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Mille Miglia
by Dennis David

"In my opinion, the Mille Miglia was an epoch-making event, which told a wonderful story. The Miglia created our cars and the Italian automobile industry. The Mille Miglia permitted the birth of GT, or grand touring cars, which are now sold all over the world. The Mille Miglia proved that by racing over open roads for 1,000 miles, there were great technical lessons to be learned by the petrol and oil companies and by brake, clutch, transmission, electrical and lighting component manufacturers, fully justifying the old adage that motor racing improves the breed." ...Enzo Ferrari

Beginning in 1927, twenty-four Mille Miglias were run before a tragic accident in 1957, in which the marchese de Portago was killed, caused the race to be banned.

The story of the Mille Miglia began in 1921 when the Auto Club di Brescia organized the first Italian Grand Prix. Seeing the success of this race the Automobile Club of Milan built the Autodromo Nazionale Monza and had the 1922 Italian Grand Prix held on their new course. This outraged the people of Brescia but it was not until 1926 when Aymo Maggi conceived the idea of a road race for sports cars that they were able to exact some measure of revenge. This race would run over a 1000-mile course of closed public roads traveled from Brescia to Rome and back again. In 1927 with the help influential friends, Aymo Maggi was able to convince the fascist government to allow the race. At 9:00 PM in Brescia the cars were flagged off at one-minute intervals with the smaller, slower cars leaving first. The numbers on the cars represented their starting times. What lay ahead of the drivers was 1000 miles of Italian road good bad and indifferent. The strategy involved was simple, drive as fast as you can for as long you can, for this was a race against the clock. If you were lucky you would finish among the leaders, if not you might finish among the rocks. Along the way spectators gathered by the score to cheer their favorites on, sometimes nearly inches from the speeding cars. Aymo Maggi led off the inaugural race but was soon passed by the Alfa Romeo of Count Brilli/Peri. Leading the race into Rome they began to be pressured by the OM of Minoia-Morandi. Feeling the pressure mounting the Brilli-Peri team overextended their Alfa leaving the checkpoint at Spoleto and was out of the race. The first race ended in a brilliant one-two-three for the Brescia based OM firm. The popularity of the event helped to spur new road construction. For 1928 the entry list included three Type 35B Bugattis, including one driven by Nuvolari. After setting the early pace the strain became too much for the French cars and one by one they dropped back. Into the lead moved the Alfa of Campari-Ramponi who lead the OM of Mazotti-Rosa across the finish line. The next year saw a repeat performance by the defending champions. Because of the difficulty of the course it was assumed that you needed to race it at least four times to know it well.

The Italian drivers dominated through the years with some notable exceptions. The Wall Street crash of 1929 and subsequent depression forced Mercedes to temporarily abandon racing. Rudolf Caracciola could not imagine his career ending just as he was gaining  prominence he was forced to contest the Mille Miglia as a private entrant. Mercedes would provide transportation and mechanical support in exchange for fifty percent of the prize money. For the race, their support team would consist of three men, a woman and a car. The car was a SSKL, the L for leicht (light) that was specially built. Against them was the Alfa Romeo team, which had over 90 mechanics. Alfred Neubauer, the team manager would remark that he felt like "Napoleon before the Battle of Waterloo", but even Napoleon never had to face such long odds. Neubauer was able to convince two other mechanics to join them for the race but he would still be one man short for the minimum four refueling depots. He finally decided that the mechanic manning the first stop would have to race cross-country to the third site during the race. Against these four stops Alfa Romeo would have 17 fuel and repair depots spread along the course. Short - handed Caracciola would have to drive the entire race while a mechanic would be his passenger. After ten hours of driving and various minor problems they were in fourth place but the strain of the race was taking its toll on Caracciola. Exhausted he told his passenger that he felt that he must stop rather than risk someone else's life. Wilhelm Sebastian would here none of this. Hearing these brave words gave Caracciola new strength and he began to drive like a man possessed. Fritz Kumpf, the mechanic who's job it was to drive cross-country just arrived at the last stop before the white Mercedes. The morning came but the circuit was covered with a thick mist. Just ahead of Caracciola were the three leading Alfas driving three abreast. Each car had its headlights on and their combined resources helped light the way. Caracciola closed up behind the unaware drivers and when they came up to a sharp bend two of the cars spun off the road. Caracciola, able to see the danger, stepped on the accelerator and shot past the last startled Alfa Romeo. He was now in the lead. The last pit stop came and went.

Twenty miles from the finish line they suffered a puncture. Jumping out of the car before he had even stopped they were able to replace the tire before any other car could overtake them. At 7:22 A.M. the lone Mercedes crossed the finish line and miraculously Caracciola was able to fight the long odds and claim the first victory for a foreigner in the Mille Miglia. He would be the last foreigner to claim victory until 1955.

The 1939 race was marred by the first major accident involving spectators. In Bologna, a Lancia went out of control and killed ten persons including seven children. In the face of tremendous public outcry over this tragedy the race was banned the next year. Aymo Maggi was able to get the governments permission to run a greatly reduced race over a 104-mile circuit in 1940. This race was called  the Gran Premio di Brescia and would last nine laps. The event was won by a BMW driven by the German duo, von Hanstein/Baumer.

After the war the race was resumed in 1947 and for the next three years was won by Biondetti with various co-drivers.

In 1953 the great Tazio Nuvolari had died and the 1954 race route was modified to pass through his native Mantua. In remembrance of the greatest racing driver of them all the thundering echo of race cars would be heard in his hometown.

In 1955 it was Mercedes again that would ruin the party. Alfred Neubauer was there with a team of Juan-Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, Hans Herman and Stirling Moss. Moss would be partnered by the motoring journalist Denis Jenkinson. Together they developed a plan to map the entire circuit and record the details on an 18-foot roll of paper. This was enclosed in a roller device that would warn the driver not just of obstacles but also opportunities where they may gain an advantage such as a straight road after a blind brow. All of the difficult corners were recorded and given grades that included saucy ones, dodgy ones and very dangerous ones. Added to this were a set of hand signals from Jenkinson the navigator and Moss the driver.

Moss impressed upon Jenkinson the importance in not making any recording errors, to which Jenkinson replied that he need not worry, as any accident Moss might have would involve him as well.  Still Moss wondered if he would trust his friend and take a blind brow at 170mph in the race. He confided in Jenkinson that he might back off to 160mph, though the reduction of 10mph would have little effect if they were to crash it made Moss feel better psychologically.

The tradition of Mille Miglia told that "he who leads at Rome is never first home". All was going well except for the normal bits of excitement here and there that are even now, part of the "fun" of driving on Italian roads. All that changed when they came upon some melted asphalt and almost met their end against a concrete wall. Only Moss' fantastic skill saved them. Finally they reached the finish line back at Brescia and had to wait for Taruffi to finish before they could be sure of their victory. Piero Taruffi, a highly skilled driver and engineer had raced in twelve Mille Miglias without a victory. News came that Taruffi had dropped out with a broken oil pipe and the victory was theirs. Their time was 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds which amounted to an average speed that was almost 10 mph faster that the previous course record. 

Moss returned to the Mille Miglia in 1957, again teamed with Jenkinson. This time they would drive a 400 bhp Maserati that had a top speed of over 200 mph! Not to be out done, Ferrari produced a model with almost 450 bhp to be driven by Collins and Taruffi. The winner surly must come from one of these three cars. They would be last to leave Brescia. Seven miles out Moss suffered a broken brake pedal and his race was done. The race developed into a duel between Collins and Taruffi with Collins holding a slight advantage. By the half way point Collins was able to extend his lead ... until his differential gave out. Taruffi cheered on by his countrymen assumed the lead and claimed his first victory in thirteen attempts. Sadly after the death of Alfonso de Portago, his co-driver and ten spectators during the race, the famous Mille Miglia was abandoned. Recently the race has been recreated as a vintage car race but the days of flat out racing along the Italian countryside are over.


Links:
Mille Miglia by Dennis David
TF Race stats
Targa Florio by  D. David



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