Over the Long Beach Grand Prix weekend, I had a chance to sit down next to Henrique Cisneros, owner of MOMO and driver of the MOMO NGT Ferrari 458 Italia GT3 in Pirelli World Challenge's GTA class. As it turns out, there's a lot riding on this driver's shoulders other than the race at hand.
Ryan Jurnecka: So let's start with the team itself. This is your first year in Pirelli World Challenge, coming from the Tudor United SportsCar Series. Why the change?
Henrique Cisneros: We started out always in sprint racing. That's where I learned out how to race and did everything. And from there, we moved to ALMS [American Le Mans Series] at the moment, and when it changed to TUDOR we went to TUDOR. We pretty much enjoyed the team aspect, and the sharing of the car, and the endurance racing—it's a whole different type of racing. And the style, and the way that you drive the car is very different. You have to make it last, you have to go easy on [the car], and hand it off to someone else. But it was never that 100 percent raw, you know, really, really push the car and give everything it's got. I think we all missed that a little bit. The single-driver sprint race is really just [driving at] 110 percent.
With Pirelli World Challenge growing so much and having so many cars running so evenly, there was a natural progression for us to get into a GT3 spec car and go back to sprint racing, which is our roots.
RJ: You used to run with Porsche, and still do in the GTC class in PWC. What lead to your decision to run a Ferrari in addition?
HC: Well, obviously, at that point when you're switching to a series like this, the first question is "Well, what car?" You try to analyze all the cars out there, obviously analyze the factory support and what each platform brings. Ferrari has always been extremely competitive, Porsche has always been extremely competitive—we were a longtime Porsche team. But we were really drawn to the Ferrari, especially with MOMO, and the history that MOMO has with Ferrari. We really wanted to bring that back and thought it was a great opportunity to do it. So we called Ferrari and said we were interested in the factory MOMO team being with Ferrari again. They were extremely excited and said they would love nothing else. So my brother is driving the Porsche in the GT Cup class, and I'm in the Ferrari [in GT Amateur class].
RJ: Tell me about the Ferrari itself. Are there any MOMO parts on there that are going to be related to street car performance?
HC: Yes. Now, the only MOMO part we have currently on the car are the wheels, so we do have a MOMO wheel that resembles the "Rush" wheel for the street, and that is a wheel you can go out and buy. With these cars, they're homologated from the factory and aren't really allowed to touch any components in the car, whether it's seat, steering wheel, or anything like that. You have to keep it identical to the way it was built. We did actually have to get the wheels homologated for the car, and so that's the only MOMO part we have on there right now. But we are working with Ferrari as a manufacturer to start introducing more and more MOMO accessories into the car.
RJ: Tell me about your own involvement with MOMO.
HC: Well, I'm currently the owner of MOMO. Racing in general has always been a passion of mine, and MOMO has been a brand that all we all grew up with. When the opportunity came up to buy MOMO, we jumped at it immediately. It was a great fit, and ever since it's been part of our racing, and so it's MOMO Racing now.
RJ: What attracted MOMO to you in particular?
HC: Well, you know, we were looking at other companies and different brands, and I don't think there's another brand out there that's as passionate as MOMO. When you see the history [the company was founded by a racer], you see the pictures, there really is a heart of racing. And above and beyond the products and accessories themselves, it's always been about racing. I'm really passionate about racing, so it clicked. When we had the meetings with everyone there, we all got along, and it was definitely the right decision.
RJ: I've heard you're looking, as a brand, to become more involved in racing than you have been, perhaps over the last decade or so?
HC: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We have very aggressive plans to really grow MOMO in the U.S. and have hired a marketing agency to help us with that. Racing, of course, is a big part of that. We became the sponsor for the World Challenge for the Porsche class [GT Cup], and we're also working with Formula Drift as a technical sponsor there, and other series. So we're really trying to become more involved in motorsport and take that to our products and accessories for the streets.
RJ: You're also the chairman of a safety foundation. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
HC: Sure, it's called the Motorsport Safety Foundation. When I was racing in American Le Mans Series, I was racing with my co-driver Sean Edwards. Sean, about a year and a half ago, had an accident during testing and he passed away. He was the passenger in the car and it was the same year that Simonsen [Allan Simonsen, driver for Aston Martin at Le Mans] died as well; it happened just a couple of months from each other. After Simonsen passed away, Sean had been filling in for him in Europe for the cars [Simonsen] had been driving with other drivers. He was very close to Sean, and it was a very tough period for us. And then when Sean passed away; it was two drivers all of a sudden. We carried stickers of Sean and of Simonsen in the car, and we looked around and didn't see any change coming from it. Usually in motorsport when you see a tragedy, something happens as a result. You see it a lot in Formula 1 and other series. But in this case, we didn't see any changes. It frustrated us very much, and the debut of the foundation was to try to bring all the experts together and come up with new rules, more training, safety barriers, etc. It's something that's growing very quickly. We have Scott Elkins as our COO. He's a guy who has many stars and stripes on his shoulder, and he's the right person to really take it to the next level.
RJ: Well you've also had your own close call, when you crashed at high speed into the barriers during the 2012 12 hours of Sebring.
HC: Yeah, yeah! As a driver, you hit a lot of barriers, and you get to learn, the hard way, which ones work and which ones don't. There are a lot of opportunities at a lot of different tracks. Safety is expensive, and a lot of tracks simply can't afford it. So we have a program, for example, that's called Adopt a Corner, where we try to match corporate donors in exchange for branding on the corners, and they've paid for certain upgrades at different racetracks. It's a page from the Adopt-a-Highway signs that you see all over the roads. So we're doing different things like that. We're also doing another program that is Race With Restrain, where we sent up rental kiosks for HANS devices at tracks across America. So you go there, and for $30 you get to rent a HANS to wear and be safer, and you don't have to have the financial burden of spending $1,000 [buying the device] or whatever they may be. We're trying to make safety more accessible because it is expensive, unfortunately.