Photographer David Gooley has been attending Italy's retrospective Mille Miglia religiously for the past 15 years, and I've had the pleasure of accompanying him several times in the last six years. While his photos capture the incredible machinery and visual magnificence of the event, they don't tell us about the men and women who drove this extraordinary race in its heyday between 1927 and 1957. What was it really like to drive those primitive machines for 18 or 20 hours straight, through rain, wind, hot blazing sun, night and day? What type of person would do such a thing?

First though, some basics. As the name implies, this race was always roughly 1,000 miles, from the shortest run in 1940--a nine-lap race round a flat, 103-mile triangle--to the longest, a 1,139-mile loop run in 1948. The Mille is famous for traversing every extreme the Italian roadways offer. From fast, flat autostrada to tortuously curved 3,000-ft mountain passes, through wide-open country or crowded medieval alleys, normally only wide enough for a single car but narrowed further by masses of humanity, the entire Italian populous cheering by the side of the road, reaching out to touch the cars and drivers for good luck. Add extremes of weather and the fact that the original event was truly a speed race--not the sedate time-distance rally of the modern revival, but full-out contests that pushed man and machine to their absolute physical limits--and you have what the British magazine Motor called "the greatest motor race ever held" and many considered the toughest and most dangerous.

And yet there was beauty and that incredible Italian sense of la dolce vita in every race. The route was a figure-eight in its early years and then became a loop that encompassed the beautiful cities of Florence, Bologna, Modena, Siena, sometimes medieval Spoleto or Perugia, Ancona on the Adriatic, Ferrara and sometimes even getting within spitting distance from Venice. The two mountain passes, the Futa and the Raticosa, were always incorporated, and Rome was always the turning point from south back north, and it always started and ended in Brescia.

Why Brescia, many people wonder, as this minor provincial capital had only one automotive factory and no other obvious inducements. It was pure rivalry, the local auto club's attempt to steal some thunder from the newly built Monza race track closer to Milan. Needless to say, they succeeded.

Imagine preparing a car for that 1927 Mille. Nobody had any idea how long it would take to race 1000 miles. How many gas stops? How much oil would be needed? Back in the '20s, oil lost its viscosity every few hundred miles, so it had to be completely changed, not topped off. Many competitors packed overnight bags, not knowing if the race would take them two or three days. At the end of that first event, a 750cc Peugeot took 40 hours to complete the route, and that was without taking any time off to sleep. The winner that first year was the local favorite, a Brescia-built OM, and it took that car over 21 hours to complete the route. One hour and 2 minutes behind him was the best-placing Alfa Romeo, an RL Super Sport, finishing in 7th place in the hands of Arturio Mercanti, using a pseudonym probably to hide from those still angry at him for helping to build Monza.

Alfa's great engineer at the time was Vittorio Jano. Hired on in 1923, his work began to pay off in 1928, and for the next decade his creations won every single Mille Miglia except one. Even after Jano's departure in 1937, Alfas continued to dominate the Roll of Honor of the Mille Miglia until Enzo Ferrari, benefitting from his years of experience directing Alfa's race team, began to claim the prizes for himself.

In its second year, the Mille Miglia was conquered by a supercharged 6C 1500 driven by Giuseppe Campari. By 1928, Campari was already a famous racer, though, like Enzo Ferrari, he wanted to be an opera star. His efforts at singing never amounted to much, but his love of food and wine was well known and gave him a curb weight of 224 lb! Luckily, he was good friends with co-driver Giulio Ramponi, so squeezing into the small 2-seater wasn't too uncomfortable. That year they battled Bugattis to win--in fact, it was none other than the great Tazio Nuvolari at the wheel of a Bugatti 43C, but the French car failed before Rome, leaving Campari's lead unencumbered. In '29, Nuvolari was busy at the Monaco Grand Prix, so Campari's challengers drove OMs and Lancias and other Alfa Romeos--in fact, Alfas made up more than 25% of the entries that year.

Driving one lovely 2000cc Alfa was the Baroness Maria Antonietta Avanzo, one of Italy's earliest woman racers, and she began a tradition as woman drivers and co-drivers became a frequent occurrence at later runnings of the Mille. Back in 1929, though, the winner was again Giuseppe Campari, who drove for over 18 solid hours and beat his prior year's record by 1 hour and 10 minutes.

The year 1930 saw Nuvolari and Achille Varzi battle for the firest time at the Mille Miglia. Both men lived large and ended up legends, though Varzi's tale is darker and less well known. The two were originally friends--in fact, Nuvolari brought Varzi onto his Bianchi motorcycle racing team early in the '20s. They were still friends in 1930, and Varzi had bested Nuvolari several times in 1929 to win the Italian championship. For the Mille, both drove for Jano's works team, in two new 110-hp 1750 Super Sports. Varzi started 10 minutes before Nuvolari so led the race into each checkpoint even though Nuvolari soon had the lead by the clock. When Varzi arrived at Bologna just after midnight, he had time for a quick wash while his car was fueled and checked. Jano was there and told Varzi that he was winning and could slacken his speed. Jano was worried that his two ace drivers would drive so hard they'd destroy their machinery, so when Nuvolari arrived about 10 minutes later, Jano actually locked him up and forced him to rest for more than 5 minutes. It wasn't long enough to lose Nuvolari the lead, as he quickly made up the time. Legend has it that as Nuvolari approached his rival, he switched off his lights and only flashed them on again when he passed him, just 52 seconds before the finish line! This detail has been construed to indicate Nuvolari's disdain for Varzi, a kind of a thumb to the nose as he sealed his victory, but in fact the two cars arrived at almost 7:00 in the morning on a fine spring day; Varzi would've had to be blind and deaf not to have noticed Nuvolari behind him, and the flash of lights was probably just the customary Italian signal--actually kind of a courtesy--signalling his pass.

Still, Varzi was famously furious at the finish--one British magazine called him "inarticulate with rage." First he was mad at the boss, Jano, for telling him he was in the lead when he wasn't and then at Nuvolari for disregarding Jano's instructions to slow down. The men were never friends again, and Varzi left the Alfa team to join Bugatti.

As for Nuvolari, that drive at the 1930 Mille broke all records and surpassed that magical average of 100 kph, making him a national hero. "Il Mantovano Volante" (the Flying Mantuan), "l'Uomo Bolide" (torpedo man) and more simply "Nivola"--which is the hardest to translate--were just some of his nicknames. Nivola is a play on the first part of his name, nuvola, which means clouds, so as one typically wordy Italian put it, "Nivola is an affectionate nickname that makes one think of the fast and incomprehensible clouds blowing through the clear blue heavens." He was small, skinny, with buck teeth and a prominent jaw--not exactly handsome but unmistakably intense behind the wheel of a race car.

Nuvolari drove for Alfa again in 1931. These were the days of the Scuderia Ferrari and Alfa's total domination of the Mille Miglia. Nuvolari led at Rome, but an old saying declares that "he who leads at Rome will not win the race," and this time it happened to Nivola--he crashed and recovered but could do no better than 9th. So in 1931, a non-Alfa won--in fact a non-Italian won, Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz; it was something that wouldn't happen again for 20 years. Averaging only a half-minute slower was the veteran Campari in an older 1750 Super Sport.

For 1932, Enzo coaxed Caracciola over from Mercedes to join Nuvolari in his Scuderia. Varzi was still in a Bugatti, and all three men broke all the records on the first stretch, all exceeding 101 mph. A nasty crash took out Nuvolari, and Caracciola retired with a cracked chassis. But even so, Alfas filled the top ten (except one 8th-place Lancia) and took 17 of the top 20 places.

The next year, 1933, even though the financial crisis reduced Alfa's participation to just the Scuderia Ferrari and some privateers, Alfas filled the entire top ten, with Nuvolari cruising to victory in his 8C 2300.

In 1934, the Nuvolari-Varzi battle reached epic proportions. It was the first Mille to run in heavy rain, so for the first time tires became a critical factor. Nuvolari's 2300 rode on hard Dunlops, while Varzi's 2600 got special Pirelli rain tires at just the right time. The two men were neck-and-neck throughout the race, with the gap between them down to 40 sec. by the time they reached Ancona on the Adriatic coast. A little further north at the Imola control, Ferrari was waiting for Varzi with rain tires--he had called ahead and confirmed that the rain was even worse further north. Varzi protested but, frantic about losing more time to Nuvolari, threw up his hands and said, "Do what you like!" to Ferrari. Those tires made such a difference, as the rain got heavier and heavier, that Varzi was able to stretch his lead over Nuvolari to 9 min. Louis Chiron, a magnificent driver and one of the founders of the Monaco GP, was over an hour behind Nuvolari in third place.

Soon after that, Varzi left Ferrari to join Auto Union, seduced not just by the powerful German machines but by the astoundingly beautiful blonde wife of Auto Union racer Paul Pietsch. Ilse Pietsch stole Achille's heart and then his soul, introducing him to morphine after a controversial win at the 1936 Tripoli Grand Prix. He kicked the morphine two years later, but by then his career was in tatters. He returned to racing after the war, driving Alfas as a privateer, and chalked up a few impressive victories before he died behind the wheel of an Alfa 158 in 1948.

Nuvolari's story goes on, of course, but for a short while the Mille Miglia spotlight shifted onto a lesser known driver named Carlo Pintacuda. He had the good fortune to pilot the Alfa Tipo B P3 in the 1935 Mille. History generally considers Pintacuda a lesser driver, and in fact the main reason he got that fabulous car is he was the only Scuderia Ferrari driver small enough to fit into the P3's driver's seat--the monoposto had been "converted" into a two-seater to meet the Mille's rules. Pintacuda's co-driver was chosen because he was even smaller! Still, Pintacuda went on to win both the 1935 and the 1937 Milles. In '36, Pintacuda had a new Tipo 8C 2900A, and the other top Alfa drivers included the soon-to-be great Giuseppe Farina and veteran Marquis Antonio Brivio. Brivio and Farina finished that race one and two with only 32 sec. between them, but Pintacuda would've been right up with them if his carburetor hadn't failed.

In 1937, Pintacuda took his second Mille Miglia win in the Alfa 2900B, in another heavy downpour and without any lights. In order to see, he followed closely behind his teammate Farina, who was 20 min. back in the standings. The heavy rain meant that overall speeds were slow--in fact, '36 was the first year that the previous year's average speed record was not broken.

The last great driver to win two Mille Miglias for Alfa was Clemente Biondetti. He was different from your average race car driver of the day. Most European drivers were aristocrats, or at least well-to-do--Achille Varzi was from a wealthy merchant family, Pintacuda had an inheritance to spend, and though Nuvolari was self-made, he was wealthy enough by age 30 to buy himself a pair of Grand Prix Bugattis. Biondetti, on the other hand, was raised poor and had to struggle to keep himself in rides. He was stubborn and had the reputation of being a bit of a whiner. His performance on circuits was lackluster, but his ability on tough endurance events like the Mille Migla became legendary--in fact, he won more Mille Miglias than any other driver. Biondetti brought home Alfa Romeo's last two Mille wins, first in 1938 in the 8C-308 2900B and again almost a decade later, after the war.

Scuderia Ferrari morphed into Alfa Corse in 1938, and the team entered three Tipo 8C 2900Bs and one special 2900C for Biondetti. This 295-hp machine was the clear favorite for the win, though Pintacuda gave him a great run as both men beat all previous records. The two leaders were well into celebrating when they heard that, way back in the pack, a little Lancia Aprilia had bounced off a level crossing into the crowd, injuring two dozen and killing 10, of which seven were children. Even Mussolini's government couldn't suppress the news and so canceled the race for 1939. Mussolini revived it as the Brescia Grand Prix for 1940, but as mentioned before, that event was nothing like the real Mille. The most interesting thing about this year's race on three very long straightaways was Enzo Ferrari's new car--called Auto Avio as he wasn't allowed to use the name Ferrari--and the presence of some SS-backed BMW 328s. The year-old Alfa 6c 2500Bs were too heavy to beat the Germans, though they gave them a good run; the finish went BMW-Alfa-BMW-Alfa.

Then came the war.

At the first postwar Mille Miglia in 1947, Alfa privateers made a brave showing while the company was still digging out of the rubble. Clemente Biondetti drove his modified nine-year-old 2900B Coupe. His main competition was none other than Nuvolari, now suffering serious lung damage from years of inhaling exhaust fumes, but perhaps more debilitating was his grief over the death of both his sons. Nivola was coaxed out of his Lake Garda retreat by Piero Dusio to drive the new Cisitalia spider. The fact that a deluge practically drowned the ailing Nuvolari before the finish didn't diminish Biondo's win, even though it did add a gloss to the Flying Mantuan's already stellar reputation.

For '48 and '49, Alfa entered a few specially prepared Freccia d'Oros--Golden Arrows--but even they couldn't catch up to Biondetti, now driving Ferraris. In 1950, Alfa's racing effort had been reinvigorated by the addition of the great Juan Manuel Fangio, but his wins at the Grands Prix weren't duplicated at the Mille Miglia. Still, he took third place in a modified Freccia d'Oro in 1950, ahead of 372 others and only behind two Ferraris. In the lead Ferrari was Giannino Marzotto, one of four racing brothers. To give you an idea of the protective clothing worn in 1950, picture Giannino: He wore a beautifully tailored double-breasted suit, complete with silk tie and waistcoat, and hair oil as his only head protection. As for Fangio, his co-driver that year was Alfa's chief works testdriver, Zanardi, who shouted directions at Fangio from his notebook. Perhaps they would've finished higher in the standings if Zanardi hadn't been nearly knocked out early in the race when he banged his head on the roof of the car when Fangio hit a gully at high speed.

Interestingly, the most powerful car in the race that year was a 12-year-old Alfa Romeo, the 4500cc 12-cylinder Tipo 412. It was driven by Felice Bonetto, a native Brescian with the nickname "The Pirate." Bonetto passed Fangio early on but then was out with mechanical problems. He came back with that same car in 1951 and finished 6th--highest of the Alfas and the only Alfa in the top ten. Fangio, now reigning surpreme in Formula One--this Argentine-born Italian was a five-time world champion--didn't drive the Mille in '51, but he was back for 1952, this time in a Touring-bodied 1900 Sprint Coupe. Bad luck kept him down in 22nd place, though two other 1900 Sprint Coupes finished 17th and 18th that year.

The Alfa factory finally put a real effort into the Mille Miglia in 1953, fielding Fangio in the new 6C 3000 CM, a 260-hp monster that led for 8/10 of the race, getting passed by a Ferrari 340MM just before the finish. In the Touring class, all top-ten finishers were in Alfa Romeo 1900 Tis, and there was an interesting race within the race for Alfa Romeo police cars.

The 1900TIs dominated in '54 and '55, the fastest finishing 8th overall and 19th overall, respectively. It was the Giuliettas' turn in 1956; the fastest Sprint Veloce finished 11th overall, and in the final race of 1957, Giuliettas finished 1st through 22nd in the GT 1300 class. The fastest Giulietta finished fairly far down in 20th overall that year, though if you consider the 298 starters, 20th is pretty damn good. Through the 1950s, a wide variety of modified Alfa Romeos were raced by privateers. Some of the most successful were the Conrero Alfas, tweaked by Turin engine tuner Virgilio Conrero.

Alas, increasingly serious accidents had become the norm during the 1950s; driver fatalities had become all too common. So when Alfonso de Portago crashed his Ferrari into the crowd in 1957, killing 10 spectators and injuring many more, everyone was in shock but no one was particularly surprised. The real wonder is that more spectators had not been killed or injured every year! But the memory of the 1955 Le Mans disaster was still fresh in the world's memory, so the Mille Miglia had to end.

And yet it lives on today. It's gone off for 75 years and 39 runnings--that's 24 original and 15 retrospective--and the Mille Miglia continues to be one of the greatest events in the world. Maybe not the greatest race--as already mentioned, it's now a time-distance rally--but certainly the most impressive meeting of classic racing and touring machinery, three days of national pandemonium and classic car mania, in one of the world's most beautiful and hospitable countries. A must-see for Italian car fans, and as you all know by now, Alfa Romeo fans in particular.

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