As a boy growing up in Sicily, Giuseppi Risi always had a passion for race cars. He grew up to compete for a time as a young man in the ’60s, but soon started managing teams instead, and eventually befriended Ferrari founder and industry titan Enzo Ferrari.
In 1978 Ferrari encouraged Risi to open a dealership in America, and Risi decided to go for it, choosing Houston as the location. “I just loved Texas,” he explains. He’d taken a road trip through the state back in 1969 and fallen under its spell.
Ferrari of Houston opened its doors in 1980, finding success even through the oil bust, and in 1997, after almost two decades in business here, Risi decided to start his own Houston-based racing team—a no-brainer since, unlike other sports cars, Ferraris are built for competition.
The very next year, the team won its first major race thanks to the automaker’s new 333 SP prototype. Today Risi Competizione competes with GT, or grand tourer, vehicles, in long-distance events that test the limits of man and machine, the most popular of which is Le Mans in France, where cars in multiple classes run in a circuit simultaneously, for 24 hours straight, at almost 200 miles per hour. Over the years Risi Competizione has won its class at Le Mans three times.
Just last October the team won the smaller American sibling of this race, the 10-hour Petit Le Mans in Atlanta. And this month, on January 25 and 26, it heads east for another 24-hour GT race, known as the Rolex 24, at Daytona International Speedway. With Risi at the helm, you can bet the team will be in the mix to win it all.
“I’m not a mechanic, I’m not an engineer, but I know cars,” he says. “I can listen to an engine, I can feel the car, and it tells me what it wants. That’s why I can be here today, and that’s why I win these races.”
Walk into Ferrari of Houston, and—alongside the Ferrari books, team awards, and photos of hot cars zooming along at impossible speeds—you can see the specimens the team competes with. Risi stores and maintains his race cars here, and customers who have $2 million lying around can purchase one.
Want to sit inside a Ferrari 812 Superfast? You can do that here, as long as you’re respectful. Want to order your own customized Ferrari, selecting your own colors and fabrics? You can do that, too.
Everything for Risi Competizione is done in-house because it’s a "privateer" team not directly supported by a manufacturer, although in the past Ferrari has had its contracted pros drive for the team in prestigious races. Risi buys his cars from the factory, and his mechanics and engineers alter them to enhance their performance.
Nearly every other GT team, meanwhile, is funded completely by makers like Ford or Porsche, so Risi Competizione and its relatively small $3 million budget often go up against opponents with a lot more money to play with.
An underdog always punching up … and still winning? Sounds a lot like a Houston sports team to us.
“This is Risi Competizione right here,” says Risi, extending his arms behind his desk. “To go to the same spot within Ford, you’re going to go up seven stories, you’re going to go up to the penthouse, and you’re going to go through 15 secretaries and everything else to go talk to the guy that runs the outfit.”
That’s if you can even get to talk to the guy.
Says Risi: “Well, this is the guy right here.”