A couple of days ago, my brother Billy e-mailed me an article from classic auto racing Motor Sport magazine that detailed the actions in the 1955 Mille Miglia — from the point of view of the winning team. One of the members of the team was a veteran writer, who for the race served as the navigator.
Let me explain.
The “Mille Miglia” — or “thousand mile” — race was run annually in Italy back in mid-century involving a course that went from Brescia, a northern city on the “boot,” down one side to Rome, and then back up the other to finish at the starting point. It was a true road race, using public highways throughout, including railroad crossings, even blazing passages through the middle of small towns. On the day of the race you were well advised to take great care with family outings.
Really amazing stuff, and remember, the event that the story described was held back when Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States. And it was important that the navigator was completely prepared to advise the driver of every twist and turn in the course, oftentimes mere seconds before that sharp right-hand turn came up. After some deadly accidents in 1957 it was all over but the history. These days, the only European race that could be considered comparable — and isn’t, really — is the Le Mans race in the south of France in the spring, perhaps because of its marathon character and the participation of different classes of cars.
In a way, the story took me back, given that the winner was one Stirling Moss, an English driver of particular skill and success. Ten years later I saw Moss in the flesh at Watkins Glen in upstate New York where I witnessed big time racing for the first time. The occasion was the United States Formula 1 Gran Prix, which, over the succeeding years, has been renewed in this country off and on at several different tracks. Last year, the U.S. race, one of 20 F1 races that are held all over the world, was at a new track in Austin. Back at the Glen, Moss was not a driver, but he certainly did hold forth as an easily recognized personality; his hairless head — save eyebrows — was exactly like the pictures I had seen.
Those who did make up the grid were a who’s who of motor racing royalty at the time: among them, Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney and the Scotsman, Jackie Stewart, who continues to be a presence in the sport. Also in the running was Richie Ginther, who drove a white car that was powered via an engine from a then fairly unknown Japanese company called Honda.
But the Mille Miglia of more than a half-century ago is gone and nothing like it remains. The Long Beach Gran Prix, which is scheduled for April 21st, will be run on a temporary course made up of city streets, but it will be a closed circuit for race weekend. And the desert marathons are hardly the same thing. Over the decades since brutal Ferrari’s and Mercedes roared down country roads in Italy at, yes, speeds of 170 miles per hour, no country has countenanced, let alone sponsored, such an endeavor. Which is a shame for an aspiring gear head like me. I can absolutely envision a gaggle of Audi prototypes going at it with Ferrari’s, Porches and ‘Vettes et al as they haul ass up challenging roads from, say, San Diego, through the outskirts of L.A., and on up to the edges of San Francisco.
Or not. But it did happen once, long ago, as all of Italy looked on and cheered.