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A Rally to Remember

Even at lollygagging speeds, Italy's Mille Miglia road show stirs nostalgic hearts

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On Thursday night, after driving through the downpour to the medieval town of Ferrara, soggy drivers grab a few hours of sleep. At 6 a.m., they are up and milling about their cars, ready to continue. Skies have cleared, and the cars glint in the Adriatic coast sunshine as they start a long day’s journey to reach Rome’s Colosseum by midnight. At the Mille’s height in the 1950s, news bulletins of the race-in-progress traveled by phone from Brescia to Rome and back: “Ascari is leading!” “Fangio is out of the race!” Parents woke their children before dawn to take them to the nearest town where the cars would pass. The route was lined with several million people—the men dressed in suits, the women in Sunday dresses—all shouting “Avanti! Avanti!”—“On! On!” Even today, in each town, drivers are greeted like conquering generals. Grandfathers sit grandsons on creaky knees and point out cars they saw when they were sitting on knees. Following close behind, Enrico and I are greeted by faces filled with bewilderment. What’s this station wagon doing among these supermodels? Yet we drive on. On past a castle in San Marino, a postage-stamp-size country completely surrounded by Italy. On through the tunnels of buttonwood trees lining the open road. On into a town with streets so narrow I can reach from the car to pluck a geranium from a window box while inhaling the aroma of cappuccino from an adjacent cafe. It would sure be nice to stop for a minute. But we have promises to keep, and miglia to go before we sleep.

Though not a race, the modern Mille does have a winner. At 34 points along the route, drivers undergo precise time trials. They must drive 7.7 kilometers in 10 minutes and 16 seconds, 4.15 kilometers in 6 minutes and 6 seconds, or some other exacting measure. During such trials, cars inch along, the copilot counting down the seconds till they reach the end: “Tre, due, uno.” Then they’re off with a roar. At race’s end, organizers will tally each driver’s points, with deductions for driving too fast or slow. But first, it’s on to the next crowded piazza. Each town seems slightly different. Some pay little attention to the passing parade. Others come out in force, with an announcer blaring the details and history of each passing car while local beauty queens hand drivers flowers. In Arezzo, where the Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful was shot, tourists in the spectacular Piazza Grande toast the drivers. For an afternoon at least, life seems beautiful indeed, at considerable remove from the old race and its sad, abrupt end.

The winner of the 1927 mille averaged a mere 48 mph. But in each succeeding race, cars went faster. Although organizers tightened safety rules—crash helmets and some minor crowd control were introduced—by the 1950s the Mille Miglia was a tragedy just waiting to happen. In 1957, the race began with the usual mishaps. One car slammed into a house; no one was hurt. Another spun into a billboard. Spectators removed the debris and the driver went on. By the homestretch, more than one-third of the cars lay broken down along the course or had abandoned the race. The Italian Piero Taruffi led the pack, but coming up fast behind him was Spain’s dashing playboy, the Marquis de Portago, driving a 4.1-liter Ferrari. At a checkpoint in Bologna, the Marquis arrived with a damaged wheel but refused to waste time by changing it. Screaming ahead to catch Taruffi, he had hit 180 mph going through the small town of Guidizzolo when the damaged wheel disintegrated. The car somersaulted into the crowd, killing driver, codriver and ten spectators. The Italian government, which had long worried about such an accident, said basta. Enough. Surprisingly, there were few protests. “It was such a tragedy,” former driver Ettore Faquetti told me. “Everyone knew it was time. The cars were too fast. It had to end.”

In 1977, on the 50th anniversary of the first race, the Historic Mille Miglia rally debuted. Observing the speed limit—for the most part—the old cars strutted their stuff. Five years later, they did it again. In 1987, the event became an annual rally, and soon the race’s trademark red arrow could be found on ties, mugs, shirts, caps and other souvenirs. These days, owners of Sony’s PlayStation 2 can race the Mille Miglia as a video game. And if you own a pretty good car—valued, say, in the low six figures—you can drive in one of the rally’s many imitators in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado or New England. But the original has a distinct advantage. It has Italy. And through Italy the drivers roll, past the hilltop town of Perugia, then through charming Assisi and on toward the eternal city to which all roads lead.

Having plenty of its own museums, Rome is too sophisticated to pay much attention to a rolling car museum. Along the Via Veneto, a few heads turn and a few tourists call out. But the drivers who left Brescia to cheering crowds the night before, roll past the Roman Forum and the Colosseum largely unnoticed. At the Parco Chiuso, the halfway point, they come to a stop. Some retire for another short sleep. Others stay up to talk and swagger. Then, at 6:30 a.m., the rally is off again.

In charming Viterbo, I scan my guidebook. “Viterbo’s Piazza San Lorenzo has a 13th-century house built on Etruscan. . . . ” I read aloud, but by the time I finish, Viterbo is behind us. After a stop for gas—a full tank costs about $41—we’re winding uphill toward Radicofani where Maria Naldi is waiting. Watching the antique cars pass in all their glory, it’s easy to see why some drivers characterize their hobby as an insidious disease.

“When I got the car hobby sickness, I heard about this race real early,” says Bruce Male of Swampscott, Massachusetts, who ran the Mille in his 1954 Maserati. “I decided I had to do it.” Sylvia Oberti is driving her tenth straight Mille. In 1992, the San Francisco Bay Area native, who now lives in Italy, became the first woman to finish the 1,000 miles alone (or almost alone; she drives with her white teddy bear, Angelino). Why do they send irreplaceable cars down open roads dodging passing trucks and darting Vespa scooters? Each driver has the same answer: even a classic car was meant to be driven. “This is what you dream about,” says Richard Sirota of Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, competing in his first Mille, in a 1956 Ferrari 250 GT. “If you were into cars as a kid, everything you heard about was the Mille Miglia.”

On past Radicofani and through the rolling fields of Tuscany. Uphill through Siena’s spectacular Piazza del Campo, bigger than a football field, and back to the poppy fields again. Like tourists at a full-course Italian dinner, Enrico and I can’t take much more. Our eyes have feasted on one course after another. The hill towns of the Appenines as the antipasto. Arezzo and Perugia as the primo piatto, the first plate. Rome as the secondo. Then the tossed salad of Tuscany. We’re stuffed and we’re just coming to dessert: Florence. Here crowds of tourists line the Piazza della Signoria as the cars roll beneath the lofty Palazzo Vecchio before passing the soaring red-tiled Duomo. Finally, the road leads to the race’s most dangerous stretch, the FutaPass.

When the Mille Miglia began, this road was the only way to drive from Florence to Bologna. These days, most cars take the autostrada, but all along the two-lane blacktop overlooking the valley 2,000 feet below, families have come out to picnic and watch the nostalgic parade. Around one especially crowded 180-degree turn, I remember the words of Stirling Moss. “If you saw an enormous crowd, you knew it was a really bad corner,” Moss recalled in 1995. “If they were encouraging you to go faster, you knew it was even worse.” Climbing the pass, the road snakes like a blue highway in the Rockies. In the little town of Loiano, it cuts between a concrete wall and a row of bars filled with spectators. Back when he was a boy, spectator Vittorio Alberini tells me, the cars hit 100 mph through Loiano, zipping beneath spectators perched in trees.

Traversing the back side of the FutaPass, we roll to a stop beneath the leaning brick towers of Bologna. There we discover, after waiting 20 minutes to see others come through, that there are no more cars. We’re bringing up the rear. Enrico and I decide to take the autostrada. As if to outpace Moss himself, we race along the flat plain of Lombardy and reach the finish line before everyone else. We’ve won! OK, so we cheated, but our station wagon is here in Brescia before any of the classics. We bide our time till just after 9 p.m., when a stir goes through the bleachers lining the Viale Venezia. Behind a police escort, the first car to have driven all 1,000 miles—a 1925 Bugatti—comes in. One after another, bleary-eyed but smiling drivers thank the crowd and head back to their hotels to share stories of all the things that can happen to an old car in 1,000 miles.

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