This Hot-Rodded Ferrari Is All About Bringing Joy

Jeff Segal brought a racing driver’s tuning sensibility to his 1999 Ferrari F355 Modificata project car.

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This Hot-Rodded Ferrari Is All About Bringing Joy © This Hot-Rodded Ferrari Is All About Bringing Joy

Hot rodding a Ferrari is like planning the space program. Even if you found the smartest people and wrote massive checks, you could still end up flat broke and spinning in an infinite void. Anyone who’d take on such an ambitious project would be advised to understand the intricacies of Ferrari tuning under the urgency of an endurance race. Someone like, say, a racing driver.

This modified F355 belongs to Jeff Segal, who at age 17 was the youngest race winner in the history of the Ferrari Challenge series, and who went on to achieve class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Rolex 24 at Daytona. Segal spent a large portion of his racing career handling Ferrari-built kit on racing circuits, and teaching others to do the same. When it came time to do his own F355 project, he not only had a vision for it, but he also had the proper born-from-motorsports mindset. 

I drove Jeff’s 1999 F355 "Modificata" at Monticello Motor Club, and then sat down with him to get all the details behind this very special project car, including its not-exactly-street-legal bits inspired by the Ferrari Challenge racing series. Segal has no immediate plans to start churning out F355 Modificatas in quantity, but if you're interested I'm sure he'll take your call.

Mike Spinelli: This 355 is cool to look at. It's cool to listen to, and it's very good to drive.

Jeff Segal: I'm glad to hear that.

M.S.: What are you up to?

J.S.: I'm a tinkerer, you know, I think that's by nature. I'm super passionate about cars and racing as a profession, so I kind of know a little bit about what I'm trying to do here, anyway.

M.S.: Porsche purists seem to be okay with hot rodding now, but there’s less of that with Ferrari.

J.S.: It's tough to kind of go against the purist, sometimes, and be a hot rodder. This project was kind of born from inspiration from what a lot of other people are already doing out there, with these types of cars, with halo cars, with supercars. The benchmark [is] I think, Singer, with what they're doing with Porsches. And obviously, that's incredible. It's very interesting that they basically had the balls to say, "We're going to take a 911, and we're going to do what we want to it." There are so many different ways that you could do it, and I have the utmost respect for what Singer does. I'd love to have [a Porsche 911 modified by Singer] in my garage. This is very different. It's funny that a Ferrari would be more economical, in that sense.

To me, this is a driver's car, and I mean that in the truest sense. I wanted to build the best, most gratifying, most visceral driver's car [I] could. I’ve raced Ferraris for a long time, I'm still racing for Ferrari right now. It seemed logical to work with a Ferrari, and it raises a few eyebrows as well, so that's always a nice thing. But, I really just wanted to deconstruct the car and rebuild it and say, "How can we make it perform better? How can we make it look better? How can we make it sound better? How can we make it more enjoyable to drive?

M.S.: Why the 355, specifically?

J.S.: It's a car I've always had a soft spot for. And I think most people would agree that when you look at contemporary Ferraris, the 355 is... everybody looks at and says, "Wow, you know, that design is beautiful." I think that the styling was very edgy for the time. So, it's a great starting point. The five valve V8 engine, I mean...

M.S.: Not the least complicated engine ever made. But a good one.

J.S.: No, but there's reward there.

M.S.: Yes, great sound, and more power.

J.S.: The motor is a firecracker, you know? How they could go from the 348, and put this thing in there. Okay, it's more power. It's got this tremendous sound. It's got great range when you drive it. It's a fantastic motor, but man, is it complicated. You know, this was a big risk, I think, at the time, for them to do this, but it works.

I think, today of course, the 355 has, probably, a reputation for being troublesome and complicated, and it is. But, I think if you find the right people who understand how it works and understand the systems and kind of go with the flow of the car and you do things properly, we're showing right now that the car is perfectly reliable, perfectly happy to drive around, either on the street all day long or on the race track all day long, to sit there and idle for an hour. It's just about making it run right.

M.S.: So, basically, this is the follow on from the 348, which is universally panned. You know, deservedly, or not really deservedly?

J.S.: I mean, I don't think so. I think this car is better, but you'd expect it to be better with each generation. They should make the cars better. That car wasn't without its flaws. But, to be fair, neither is this one. And I think that's what gives it character. That's what gives it life.

You don't want them to be critical flaws. You don't want it to absolutely destroy the driving pleasure of the car. The 348 was a little bit lively, maybe. And certainly by today's standards, underpowered. I think the styling was great and memorable and iconic, but it's not a bad car. I think [the 355] is just a better car, and I think it had a warmer reception, and it's easier to start with something that people like, than to start with something that people don't like and try and convince them.

M.S.: Yeah. It's interesting that the 348 came out at a time when the global economy was not doing very well. So you know, a lot of the orders that came in for the 348 kind of fizzled out, and Ferrari had to figure out something to do. And what's kind of cool about them being in that position is, they started the Challenge series, which kind of [fostered] the development of V8 Ferraris.

J.S.: You know, I think initially, the challenge was a way to sell more cars, to engage clients. But the Challenge quickly bred these special edition cars and limited edition cars, and one off that are inspired by the Challenge car, and bring track technology more directly to the street. And now, it's an expectation that when Ferrari puts out a car, sooner than later, there will be a track-inspired, hardcore, hot rod version. That was not always the case, and this was the era where that kind of started.

M.S.: Yeah. So, tell me about how the 355 was, in its complete stock form.

J.S.: I mean, again, using today's today's cars as a benchmark, it's kind of underwhelming from a driving experience standpoint. To me, it's a great looking car, it's a great sounding car, but stock, it's much too quiet. Of course, that could be subjective. We may have moved the needle a little too far, in that regard, but you know, it has a great gearbox. I think it has good bones, is the best way I could describe it, but it's kind of mushy and soft, and a little bit understeery, and I think it's... There's a great car hiding under there, and we just had to, kind of, dig it out a little bit.

M.S.:  It's interesting because we think of Ferrari as the gods of motorsports, but they have to cater to fairly wide audience of regular drivers.

J.S.: But this car's pretty daring, at the same time.

M.S.: One of the things I admire about racers is their ability to drive a car and tell engineers how they want it set up. How did you approach the 355? As you would with any other new race car that you got into?

J.S.: Yeah, completely the same. And in this case, it was just about [making it] an engaging car to drive. A car you can feel moving. A car that feels well balanced. That's not harsh, that's not over the top, and it's certainly not about outright lap time, more than just delivering the driver, I think, joy, in any circumstance.

But, it wasn't just that. When you have a new race car, you have things that are obvious that you need to address, things that break. This car had no shortage of those. But then, you have the other things, where the driver can sit there and say, "This switch is just out of my line of sight," and I've been involved with the development of plenty of race cars, where you have lists and lists and lists of things that you want to address or you need to address, and this car was no different. I mean, I had a running list of things I wanted to change on it that was obnoxiously long, at one point. And now, it's nearly finished.

M.S.: Nearly.

J.S.: Nearly.

M.S.: Tell me about the tires. We drove it right after it rained, so it wasn't a [completely] wet track, but these are rain tires of a certain kind.

J.S.: Yeah. So, these are Michelin racing rain tires. They're the P2G compound tire. Initially, what I gravitated toward were some of the cars from the sixties and seventies, that had these bias ply tires. And you see the vintage cars, and they're sliding around, they don't corner anything other than sideways. I love that. I love that engagement for the driver, and there's no reason why a modern car can't be that as well, if we're not focused on the outright lap time and performance metrics.

M.S.:  You can really see... if you look at this car from the back and underneath, you see those big tires in the back, and they really do look like those old treads.

J.S.: They look just like it. So, of course there was the aesthetic, but then from my own personal experience in racing, the driving dynamic on a rain tire, in the dry, is exactly what I wanted. And it's exactly the opposite of what the engineer's design the tire for, but as the tire starts to get overheated, which happens pretty quickly on a rain tire, on a dry track, at even a moderate speed, it starts to move. and it starts to squirm, and you start to feel the car at both ends.

So, you drive into the corner and the front starts to move, and then the rear starts to give up, and it starts to rotate, but at a very low speed, at a very controllable way. It's not snappy, it's very progressive, and you can just drive the thing sideways on the edge of the tire, and feeling the movement of the tire. So, on the racetrack, you don't want that. Any race car driver that has ever been out on a drying or dry track on wet tires knows you're a sitting duck. The performance is not there. But, if you ever have the opportunity to do it in testing or in practice, which I have, it's a whole lot of fun. You can make really cool onboard videos with sliding sideways on rain tires. So, I think incorporating that onto this car worked tremendously well.

M.S.: Tell me about what you did with the suspension, because it's nonstandard, but it's really just a number of tweaks, right? More than, you know, adding any specific other kind of aftermarket dampers or any other bars or anything. It's just tweaking?

J.S.: Yeah. I mean, to be fair, the whole car is like that. The whole car is just tweaking and massaging because like I said, when I first drove it, my initial impression was, “Okay good bones.” We don't have to do anything crazy here. So, the springs are stiffer. Of course, that gives us a little bit more control, especially when the tire's moving so much, we kind of want to firm up the car a little bit, but the dampers had enough range that they're perfectly fine for what we're doing, be it track or road. One of the things that we paid a lot of attention to is, really, the setup of the car.

From the factory, the car has a huge range of ride height adjustment and likewise, toe and camber. So, to approach this like we do a Ferrari challenge car, spec series, where they say, "Okay, here's your car, here are your dampers, here's your spring, this is it, how do you make it handle at Daytona and make it work?" And then at Lime Rock, you couldn't have more different circumstances, and the cars respond really well to those basic alignment things.

So, to play with the ride height to try and find the character that we were looking for. And the same with the toe and the camber, we arrived at something that I think works well, but also something that has a huge range where, if we want to make this thing more of a drift machine, it's really not a problem. And it's using that feedback from the Ferrari challenge to do this.

M.S.: In that case, it sort of feels like it's the Sebring set up, right? I mean, it's compliant for the cragginess of the real world, like it is in Sebring. So, is that... I don't know if... have you raced the challenge car at Sebring?

J.S.: Actually, I've tested there, and I've done quite a lot of laps there. I haven't raced there with the challenge car, but you know, I think Sebring's the right parallel because everybody talks about all the development that they do at the Nürburgring, and yes, that's a tremendous development ground, but Sebring is like the real world. There are potholes, you know there are bumps, there are cracks, there are big curves, there are things that you're going to encounter whether you want to or not, and I think that the car has to have good poise, through the corners, and it has to have good balance, but it can't be totally disrupted.

For me, I think that's important because this isn't a track car. It can be on the race track, and it's at home, and it's capable. But, I think this is about building a car that is just as much at home on the street and whether you're driving it daily, which might be a bit extreme, or just a spirited ride, you're going to encounter imperfect roads. So, this is not a car that has solid bushings. This is not a car that's rigid and stiff, and I don't think that it should be. I think that those cars don't really have a place on the street, and if we're building a race car, well then, let's actually use a race car instead of some compromise.

M.S.: It looks like you've increased the ride height.

J.S.: Yeah.

M.S.: Is that sort of just for usability?

J.S.: A lot for usability. The car has a very long front overhang, so it's very easy to scrape the front of the car on a driveway or coming out of an intersection. So, raising the ride height, for me, from a practicality standpoint, was very important, but that also allows us to not make the car too stiff. It gives us that movement, and we have plenty of ground clearance, but I also found that that had a positive impact, for us, on the handling.

Again, in a race car, we're trying to get lower and lower. We want the center of gravity, the center of mass, really low for the best handling. And for this, I wouldn't say that we wanted bad handling, but it wasn't about ultimate grip and lap time. It's about balance, and it's about moving the limit to something that's more engaging and more playful. And I think, in that sense, to raise the car up and kind of take away, maybe, the grip potential of both ends of the car, ends up making it a little bit more playful and inviting to the driver. And it looks cool.

M.S.: It does look cool. And it's funny because I wouldn't think that adding an inch or more to this car's height would make it look cool.

J.S.: It pairs with the tires and it just, again, I think, it's not a vintage car, but to give it kind of that throwback [feel], and take the good elements of the vintage cars, the low grip, the playful handling, the meaty tire, all of that and say, "Okay, well can we make it work on this car?" That wasn't automatic. We had to play with it to try and find the sweet spot there.

M.S.: And the tires, one last thing on the tires. We're so used to sidewalls that are [tiny], and even though companies like Michelin and Pirelli have done a lot with making those little sidewalls feel a little bit more compliant, they never are. This, on the other hand, is adding a lot of compliance to this car. And it's like, you go out to the track and you hit a curb and it just kind of floats.

M.S.: Tell me about the interior because it looks like you are a fan of the F40.

J.S.: Yeah, definitely. I mean, who isn't a fan of F40, and of Ferrari people, that car is... that's the one, you know?

M.S.: Yeah, it is the one.

J.S.: There've been cars since then, but nothing really captures the essence of Ferrari, to me, like the F40. In this car, obviously we wanted to do something unique because like I said, it's a driver's car, and I think where you sit in the cockpit is very important to that experience. It has to be purposeful, but it also has to be something that you enjoy. And I think looking at the F40, that's a car that has nothing more than what you need. You sit inside that car, and it's a cockpit. There's no BS, there's no nonsense.

The interior has been retrimmed, all in the gray felt fabric that is on the dash and the doors of F40. And then the seats are a carbon fiber racing option seat that was actually available on the 355, but almost nobody took it. And they're incredible. You know, they really hold you in the car, and they fit, I mean, they're the right thing for the car. But, they're trimmed in F40 red fabric. So, it gives you that kind of, iconic look. But, it's not over the top. It's all authentic Ferrari material.

And then of course, the steering wheel, we got rid of the large airbag steering wheel, and it has, actually, the Momo steering wheel from an F40, so... I think that the things that you engage with, the pedals, the shifter, the steering wheel, the things that are in your line of sight, it's very, very important. If you don't like something there, it doesn't feel right, it doesn't look right, then it's going to detract from the driving experience.

M.S.: The F1 box started with 355, right?

J.S.: Yep.

M.S.: There's a reason why manual Ferraris of this vintage, and maybe even a little bit newer, but mostly older, go for much more [money]. You see those gates, and the iconic shifter...

J.S.: Yeah, and I mean, objectively, the new cars are better in every way. They're faster, they're more reliable, you know, everything about a dual clutch transmission is better than this, but this is more engaging. To me, this is a bit of an art form, and everybody that drives this car for the first time inevitably struggles, to some degree, to make it feel smooth and polished and to feel really at ease driving it. I like that. It's not because there's something wrong with it, it's just so foreign from what people are accustomed to doing.

I like the car when it makes you work for it, and it's that much more gratifying when you get it right. And when you get it wrong every now and then, it makes you want to shift 20 more times, just so that you can validate, yes I can do this properly. But, it has its quirks as well. You know, first thing in the morning, the car won't go into second gear. That is as iconic Ferrari as anything else. And I appreciate that, okay? I think that wouldn't be acceptable for a new car. You'd have warranty claims and people shouting and angry, but it's what this car is, it's unapologetic about it, and you embrace it.

M.S.: Yeah. So, different clutch and a lighter flywheel. So, a little bit more race car-y.

J.S.: Yeah, definitely. And that just came down to not wanting to go too extreme. Again, the possibility to drive the car, daily, on the road, was very important, but a lighter clutch from the 355 challenge car, and that allows the car to really feel a little bit peppier. The throttle response is much more crisp, the revs drop much faster when you push the clutch in, the heel-toe downshift becomes a lot snappier, and it becomes more challenging for the driver to get it right. You have a lot less margin. The clutch bites a lot harder, so when you don't get it right, it's harder to fake it. But again, more rewarding when you get it right.

M.S.: Yeah, totally. What about the engine? I mean, so it is the 3.5 liter five valve. It's 370...

J.S.: 385. Don't sell me short here.

M.S.: All right, sorry. But, you didn't change anything on the engine, right? The way it is, it's just stock.

J.S.: Yeah. The engine's stock. The engine was pretty high strung in its day, so there's not much more that you want to ask of this engine, to keep that street ability and longevity. I think that the secret, if there is one, for the engine, is to make sure that the maintenance is done and done properly and done at one time.

A lot of what I've done with this car, is to import my experience and knowledge from racing. And one of the things we do in racing is a tremendous amount of parts lifing and preventative maintenance. So, we took a car that, by the service records, did not need a major service, and we said, "Okay, we're taking it apart, we want to know where we start." And that's kind of like the off season, pre Daytona, 24-hour rebuild. You take it all apart, completely apart. You look at anything that's remotely suspicious, you replace that, and then some, and you put it back together and you say, "Okay, now we know where we are, and now we can kind of keep a lifing schedule of everything."

So, this car, we took apart, put back together properly, by people who were really well trained at the job, who are passionate about these cars, but with plenty of "while you're in there" type stuff. I mean, everything from the water pump to various seals and belts. I mean, you name it, it was done and like that, there's no worries.

M.S.: Is there a tensioner [upgrade]? The new tensioners that people do, is that something you did?

J.S.: Yeah, there's an upgraded tensioner, which we've done. I mean, it's fairly basic stuff and it's pretty commonly accepted. But, I think the trap that most people get into, that kind of gives these cars a bad reputation in this day and age is, you have this belt replacement and tensioner replacement interval of three to five years. So first of all, three years is crazy. But, I guess it depends on the circumstances of where you're keeping the car. I think that the problem is that people will take the car apart, and the engine has to come out. It's like a bomb went off at the rear of the car.

M.S.: Well, that's the thing that people say about buying 348s and 355s. "Oh, it needs an engine out if you have to do a timing belt."

J.S.: I think that's what scares away a lot of people from the 348 and the 355, is the idea that, "Oh yeah, the engine's got to come out for any service." To me, there are two things that get people in trouble. The first is, the ones that don't drive their car, the ones that are watching the odometer to make sure that it doesn't take over too many miles. Well, yeah, okay, if you have to take the engine out and do a very costly and complex service every three to five years, and you've driven the car 2,000 miles, then your dollar per mile is not very good. To me, that's a mistake. Drive the car. And I think that, actually, many of the parts on the car last longer when you drive it, as opposed to it sitting and just gathering dust.

But, the other thing is, when we took it apart, we replaced everything. And I think it's a mistake to just address the belts and the tensioners. And then, maybe six months or a year later, you have a water pump that's leaking or something like that, you know, again, race-car style, take it apart. We're going to do it properly. That part isn't broken. Don't care. We're replacing it anyway. We're not waiting for it to break. And I think when you approach the car like that, now we have a really durable 355 that can take a beating, and okay, it's time will come when it needs everything replaced, and we'll do everything.

  • Jeff SegalThe Drive' />
  • Jeff SegalThe Drive' />
  • Jeff SegalThe Drive' />
  • Ferrari F355 Challenge race car., <i>Ferrari</i>
  • Ferrari F355 Challenge race car., <i>Ferrari</i>
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  • Jeff SegalThe Drive' />
  • Jeff SegalThe Drive' />
  • Jeff Segal (second from left) celebrates a class win at The Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2014., <i>Jeff Segal</i>
  • Jeff Segal (far right) celebrates a class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2014., <i>Jeff Segal</i>

M.S.: Tell me about the exhaust because it is freaking loud, and it was loud inside, and it's loud outside, and it sounds amazing because you know, a Ferrari V8 always sounds amazing.

J.S.: Yeah. You can always tell something unique, that that's a Ferrari. Again, it came down to taking all the good elements of the car and trying to turn them up a little bit. So, you know, anything we could do aesthetically to make an already good-looking car look better, anything we can do to make a great sounding car sound even better. So, louder seems like the logical way to go there. So, the headers have been modified, the catalytic converters have come out, that of course, has made the car louder and throatier, and the byproduct of that is the occasional flame on an up shift, which is not unwelcome. And then, the actual muffler is no muffler, which is from the 355 challenge. There was a loud and a quiet version, so of course we went for the loud version.

M.S.: Right.

J.S.: The entire thing has been ceramic coated in white, which is kind of an homage to the older Ferrari racing cars of the sixties and seventies and even eighties and looks really cool and proper on the car. But, it also has lowered the temperatures underneath the rear deck lid, which has really given us a lot of improvement on reliability.

M.S.: That's really interesting because the stock one had the heat dams to keep the heat away, but they actually hold heat. Is that the situation?

J.S.: Yeah, so one of the known things about this car is that the exhaust manifolds, the headers, are kind of consumable, and the headers are this really intricate, very cool design. They kind of have that spaghetti header look, like the Ferrari race cars, but they're hidden in these metal heat shields. So, it keeps all of the heat out of the engine bay, but it keeps all of the heat stored in those headers, and that has caused other problems of metal fatigue and issues with the engine. So, this ceramic coating actually seemed like, not just a small step forward aesthetically, but actually, functionally a big, big step forward.

M.S.: Right. So, what would a Ferrari hot rod be without a proper Ferrari hot rod badge?

J.S.: Yeah. I mean, there was a little bit of thought put into what do we call this thing, what is this? And, I think the thing that we arrived at, that works really well, is the name of the car, Modificata. And you know, in Ferrari speak, mostly internally, but every now and then, there was a car that was made to the public with that M designation, and that let you know that this was something special. It was an evolution. It was a mid-model update. It was something new, something a little bit better, a little bit improved, something different than the original. So, that seems to suit the character of this entire project, which is, this is still very much a Ferrari. This is still very much a 355. We've just kind of tinkered with it, a little bit, and made it a little bit better, hopefully.

M.S.: So, now you've got it dialed in the way you want it. What's next for this car?

J.S.: Well, for starters, I'm going to use this car a lot. You know, I think a fun game would be to see how many miles we can put on this car.

M.S.: I'm in. I mean, I can take a few weeks off.

J.S.: Yeah, let's do it. But, besides that, we've already started work on another one, which is a 360, which will have, conceptually, the same treatment, but a little bit of a different direction, so looking forward to seeing how that goes. And I think the idea here would be to build a knowledge base and hopefully a reputation for being the people who are able to do this to Ferraris, and do this in a way that's true to the brand, that is kind of on point for the Ferrari brand, and not something that's trashing the car and changing it completely.

But to me, the spirit of this Modificata project is driver's cars. So, things that are engaging. It's not about outright performance. Okay, if the car's fast, that's awesome. But, it would be about cars that make people smile. Cars that challenge people a little bit. Cars that have, really, just a large dynamic range, that make you get out of the car and go, "Wow, I forgot what it was like to drive a car like that.”

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