Motorsport Legends – Franco Di Matteo

BY: Clare Vale

Edition 103

One of the nicest things about writing a series on Motorsport Legends is spending time with the subjects, listening to them reminisce about races past, Championships won and share their personal stories.

It’s especially nice when the subject happens to be a family friend and co-competitor! This month’s Motorsport Legend is Franco Di Matteo, aka “The Italian Stallion”, a fellow Benoni resident whom I’ve known since my WesBank V8 racing days.

Franco is a true Italian, with a passion for pasta and Italian cars, Alfa Romeos in particular. Although his late Dad was not involved in cars or motorsport, Franco was born with a fascination for fixing things and making them work better. Born and bred in Benoni, he attended Willowmoore High and soon became the “go to” guy for friends who wanted their 50cc bikes to go faster. Franco had aspirations of becoming a computer technician, and worked at Foto Cats on weekends, repairing anything that needed fixing. 

Franco’s Dad taught him to drive at the age of 8, and by the time Franco got to high school, he was “borrowing” his Dad’s Rambler Hornet at night and cruising the streets of Benoni and Boksburg. In Standard 9, he bought his first car, a Fiat 128, which was obviously improved and modified and then promptly bought by one of his teachers.

The Fiat was followed by the first of many Alfas, a Giulietta, and by the time Franco was in Matric, he had built his first race car: an Alfa GT Junior. With help from his school friends, Franco started racing in the Clubmans series, where he enjoyed great success during his last year of high school. The Junior was soon sold, and by Franco’s first year of army training, he had built another Alfa to race in the WesBank Modified class: a Guilietta. This car was equally successful and popular.

Franco met his lovely wife, Anna-Maria, while AWOL at the races in Welkom in 1983. He naturally invited her to watch him racing, and clocked up many miles between Welkom and Benoni before he persuaded her to marry him in 1988. After completing his army training, Franco briefly went on to become a salesman for a seal manufacturing company before starting his own business, PF Hydraulics, also in 1988.  

The racing Guilietta was soon sold at a profit, to be followed by yet another Alfa: an Alfa GTV with a 2,0 litre turbo motor. This car proved to be a massive learning curve for Franco – he broke 32 engines in the first year of racing. Franco did all the development on the GTV himself, with help from his brother in law, Gatti. Despite all the challenges, Franco refused to give up on the car and the GTV went on to become a legend in its own right. At one point, the car held the Clubmans lap records for Welkom, PE, Midvaal and Zwartkops, with an amazing time of 1.047 at Zwartkops. It was super quick, with a 400m speed of 227 kph and an 800m speed of 244 kph – all this while fitted with a turbo sourced from a Volvo truck! Franco won the 1997 Clubmans Championship in the GTV, and he still has the original car today – in spite of many lucrative offers, this one was never sold!

Franco has always been best known for racing V8s. 22 years ago, Larry Wilford suggested he should buy the ex Ben Morgenrood MX6 bodied American chassis to race in the WesBank V8 Championship. Fitted with a Ford V8, Franco raced this car for several years before acquiring the Roush SABAT Mustang in 2001, the future VARTA Jaguar. Racing in the GT2 class, Franco finished on the Championship podium five years in a row. Always super competitive, Franco was equally successful when the series changed to a single class Championship in the early 2000s and later became the V8 Supercar Championship. He was second and third in the Championship in 2012 and 2013, finally winning a hard fought Championship in 2014. He followed this up with another emphatic Championship win in 2015.

Franco also purchased the ex Sarel van der Merwe Cougar chassis, and fitted a Mustang body. He steered this car to win the Super Saloons regional Championship in 2015. In recent years, Franco has finished a frustrating second in the V8 Supercar Championship three times, and is currently lying fourth after missing one race this year.

Franco left many big hitters astonished when he entered his V8 Jaguar in the Jaguar Simola Hill Climb last year. To some people, the WesBank V8s are perceived as old school and past their prime. Of course, those who have actually raced the cars know that they are superb racing machines, fast and reliable and incredibly exciting to drive! Franco’s Jaguar won its Hill Climb class in his first attempt in 2018, finishing an impressive fifth in the final Modified Saloon Car shoot out.

He went back this year again, winning his class against assorted supercars (including Ferraris and Lambos), and finishing an astounding third overall in the King of the Hill final for Modified Saloons. His time of 40.828 was a shave off the 39.342 of the multi million Rand Nissan Skyline that took the crown.

Franco’s main focus at the moment is on another Italian redhead: the Alfa GT he has been building to take on the Extreme Supercars class. “I want to show everyone that a locally built car can take on the hugely expensive, imported Supercars in the class,” says Franco. “I always love a new challenge!” 

There’s been huge excitement amongst the Alfisti regarding this car, which started out as a 2,0 diesel, right hand drive, front wheel drive road car. It has morphed into a left hand drive, rear wheel drive beauty fitted with a 3.6 litre, twin turbo V6 powerplant. The standard ‘box has been replaced by a four speed Jerico with a sequential shifter matched to a 9” rear diff!

90% of the development work was done by Franco in-house, with everything from the wishbones to the uprights designed and fabricated at his Benoni workshop. The Alfa has already done a 1.029 at Zwartkops and is faster than the V8s at the end of the back straight, clocking 221 kph before entering turn 4. “This car has so much potential,” says Franco. “My aim is to do 1.00 minute at Zwartkops, and be able to do it consistently. No Alfa has ever won a GT car championship anywhere in the world, and my goal is for this Alfa GT to be the first.”.”

Franco is a truly versatile, all round racer. He raced in the US in an Inex Legends car, coming 5th overall in the Masters’ World Championship in Las Vegas in 2014. He went even better in Virginia in 2015, finishing 3rd overall. Franco will also be racing in the SA Endurance Championship this year, with Romano Sartori in a Ligier sports car.

Although Franco may not be as widely known as some local champions he is very well known amongst the motorsport community, not least because he is always willing to offer help and advice. Franco enjoys huge respect as a driver who has done things the hard way. Franco came from a humble, hardworking family and never had the opportunity to race karts, as so many top drivers have. He has also always developed his own cars, and is known as a suspension and shock specialist. He designs all his own suspensions, using a “string board computer” – a big board with block paper, where he draws everything to scale and works out all his angles – Ackermann angle, toe, camber and caster geometry. He is quick to credit the people who helped him to learn, including Denzil Schultz and Ron Herring. “They taught me so much,” recalls Franco. “I learned so much from people who were willing to share their knowledge when I was eager to listen.”

Franco has helped me out with my cars so many times, not only in terms of endless good advice on set up and driving, but also with fabricating parts to help the cars to work better. I asked him why he’s so willing to help other drivers, even direct competitors: “I see so many people struggling”, says Franco. “New entrants, especially, can have such a tough time in the beginning, and often become so discouraged that they give up. I remember asking a top driver for advice when I started out, and basically being told to get lost – I’ve never forgotten that, and will always try to help when asked.”

Franco credits his family for being a huge part of his success. Anna-Maria is also an Alfa fan, and can be seen whizzing around Benoni in her Mito, and their son Marco is extremely quick in a kart, although he’s been too focussed on other sporting disciplines to become a serious racer. Both Franco and Marco are past World Champions in their respective JKA Karate classes, and Marco has also been an Archery Champion and was rated No 1 Men’s archer in Africa. Both Anna-Maria and Marco are usually at the track with Franco and they are his biggest supporters. Franco’s late Dad could also always be seen trackside, visibly bursting with pride as he watched his son. “The support I have from my family is priceless”, says Franco. “I would love to see Marco racing, too, and I’m sure he will make his mark on the track soon.” Franco also credits his sponsors for their part in his success: “Deltec Batteries have supported me since 2005, and their loyalty has made a huge contribution towards my success.”

I asked Franco for some advice for our readers, many of whom are busy with their own builds: “The most important part of your build is the suspension and the brakes,” says Franco. “Spend the money on these important things first, and you’ll end up with a build that not only looks great but also gives you great satisfaction when you drive it!”