A Look at Video Game Legend John Carmack’s Sacrilegious Turbo Ferraris

The legendary programmer behind Doom and Quake also had a habit of building turbocharged Ferraris in the 1990s, and the results were incredible.

byMar 24, 2022 5:05 PM
A Look at Video Game Legend John Carmack’s Sacrilegious Turbo Ferraris
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When most people pick up the controller to play their favorite first-person shooter, they're not thinking of the history surrounding how the gaming industry got to where it is today. Maybe they should, though, because today's favorites wouldn't exist without milestones like Doom and Quake in the early- to mid-'90s. What's more, some of the wildest Ferraris ever wouldn't exist either if it weren't for those games' lead programmer: John Carmack.

Those old enough to remember picking up a copy of Wolfenstein 3D for the first time probably remember the name Id Software (stylized as "id Software"). The indie game studio built the framework for the first FPS games, creating hit after hit, and at the reins was Carmack, making him arguably the father of the entire genre. And during the height of the company's success, there were two things he seemed to like more than anything else: cars and code.

We were recently reminded of Carmack's interest in fast rides when a viral Facebook post made the rounds about his custom twin-turbo Ferrari F50, so we decided to reach out to the man himself and see if he'd chat about it. He declined with this: "Sorry, I have fond memories of all my Ferraris, but I’m too busy to talk cars." Fair enough—but that won't stop us from talking about them.

Carmack in his twin-turbo Ferrari F50 at the Texas Motorplex drag strip in 1998., YouTube | Eric H.
YouTube | Eric H.

From FPS to Fast Cars

Carmack didn't grow up as a car guy. In an interview with Joe Rogan, he recalls his step-brother having Lamborghini posters on his walls, but Carmack's passion was computers. His first daily driver was a Volkswagen Jetta, nothing special. That car was eventually totaled, and then he purchased his uncle's MGB—a tiny, unreliable ride that made him fall in love with cars by forcing him to work on them. And when the MGB's gearbox ate itself, Carmack continued the roadster trend and bought a Miata.

Meanwhile, Id Software was a shooting star in the gaming industry. Needless to say, it made 21-year-old John Carmack and the rest of Id Software's founders filthy stinkin' rich. One day, a lightbulb switched on inside of Carmack's head and he walked into a Ferrari dealership—ripped jeans, t-shirt, and all. He began looking over the cars and passed by the 348 and the Mondial on the showroom floor, but when he saw the 1987 Ferrari 328 GTS stashed away in the back, he had to have it.

"The salesman gave me a little bit of a talk where he said 'You know, if someone in a Corvette pulls up next to you and revs their engine, just hang your hand out of the window like you've got a thousand horsepower under the hood,' and that didn't sit well with me," Carmack told Rogan. "That was like this idea that he kind of knew that these cars weren't exactly as fast as they looked."

Carmack didn't want to shoo away an opponent because he didn't have the right tool for the job. He began calling around to performance shops in Dallas, but none would install anything more than a Tubi-branded exhaust, as modifying a Ferrari in such a way would make someone persona non grata at a Ferrari dealership (as Carmack would later find out)...except for Bob Norwood. Norwood Autocraft had built an international reputation as a shop specializing in Ferrari tuning, which meant that before Carmack could even finish his pitch, Norwood offered to turbocharge his 328 GTS.

By the time Norwood was finished with Carmack's car, the single-turbo Turbodyne setup had upped the output from 270 or so horsepower to around 500 hp, nearly twice the Ferrari's factory output. Famously, the 328 was won by professional video game player Dennis "Thresh" Fong in 1997 at Red Annihilation, a Quake tournament at the E3 show. At the time, it was the highest valued prize to grace the competitive gaming industry, valued at around $50,000 (or $88,000 in 2022 dollars). Fong recalls seeing the 328 in the reflection of his monitor as he won.

By the way—if you've ever played a video game on the keyboard, Fong helped pioneer the use of "WASD" for movement and was one of the reasons that Carmack programmed the keys into Quake as an optional configuration.

Carmack's Turbo Ferraris 

Carmack had to have more, so he bought a Testarossa. Of course, 380 horsepower wasn't nearly enough, so he upped the ante with a twin-turbo setup. Factor in the nitrous he added, the bigger tires, and the stiffer suspension, and he had a wild supercar making 1,009 hp at the rear wheels. Carmack recalled the thrill of the car not being its initial zero-to-60 sprint, but instead its ability to move from 50-150 mph "faster than anybody's business," and even being capable of overtaking superbikes.

The Testarossa was also obnoxiously loud. Carmack said that he often used the straightaway near Id Software's office as his own personal drag strip when commuting to and from the office, and the loudness of the Testarossa would serve as an indication to employees whether or not Carmack was coming or going for the day.

It was also described as a "science project," with Carmack noting that the car spent a decent amount of its life in the shop being wrenched on. Looking back into the programmer's old plan files, there are notes of his Testarossa snapping input shafts (repeatedly) at 2 a.m., taking it to the drag strip with other Id Software founders who were also car nuts. Some of these are broken out on Reddit if you don't want to search yourself. Here's a good example, his description from May 19, 1998:

"A 94 degree day at the dragstrip today. Several 3drealms and Norwood Autocraft folk also showed up to run. We got to weigh most of the cars on the track scales, which gives us a few more data points. Weight is the key for good ETs. The [Testarossa] has considerably better power to weight ratio than the P4, but it can't effectively use most of the power until it gets into third gear. The Viper is actually making more power than the F50, (Brian got a big kick out of that after his dyno run) but 350 pounds more than compensated for it. I wanted to hit 140 in the TR, but the clutch started slipping on the last run and I called it a day. I was actually surprised the F50 ran 122 mph, which is the same the F40 did on a 25 degree cooler day. I was running with the top off, so it might even be capable of going a bit faster with it on."

He goes on: "The F50 and the viper were both very consistent performers, but the TR and the supercharged M3 were all over the place with their runs. Brian nocked over a tenth off of his times even in spite of the heat, due to launch practice and some inlet modifications. He also power shifted on his best run. It was pretty funny watching the little Volkswagen consistently beat up on a tire shredding Trans-Am. George Broussard had his newly hopped up 911 Turbo, but it broke the trans on its very first run. We were expecting him to be in the 11's. We probably won't run again until either I get the F50 souped up, or my GTO gets finished."

Indeed, Carmack also had an F50 at the time ("Yes, I bought an F50," Carmack wrote. "No, I don't want a McLaren."), having scooped one up off-lease and sent it to Norwood, where it received a pair of Garret turbochargers. The F50 then became his daily driver. Carmack called it "light, nimble, and responsive," with the added benefit of 602 hp at the rear wheels. The Testarossa was then rarely driven unless a little bit of extra ground clearance was needed, or if Carmack wanted to feel even more raw horsepower.

Carmack also owned an F40 that he left stock, save for some adjustments Norwood made to the wastegate for more boost. In his plan files, Carmack compared the F40 and F50 to one another—this is also where his dream of a twin-turbo F50 was born. But what about that GTO he referenced in the drag strip notes?

An old issue of Car and Driver says that Carmack sent a total of five Ferraris to Norwood for wrenching, though Carmack himself says that he only owned four. The one mysterious outlier appears to be a carbon-bodied 288 GTO with a twin-turbo V12 that Norwood was building for Carmack. In a previous interview, he said the car was planned to weigh around 2,400 pounds, but it was never completed. A photo of the unfinished build was posted on Ferrari Chat in 2003, noting that it had been "sitting around for years" with little progress.

Aaron Bunch
Aaron Bunch

The GTO sat in Norwood’s shop until after the business was sold in the early 2000s. Carmack reportedly sold the car to fund Armadillo Aerospace, a now-defunct aerospace startup he founded, and it was shipped out of state. The car eventually made its way back to Norwood to be re-engineered to be more comfortable for the new owner, who was reportedly too tall for the car.

Fitted with a billet 5.0-liter V12 mated to Testarossa heads, the GTO was ready for some serious power. It had twin T4 turbos and was designed to the run dual fuel systems and two engine management systems—hence some photos on the internet showing 24 injectors peppered around the intake manifold. One fuel system would be for pump gas, and the other for methanol. (Carmack reportedly had a methanol tank and pump installed at his house for his Ferraris.)

Still incomplete, the GTO came up for sale around 2018. Aaron Bunch, the owner of ATS Racing in Texas, was out for lunch with Bob Norwood when he heard the news and scraped together everything that he could to buy it, albeit in "basically mothballed" condition. In his 20s, Bunch hung out at Norwood’s shop and watched the project unfold in real time. He told me that it felt surreal to be able to purchase the car that used to feel out of reach to even be a dream. He provided the two photos you see above; the black and white shots show the original engine proof made out of wood before it was billet-milled by the shop.

The car is still incomplete today, though Bunch has big aspirations for it. Bunch replaced the original T4 turbos with more modern Precision 6766, and the owner estimates it will make around 1400 horsepower at the wheels on E85. Quite the combination considering it weighs around 2,400 pounds.

In 2010 and 2019, Carmack confirmed that he no longer owns any Ferraris. Instead, he moved to electric, ultimately purchasing a Tesla Model S P100D, which he called "the best car [he's] ever owned, by far." He also owned one of the first Tesla Roadsters (number 30) that was built—he donated it to the Le May Auto Museum in Tacoma, Washington in 2020.

And while he prefers what comes from a quick stomp on an EV's accelerator, he still appreciates his old Ferraris that could push him back in his seat at triple-digit speeds.

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