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Luigi Chinetti Sr is a legendary figure in the history of both Ferrari and the Le Mans 24 Hours. Three times a winner of that French endurance classic, he was the Italian manufacturer’s original United States agent who also established the famous privateer North American Racing Team.
Upbringing and pre-war success
The son of a Milan gunsmith, he started out as an apprentice in his father’s workshop when 14 years old. He joined Alfa Romeo as a mechanic three years later and struck up a friendship with a young Enzo Ferrari. Disillusioned by the rise of fascism in his homeland, Chinetti moved to Paris in 1925 where he worked as a salesman for Alfa Romeo.
He also began to race the company’s cars and his breakthrough came at the 1932 Le Mans 24 Hours. Chinetti shared Raymond Sommer’s Alfa Romeo 8C-2300LM to win on his debut at the Circuit de la Sarthe – beating the Franco Cortese/Gianbattista Guidotti works car by a couple of laps. He entered his own 8C from 1933 – finishing second at Le Mans with "Philippe Varent" and winning the Spa 24 Hours alongside Louis Chiron that year.
Further success at Le Mans was not long in coming and he was joined by Grand Prix star and Le Mans debutant Philippe Etancelin for the 1934 race. They took the lead after Sommer’s pace-setting Alfa Romeo caught fire at Arnage but a fuel leak threatened victory. However, inventive use of chewing gum solved the problem and Chinetti scored a second victory in the race.
He made a one-off GP appearance when eighth in the 1939 French GP driving Christian Kautz’s Alfa Romeo 308. But Europe was soon at war and Chinetti settled in New York after managing René Dreyfus’s 1940 Indianapolis 500 campaign – working in Manhattan’s Rolls-Royce dealership.
American citizenship and final victory at Le Mans
An American citizen in 1950, Chinetti was apparently influential in persuading his old friend Ferrari to start manufacturing sports cars after the war. He opened a dealership in Paris and became Ferrari’s American importer with premises in central Manhattan.
Nothing could establish a new marque better than racing success and Chinetti won the 1949 Le Mans 24 Hours with a Ferrari 166MM. The car was owned by co-driver Lord Selsdon but Chinetti drove for over 23 hours to score his third and final victory in the race. He followed that success with another victory in the Spa 24 Hours a fortnight later and Chinetti’s last major success as a driver came in the 1951 Carrera Panamericana having shared a Ferrari 212 with Piero Taruffi.
Having retired from the cockpit, Chinetti’s semi-works NART Ferraris became a mainstay of endurance racing. Its red bodywork with blue and white strip adorned the winning NART Ferrari 275MM at Le Mans in 1965 when Jochen Rindt, Masten Gregory (and perhaps Ed Hugus) were successful.
That gave Chinetti a unique place in Ferrari’s history at Le Mans – its first winner as a driver and its most recent as an entrant. As well as his success as a driver and in business, Chinetti had a reputation for introducing young talents such as Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, the Rodríguez brothers and Phil Hill.
He sold his company in 1977 and retired in Greenwich, Connecticut where he died aged 93 years old.