friends at LBI Limited, a local special-interest car purveyor here in Philadelphia with an excellent inventory that currently includes a gorgeous Porsche 993 Targa, an ultra-rare Shelby Series 1 and a Batmobile -- a freakin' Batmobile. They told me to pick one of their cars for a video and a column, so I chose the F430 Challenge. I soon discovered that this would be like walking into a fine restaurant that serves excellent, wonderful, delicious, notoriously scrumptious meals and asking for food poisoning.

This became immediately obvious the moment I tried to get inside and discovered you don't "get inside" an F430 Challenge so much as you fling your body at the tiny opening between the base of the roll cage and the roof and hope for the best. I got in the car twice. Both times, I had to remove one of my shoes.

Then you get out on the road, and you're immediately struck not by the amazing engine sound, the precise handling or the beautiful cabin -- but by the heat. My god, the heat. Take the hottest thing you've ever experienced, and multiply it by four. You're now about one third as hot as the F430 Challenge car. If, during my drive, I passed by a home in suburban Phoenix with a broken air conditioner, I would've pulled over and charged inside to seek refuge.

The reason for all the heat is simple. In the interest of saving weight for racing, the F430 Challenge has no air conditioning. Also, you can't roll down the windows because they're made of weight-saving plexiglass. You can only slide open a portion of the window -- a small portion no larger than a regulation bagel.

Heat is only one problem, however. The suspension is also insanely, ridiculously, absurdly stiff. You know how people in Porsche 911 GT3s think they're so cool because they're hardcore enough to drive a "race car" on the road? LOL. Actually, not just LOL: LOLOLOLOLOL. Compared to this thing, the Porsche 911 GT3 might as well be a chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car with a cooler full of water bottles in back.

Of course, this is because the F430 Challenge's suspension wasn't designed to be driven down Spruce Street in Philadelphia, next to traffic lights, Honda Accords and people on bicycles who hear the car coming from a block away and believe they're under enemy attack. Rather, it was designed to be driven on ultra-smooth racetracks, where the largest road surface imperfection is hitting the rumble strip.

The result? Between the uncomfortable bumps and the ridiculously low ground clearance, you have to be hyperaware when driving the F430 Challenge. There's no flooring it and enjoying the ride -- there's merely flooring it and desperately watching the road in front of you to ensure you don't roll over something massive, such as a toothpick.

Next up is the noise. In a normal car, you have sound deadening, foam and insulation, all meant to minimize the noise coming from the engine and the road. Once again, the F430 Challenge eschews all this stuff to save weight, which means you constantly hear everything, including parts buzzing when they rub together at certain revolutions per minute, the roar of the engine and tiny pebbles bouncing off the bottom of the car.

Five minutes into piloting the F430 Challenge, I quickly started to appreciate just how much engineering goes into a modern road car -- and I mean any modern road car, even a Mitsubishi Mirage. I also started to appreciate a time before I climbed into the F430 Challenge -- a happier time when I still had feeling in my legs.

When I finished driving the F430 Challenge, several of my friends asked me to compare it to the 2004 Ferrari 360 Modena road car I owned a couple of years ago, but there's absolutely no comparison. As loud, crashy and uncomfortable as my 360 was, it didn't even come close to the F430 Challenge. Overall, I believe there's a larger gap between the F430 Challenge and my old 360 Modena than there is between my old 360 Modena and a Nissan Rogue. I'm completely serious.

You might think this all adds up to a negative review of the F430 Challenge, but really, it's just a negative review of driving it on the street. The car is obviously an amazing track-day toy, with beautiful styling, brutal acceleration and amazing performance. People who have owned F430 Challenge cars are probably laughing at this review right now, saying "Of course it's awful on the street -- it's a RACE CAR, whaddya expect?" And they're right. This thing is best left on the track.

I have to admit, though, it was kind of awesome for a few moments there, when I was probably the only guy in the entire world sitting in front of a Chrysler Town & Country at a stoplight in a Ferrari Challenge Car.

It was also kind of awesome when I got out and regained the feeling in my legs.

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I Drove a Ferrari Challenge Race Car on the Street ... And It Was Horrible - Autotrader