Role in Ferrari History: Won Le Mans in 1949, Ferrari point man in the United States for decades
The son of a gunsmith, Luigi Chinetti (1901-1994) was born in Milan, Italy. He demonstrated mechanical aptitude at a young age and began working for Alfa Romeo in 1917. He wound up in Alfa’s competition department, where his path crossed Enzo Ferrari’s.
Chinetti eventually moved to Paris and became an Alfa salesman. He also proved to be an admirable driver, winning Le Mans in 1932 and ’34 in an Alfa 8C 2300. In 1940, he migrated to America, and stayed there when hostilities broke out in Europe. Six years later he became a U.S. citizen.
At Christmastime 1946, he met with Enzo Ferrari in Modena and proposed that he become Ferrari’s point man in America. Ferrari could not have picked a better representative. Chinetti’s talents were many, as demonstrated in 1948 when he sold the very first 166 Barchetta built off the Turin Auto Show stand to Southern California radio executive Tommy Lee.
Chinetti became Ferrari’s official U.S. importer in the early 1950s, a post he kept until 1979. “You never met another man like him,” former dealer and racer Bob Grossman remembered in the 1990s. “Everybody tries to dissect Chinetti, to figure him out . . . [H]e was much shrewder than anybody thought. He reminded me of Gucci. He made the cars so unattainable; [h]e made you want the car. He made you eat out of his hand . . . .”
But there was more to Chinetti’s Ferrari story than sales. In 1949, he won Le Mans in a 166 Barchetta. In 1951 he was the riding mechanic in the Ferrari 212 that won the Carrera Panamericana, a victory that brought great publicity to Ferrari in North America and to the Chinetti Motors dealership.
In 1956, he formed N.A.R.T. (North American Racing Team) with backing from wealthy racers George Arents and Jan de Vroom. Chinetti’s close relationship with Ferrari ensured a consistent string of competitive cars. N.A.R.T. also acted as a springboard for a number of top drivers such as future world champions Mario Andretti and Phil Hill.
Through the 1960s, N.A.R.T. competed in the world’s top races, often winning at venues such as the 24 Hours of Daytona in Florida. In 1965, N.A.R.T.’s 250 LM became the last Ferrari to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. N.A.R.T raced into the early 1980s, then retired from the sport. Chinetti remained a fixture in the Ferrari world until his passing in August 1994.