Il Grand Tour Italia
June 27, 2014
In May, I was able to do something many dream about, but few get the opportunity to actually live it. I raced the Mille Miglia in Italy. Like most times when one tackles a new challenge or goes after a dream, I had a clear expectation about how the race would go. That expectation was completely wrong.
For those of you who don’t know, the Mille Miglia means 1000 miles in Italian. It is an open-road, endurance race from Brescia, Italy, all the way down to Rome and back up over the course of four days. This year’s race included 451 cars and 902 drivers. I brought my best friend Jim along to race with me because you need someone to help with such a long drive.
The original race was a very serious, Forumula One-like auto race driven by the best professional race drivers at the time, such as Stirling Moss. Because there were so many deaths along the treacherous route, Italy stopped the race in 1957. The current race is a re-enactment of the original race, but less professional. Today’s drivers are more cautious and don’t drive nearly as fast. Money is no longer a prize and drivers join just for the fun of the experience, making the driving safer and less intense.
The rules of the race require that the cars in the race must be from the original race years between 1927 and 1957. To meet this requirement, I had to go to Italy months in advance and find a car that qualified for the race. I chose a 1952 Fiat 8V Berlinetta.
The opening day of the race is an all-day celebration in the town of Brescia. At 6:00 in the evening, the race begins and the first car crosses the starting line. Each car must cross in order, so car #1 must be followed by car #2, and so on. I was in car #225, and Jay Leno was #211 driving a 1951 Jaguar. It was on!
When we cross the start line, the cars are double-check and confirmed to be the car registered for the race and in proper working condition. Of course, my Fiat began stalling as we got in the line-up. I called our mechanic who came running with his team through the crowd. Eventually, the line moved ahead and we were now out of order. The mechanics continued to work feverishly to try and get us started. Eventually, I had to jump out and push the car while they continued to work. We caught up (thanks to my many marathons) and were able to scoot back into line just in time. The mechanic was screaming for me to jump in the car and start the engine just as we were coming up to the start line. I jumped in and the car started just as we crossed. It was a close call!
That was just the beginning. Our car continued to stall and experience problems the whole evening. Only in Italy would they start a race at night. We putted into our first destination in Padova at 3am, just as the car finally died. Without an officially approved working car, Jim and I were pretty much disqualified and out of the race. I was actually ok with that. The race was much tougher than I ever imagined. We were going very fast on small roads through small villages as well as big towns like Padova and Bologna with people standing on the side of the road cheering us on like the Tour de France. The closeness of the people was invigorating, but also scary. Driving a car that is very old and has no power steering or power brakes while other cars of equal caliber pass along the side is a very stressful experience. I didn’t hear of anyone getting hurt, but we did see multiple accidents even within the first few hours of the race. Brakes went out, steering went out. These old cars are very charming and very dangerous.
As it turns out, the stress was too much for one team to take. They quit in Verona, about 2 ½ hours into the first leg of the race. They turned in their car, a 1954 Fiat 1100 Berlinetta. That was a lucky break for us because we were able to take over their car and continue the race. I believe we were the first team in history to start with one car and continue on with another car. The rigid rules and requirements for the cars to be qualified and approved ahead of the race usually preclude a replacement car. But we got lucky.
We continued on to Rome. The next two days were the longest legs of the race. Each day, we were in the car for 12-14 hours. Padova to Rome and then Rome to Bologna. While the race was exhausting, the people of Italy gave us so much energy. More than energy, they gave us coffee and food. People would run along the side of the car and hand us souvenirs, gifts, food and water. When we stopped for breaks, we would try to down espressos to keep us going, but the café owners would say, “Just take the cup. It’s for you!” People even asked for our autographs. I felt like I was a celebrity, traveling with my pal Jay Leno through the Italian countryside. While these two days were the longest part of the race, they were also the most fun.
We finished the race, safe and sound in our replacement car. It was an exhilarating experience. But the best part by far was the people of Italy who were so warm, welcoming and supportive. Even having Jay Leno in the race was not as thrilling as meeting the people in small towns throughout Italy.
I may not ever do the race again, but it was a thrill to do it just once. For sure, it was an experience I will never forget. Thank you to my buddy Jim for joining me in the adventure, to my mechanics for keeping us running and finding a history-making solution when our car broke down, and to all the people who kept us going with their waves and smiles. Grazie Italia!
Here’s a quick video of the start: