Home » What It Was Like Driving A Le Mans-Winner’s Dream Ferrari: A Stickshift 458 Speciale That Shouldn’t Exist

What It Was Like Driving A Le Mans-Winner’s Dream Ferrari: A Stickshift 458 Speciale That Shouldn’t Exist

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Jeff Segal has some nerve. Talent, too, as a former LeMans, Daytona and Sebring winner and longtime Ferrari Challenge coach. But the Ferrari 458 Speciale we’re ogling at a Connecticut coffee shop is one of the greatest, sensation-soaked performance cars of recent decades. I felt it in my jet-lagged bones the first time I drove one at Fiorano in 2013, accompanied by another LeMans winner, the Spanish driver and former F1 pilot Marc Gené. Saying you’re going to improve a 458 Speciale is like saying you touch up Caravaggios in your spare time, because the light isn’t quite right. 

Mod 458 Front
Photo: Dave Burnett

The Speciale may have boasted the last naturally aspirated, aurally unfiltered Ferrari V-8 in series production. Yet the Speciale did without another sensory connection: A manual transmission. And not just any manual, but a metal-gated lever of the uncompromising, clickety-clack variety. It’s the straw that stirred the drink in many of Maranello’s most bracing concoctions, from the Pininfarina-blessed 330 GTC of 1966 to the F40

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Then Ferrari steadily closed off its gated community. Back in 2014, I tracked down and drove the last manual Ferrari ever imported to America, a 2009 599 GTB Fiorano V-12 briefly owned by actor Nicolas Cage, now in the hands of a passionate owner in Washington state. Starting in 1997 on the mid-engine 355, Ferrari added its F1-derived, electrohydraulic gear-and-clutch command system — developed by Ferrari and Magnetti Marelli — to what was otherwise a conventional single clutch-plate manual. About 75 percent of Tifosi chose the stick over the automated interloper that would drive the company’s manuals to extinction in just 12 years, the way AI may render humans irrelevant. And when Ferrari began developing its dual-clutch gearbox in 2004, 20 percent of owners were still keeping the manual faith, as Ferrari’s then-technical director Roberto Fedeli told me in 2014. 

Mod 458 Rear Window
Photo: Dave Burnett

The stick remained firmly in the mix when Ferrari developed the California convertible, with the real decision between a single-clutch automatic and a smoother dual-clutch unit the company struggled to make work with high-horsepower engines. In 2008, the company built about a dozen manual Californias to homologate the car for various markets, and shipped them to dealers as demo models. But then the unthinkable happened: Nobody bought them, aside from one customer in California and another in Japan.

“We thought the market still demanded a manual,” Fedeli said. Ferrari quickly scuttled plans to keep offering a stick on other models in the lineup. Don’t-blame-us stories aside, Ferrari and dealers also put thumbs on the scale to discourage manual ownership, going all-in on the promise of faster, easier, more-accommodating Ferraris. Many dealers, their business model dependent on quickly flipping lightly-driven Ferraris, scared off prospects by insisting they’d never find a willing buyer for their own used three-pedal car. The last manual Ferraris, a pair of 599’s, rolled off the assembly line in 2011, ordered by two Hong Kong collectors. 

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Mod 458 Santo
Photo: Dave Burnett

Which brings us to the coffee shop in Sharon, where Segal’s fantasy stick-shift 458 Speciale — in frozen-yogurt white, licked by an Italian-flag racing stripe — is here to remind me everything I’ve forgotten about proper heel-and-toeing. 

As it turns out, the 458 has no recollection of its 3.5-year surgery, perhaps a case of PTSD from having its rabbit-eared paddle shifters shorn away. With that automated gearbox plugged deeply into the car’s matrix of F1-derived systems, from its electronic differential to the traction-apportioning Side Slip Control that debuted on the Speciale, Segal and Co. found their biggest technical challenge was to transform the gearbox without compromising the car’s digital-backed performance or operation. 

“The interconnectivity of the car made it way more difficult to tinker with” than his previous Modificata cars, including a 355 and its ’90s tech.

Mod 458 Shifter
Photo: Dave Burnett

A dainty red Manettino lever still flicks through its unsullied driving modes. A pushbutton “bumpy road” setting is still best for tire compliance on most any public road, here with gummy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. That 3.5-year reengineering of an otherwise stock Speciale —   please don’t call it a “manual swap,” says the otherwise copacetic Segal — was somehow accomplished without cracking and reprogramming the car’s ECU, a process Segal says never produces worthwhile results on Ferraris anyway. 

The puzzle extended to frustrating-yet-necessary stuff you’d never consider until you tried to work with or around it, such as reverse lights, shift indicators, or an electronic parking brake that engages when the driver’s door is opened. But in every way, Segal says, “the car is blissfully unaware” that a slender phantom limb now sprouts from a custom-made, Alcantara-topped center console. 

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“The car still has to think it’s what it was before,” he says. “It’s expecting communications from the dual-clutch. When you’re in Neutral, it thinks it’s in Neutral.”

Ferrari F458 Shifter
Photo: Lawrence Ulrich

The lever’s cueball top stands ready to be caressed or cursed through six forward speeds. It slots easily into first after I press the “start” button. The 4.5-liter, diorama-displayed V-8 offers a chewy rumble, a taste of the flat-cranking pleasure to come. Just a decade ago, the Speciale boasted the highest specific output of any production V-8 in history, wringing 596 horses from a 4.5-liter displacement via a 14:1 compression ratio

Conducting this rarefied V-8 through a stainless-steel baton, to shrieking 9,000-rpm crescendoes, offers a closer brush with greatness. The cabin becomes a mosh pit of mechanical sound, all whooshing induction noise and ripping sawtooth frequencies. The smell of oil rises from the transmission’s depths. That’s amplified by a standard cabin with no sound deadening or carpeting, just thin composite floor sheets. 

Segal freely admits his creation couldn’t match the lap times or trap times of the original, with its tighter-spaced seven speeds and gear changes in 30 magical milliseconds. But objective speed isn’t the point here. 

“You’ve got all the feels, all the visceral sensation, but there’s more of a mental challenge,” he says. 

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Mod 458 Pedal Box
Photo: Dave Burnett

The car proves a physical challenge as well, especially for my out-of-practice feet that make me feel like a newbie learning the Tarantella. With no room for three underslung pedals, Segal took a cue  from his 458 GT3 racers, a lightweight AP Racing footbox with floor-mounted pedals. The stock carbon-ceramic brake system itself comes straight from the LaFerrari hypercar. That pedal and reworked master cylinder were painstakingly tuned for a wide bandwidth of sensitivity. Pedal effort is high, but not so burly to feel you’re performing one-legged squats. 

As a pro shoe, Segal couldn’t resist a more track-spec setup, including a slightly dipping nose and wheel camber changes to get the Speciale more “up on its toes” and reactive to steering. Whatever he did, it works: The Speciale is as alert as a guard dog at the Adderall factory, but with a purebred Italian howl.  

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Photo: Matt Hardigree

The racing-style clutch is actually easy-peasy, including a much shorter stroke than a showroom car, its take-up point barely off the floor. Ditching the dual-clutch trimmed about 130 pounds, leaving the 3,075 pounds that Ferrari had claimed as the original’s official curb weight. That automatic naturally hogged far more space below the V-8, leaning far out over the rear axle. Where Porsche parts tend to mix-and-match and snap together like Legos, Segal says, Ferraris are more individual, down to their mounting points. It all demanded endless calculations to figure out how to best package a manual.

Segal remains cagey about some of the fairy dust that he and his anonymous team — including racing colleagues, Ferrari master mechanics and parts experts — sprinkled throughout the car. Everything from the lightweight flywheel back is new, of course. Segal will say that most transmission components are OEM Ferrari. Segal recruited an expert with deep knowledge of these fabled Italian gearboxes to properly adjust dual cables that connect to a rear transaxle. Inner edges of shifter gates are chamfered at a just-so angle, to let the shift rod glide like butter. OK, not quite Audi R8-butter, whose gated shifter doesn’t actually touch its retro-styled metal slots. But it’s easy enough to pivot — until you start picking up the pace. 

I don’t grind any gears during my stint, thankfully. But on these roads cut through Connecticut pasture and small towns, the Ferrari arrives into corners so quickly that I’m not fully prepared for the trickiest three-to-two downshifts. This ain’t no Mazda Miata, or even a Porsche Boxster.

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Graciously donning his coaching hat (helmet?), Segal says “it was hard to drive this car and not feel it was my first time driving a manual transmission. 

Driving 458
Photo: Lawrence Ulrich

“I hate having a bad shift in this car, it really irks me, but it happens. But then when you get the next one right, it’s more satisfying.”  

Segal makes a telling analogy with the Porsche Carrera GT, whose size and power-to-weight ratio is right atop his Modificata. 

That Porsche’s notorious reputation as a wall-basher and widowmaker, Segal says, had nothing to do with its chassis dynamics, and everything to do with its manual. It forced amateurs and talented drivers alike to manage braking and shifting simultaneously and drop one hand off the steering wheel, sometimes just as they were making a fateful mistake to upset the car.

“That Porsche is a car that will bite you, and so is this,” Segal says, despite his Speciale’s readiness for controllable slides. “Things happen so much faster, and that’s when things don’t necessarily go well.”

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Segal says his hands always want to double-clutch a downshift, but that engine revs fall so quickly that it’s mostly impossible. With Segal’s sage advice, I begin to pick up the proper hand speed and single robust throttle blip, all while maintaining brake pressure, which actually turns out better the less I think about it. 

Ferrari F458
Photo: Lawrence Ulrich

Dark clouds appear and wipe the sky like oily rags, a sign of a downpour to come. As the weather darkens, so do my thoughts. This whole time, I could have been leaving the Ferrari in third gear and gunning my way through corners, concentrating on braking zones and apexes like I would in any dumbed-down automatic. I can’t recall driving a supercar and spending so little seat time looking to blur the background and flirt with handling limits. (Which is increasingly hard to do in supercars like this Speciale, which can pull, oh, 1.33 g’s). Instead, I’ve spent most of my time practicing heel-and-toe downshifts.

Then I realize I’ll be back in those paddle-thwacking cars soon enough. The 458 Speciale Modificata has layers that need peeling, secrets it’s not willing to give away in the first minutes or hours. That’s exactly why Segal built it, even if he has no plans to sell it. The Speciale is Segal’s twelfth Modificata car, and like the others functions as both a deeply personal expression and a professional calling card. 

I hand the Ferrari back to Segal, unwillingly, so he can have his own return fun through Connecticut. He leaves me with this. The current spec of supercars and hypercars is incredible, but those cars are converging on a single formula: Forced induction, hybrid helpers, superfluous horsepower and, above all, accessible performance.

“Don’t get me wrong, their driving experience is unbelievable, but there’s nostalgia for something a little different,” he says. “This car has all the pace, acceleration and handling, but you’ve got work to do.”

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“It’s an infinitely more interesting and engaging road car.”

[Ed note: Obviously, Lawrence Ulrich is one of the most admired automotive writers in the known universe, having formerly served as the chief auto critic for The New York Times and contributed to MotorTrend, Road & Track, and just about every other place you’ve ever read about cars. We’re excited to have him on the site for the first time. – MH]

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Parsko
Parsko
10 months ago

Lived in CT all my life, never owned an automatic in my life. Can we hang out please?

BTW – great article!

Bill
Bill
10 months ago

Am I the only person who doesn’t like the feel of a gated manual? Only tried it in the Audi R8 which is singled out for praise here so there must be no hope for me!

Goof
Goof
10 months ago
Reply to  Bill

It’s certainly possible that the shift-cables in the R8 had needed to be readjusted. Moreover, if the springs in the selector start to wear out, you can get some weird behaviors with gated manuals where the shift lever won’t re-center correctly to its intended point.

Generally a properly adjusted gated manual is pretty fantastic, though it can be weird if you’ve never used one before, simply because it’s not what you’re used to. Again, one that needs adjusting can be a very frustrating experience. You shouldn’t be in a situation where you’re hitting the gate. It should slide right in with an occasional bit of metal-on-metal sounds, and there should be a nice click when you’ve finished moving the lever. You can’t get that very mechanical, very tactile physicality and auditory experience with most other arrangements, but it’s a specific thing and you know pretty quickly whether or not you prefer a gated manual over other great manuals.

Doglegs are another one. Great ones are great, but the others I really don’t care for. Even the good ones, they’re still so far outside of what you’re accustomed to that they’ll always be a bit idiosyncratic, and require you to remember that the pattern is different for the first bit of a drive, lest you potentially make a very expensive mistake later.

Last edited 10 months ago by Goof
Bill
Bill
10 months ago
Reply to  Goof

Thanks for the in depth reply! It is possible that the cables were a little out as it was a car being used for track day experiences (or it could mean it got more maintenance than a lazy owner would muster) but it didn’t really feel broken, and like you say not being used to it…I had this overwhelming paranoia that the gate would get in the way of moving the stick particularly from 2nd to 3rd rather than when moving it straight up and down since the precision movement and occasional metal on metal noises served to make me think it was right on the edge of being blocked in its path before neatly fitting in. It worked perfectly but didn’t reassure me. I felt like I had to change deliberately and carefully instead of moving really fast. Could be something I got used to and it’s certainly a different experience and one I wanted to like (getting a taste of the good stuff) but it just left me wondering what all the fuss was about.

Now, doglegs are something I can get behind much more, there’s a purpose and sound logic there though it does mean the odd and even gears switch places making it feel “upside down” so I would imagine this divides people more, but no one seems to care/talk about this like gated manuals. I wonder, what makes a dogleg box bad, is it just the same things that make a regular manual bad? I once changed down more gears than I meant to in a dogleg box with 7 forward gears but the ratios were such that I just about got away with it. I don’t think I would make the same mistake with 5 gears so won’t blame the dogleg. I will never be a truck driver!

AssMatt
AssMatt
10 months ago
Reply to  Goof

I wonder if the appeal has to do with novelty: since most people don’t live with a car with a gated shifter, maybe they don’t have time to get good at shifting, and the clicking is just a byproduct of unfamiliarity? Like the game “Operation:” the noise is fun the first time, but the better you get, the less sound you make!

[To be fair, I’ve only driven one gated shift car–mine–and maybe mine’s lacking something and I’m missing out.]

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
10 months ago

I have been dreaming about this car for over a decade. The perfect supercar. This man is a hero

Fueledbymetal
Fueledbymetal
10 months ago

Both fascinating and sobering story. Many of us like to think it would be great to have the most extreme naturally aspirated engine mated to a manual transmission, but when the performance reaches such heights as this, maybe it’s a bit of an Icarus situation.

Having read this, I’d now much rather “settle” for a “regular” 458 manual conversion (not “swap”!).

Detroit-Lightning
Detroit-Lightning
10 months ago

Probably a slightly different experience than my ‘12 Frontier slushbox.

Gubbin
Gubbin
10 months ago

Rev-matched downshifts and clutchless upshifts on my Frontier still feel pretty slick. I can’t heel-and-toe very well in work boots though.

DadBod
DadBod
10 months ago

I usually skip the supercar content but this car is clearly the result of expert skunk works and honestly rad

Mike F.
Mike F.
10 months ago

Excellent article. More from Mr. Ulrich, please!

Lawrence Ulrich
Lawrence Ulrich
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike F.

Thanks for checking it out.

V10omous
V10omous
10 months ago

It’s interesting to me how the economics work that allow Porsche to roll out expensive limited edition models bringing back the manual that sell out instantly, but Ferrari either can’t or won’t do the same, despite the same demand for the “forbidden fruit” presumably being there.

Would a version of the 812 with a gated 6 speed and a $100,000 price increase really not sell out immediately or make a profit for them?

Last edited 10 months ago by V10omous
Mark Stockmaster
Mark Stockmaster
10 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

Simply Porsche has enough production capacity that making special editions is feasible. When Ferrari already has a waiting list for every vehicle it sells there’s little incentive to develop another low volume variant that would need to be federalized/homologated. Not to mention the development, tooling, and production costs.

Last edited 10 months ago by Mark Stockmaster
Goof
Goof
10 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

Even for Porsche, manual take rate on the GT cars is continuing to drop. Believe it or not, it’s a bigger problem outside the US where the ex-US take rate dropped faster, but even in the US it’s continuing to drop.

Moreover on the 911 ST, it’s a lot easier when the MSRP starts at $300K, and the ASP is probably closer to $400K than not.

It’s why the GT4 RS and Spyder RS didn’t get a manual. Yes, it fit. The original GT4 RS prototype Hatz requested of Preuninger (for the 981 chassis) even had one — as told by Andy to Top Gear. It 1000% fits. The issue of course is the homologation costs (with specific journalists now confirming this). It’s not cheap. Moreover, GT4s attract a different crowd than the Spyders (and GT4s outsell Spyders at least 2 to 1, if not 2.5 to 1), so I understand why they didn’t want to homologate a manual in the mid-engine cars when maybe 1000 manual-equipped ones might be sold globally (compared to 2500-3000 with PDK-S) across both models. Porsche being fiscally conservative ergo went to PDK-S only for the mid-engine cars.

– – – – –

Last, ever talk to Ferrari people at big car shows? Not talking the fourth owners. Not talking the die hards that’ll drive what they have until they die. The typical new Ferrari buyer, which has built that relationship with the dealer to be able to buy a new Ferrari at all. There’s a fair bit of overlap with Porsche GT car buyers, but a lot of the new Ferrari buyers do status seek. They want to have the newest. They’re tooting their horn. It’s a crowd that values a manual less — maybe doesn’t even know how to operate a manual transmission — and many also don’t care, and a manual would be an obstacle to them getting a Ferrari. A fair number just want a Ferrari possibly as a bucket list item, or as a personal trophy to congratulate themselves, or win Top Trumps amongst friends.

V10omous
V10omous
10 months ago
Reply to  Goof

I tend to think of the typical first buyer of a Porsche GT car or of a modern Ferrari as concerned with a quick resale as possible, in which case the rarity and desirability on the secondary market of a manual is a virtue. After all, a manual F430 might go for $100K or more over an F1 version.

The 911R going from $175K-$500K in a matter of months may be clouding my judgment here a bit though; perhaps that kind of sudden and crazy impact is not replicable.

Goof
Goof
10 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

Flipping is still a thing, but the market has softened as interest rates have risen, and in some cases, there was no repeat success on previous trends.

Yes, the 458 Aperta basically tripled overnight and held. So did the 911R, though its backpedaled to more reasonable amounts (400+) after the GT3 Touring normalized most (but not all) of what the R offered.

Numbered cars tend to do OK, though we know how numbering works with Ferrari… Literal brand new Ferraris can work as well, but it’s not guaranteed, and ultimately they all depreciate hard until a floor is established. Stuff like the SP3 Daytona will be fine. As good as I’ve been told the new 296 GTB is, it’ll be the usual quick few successful flips, and they’ll depreciate as usual because there’ll be plenty of them, and some newer, “better” Ferrari will replace it.

The 911 GT2 RS? It was funny when there was nearly 100 up for sale at the same time in the US! Virtually zero private sales transacted for 3 years, despite the general pandemic run up. They’re starting to move now, and basically “no profit” on them. Take that, speculators!

GT4 RS? The first one FINALLY transacted a few days ago, for an actual fair price, but it BARELY hit its reserve. For the past year zero had flipped. This makes sense — they’re not numbered cars, and there’s going to be plenty outside of the ultra-hot markets (NYC, SFBA, LA, Seattle, Miami/Florida, Texas Triangle). Outside of those markets, even ADM is disappearing (at least in the US).

Lawrence Ulrich
Lawrence Ulrich
10 months ago
Reply to  Goof

No disrespect to Ferrari owners, who definitely count some serious, hardcore drivers among them. But I tend to agree the “typical” Porsche sports-car buyer might put a higher priority on a manual. Yep, the take rate on Porsche models that offer a manual is, surprisingly, higher in the U.S. than it is in Europe. Preuninger actually placed a bet with Porsche’s North American chief on what the take rate would be when the manual came back on the GT3…the executive said it wouldn’t top 20 percent, but it was actually 50 percent straight from the gate, and closer to 70 percent over the car’s run. Crazy.

Gubbin
Gubbin
10 months ago
Reply to  V10omous

Somehow I get the impression that Ferrari buyers are more like condo shoppers, thinking resale in a few years and trying to guess what a future buyer would want. So you get condos with low-wear “classy” features like marble countertops and terrazzo tile, and you get Ferraris with automatics.

Last edited 10 months ago by Gubbin
Max Finkel
Max Finkel
10 months ago

this is a fantastic story about a stupendous car. I also know those roads near Sharon, CT and aside from how bumpy they are, it’s the right place to drive this.

I am interested in how Ferrari used California manual take-rate as a gauge of the market. Obviously I’m no Ferrari customer, but it would seem like that’s the car I’d expect people to order with the manual least frequently, compared to the mid-engined models and V12 models. If they just wanted to stop making them, they should just say so.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
10 months ago
Reply to  Max Finkel

Ferrari isn’t one guy any more, the people you’d like will be the engineers, ride and handling, vehicle attributes, NVH. Some of them will hate autos, some will just hugely prefer the interaction from a manual.

The guys to blame are in marketing, and they set the goals for everyone else. They “know” what the customers want, and how much they want it for, and you can’t fault their success as a business.

But marketing experts aren’t necessarily car people, and don’t necessarily have the skills to enjoy a manual car with a bunch of power.

I’ve been in enough stand up rows with brand and marketing to know that engineering means nothing to them. They want what they think the customer wants.

I’ve worked with ex-Ferrari engineers, and it’s not an environment that rewards risk. If reducing your gearbox options makes your cars faster and cheaper to make, why risk a load of money to make an option for people who will almost certainly accept an auto Ferrari anyway?

I met the owner of a Portofino a few weeks ago, he didn’t even test drive one before buying it. It was red, it had the badge on it, so he got his wallet out.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
10 months ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

I’ve purchased most of my vehicles without test drives. I’ve eventually managed to get most of them running, though.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

I bet you’re not spending nice-house money on your cars.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
10 months ago
Reply to  Captain Muppet

Why should I when I’ve already found a much more cost-effective way of being told I’m spending too much on them?

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

Tell me about it, I’m still getting shit for buying a half share of a 500 quid RX7 V8, and that was 15 years ago.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
10 months ago
Reply to  Mike Harrell

This comment is very Autopian and not getting enough love.

Lawrence Ulrich
Lawrence Ulrich
10 months ago
Reply to  Max Finkel

Good point on the California, Max. We’ve seen Ferrari and other automakers rationalize their decision to drop manuals, and it would be refreshing to hear explanations that didn’t put it all on the customer. Some Ferrari engineers and executives did end up saying that (as with the by-wire brakes on the new 296 GTB) going to the dual-clutch exclusively helped them integrate its operation into that vast network of F1-based performance systems, part of their relentless drive to make faster and “smarter” cars. As Segal and many others note, plenty of drivers don’t really care about going any faster, they just want to have fun and shift for themselves. I’m with them. Hey, thanks for reading.

Lawrence Ulrich
Lawrence Ulrich
10 months ago
Reply to  Max Finkel

Good point on the California, Max…kinda hard to shift with a shopping bag in your hand. Ferrari engineers and execs did end up saying the dual clutch (like the later by-wire braking in the new 296 GTB) was becoming such an important part of their F1-based systems, part of their obsession with ever-faster, smarter and safer cars. That definitely speaks to cost as well, both for development and homologation, etc. But as so many enthusiasts are saying, they really don’t care about track times or saving a few fractions of a second, especially in performance cars that you can barely exercise on the street; they just want to shift for themselves and have fun. I’m with them.

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