2011 Mille Migle

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One am. Rome. After fifteen hours of driving. Standing next to the dessert table in a bleak business hotel. An Austrian in driving nomex suit joins me. We are so tired we have a conversation about the apple tarte, he in German. Me, in English. Neither of us have a clue what the other is saying. We laugh uproariously and part, in total agreement. We are that tired.

Leaving the garage, I pass a billboard, featuring a naked lady with an engaging smile. The caption reads Sex Education Class. She is holding a red rubber duckie.

No, I still haven’t a clue.

Sixteen hours later I meet the drivers of a stunning Aston Martin DB3 in a gas station near Modena. We are lost. The route book shows a road junction which has vanished. We are too exhausted to care. We all quit. Later, at a noisy party for the Jaguar Team, we learn that despite the mountain of penalty points, we have finished ahead of teams which reached Brescia and the finish line. Some cars were still on the road well after midnight.

The Mille was first run in 1927, a flat out road race around Italy, beginning and ending in Brescia, near Milan. Sir Stirling Moss still holds the record, around twelve hours, in a Mercedes 300SLR. In 1957, a series of catastrophic accidents lead to denunciation by the Pope, an important dude in these parts, and the race was stopped. In 1979 the Mille was restarted as a timed rally, over the same open roads but now over two days. Even the fastest drivers only get a few hours sleep. 350 cars start.

Why? Well, the rally route is intensively controlled by police and as a practical matter, drivers go as fast as they can. Traffic lights are advisory and passing occurs wherever possible. Very few Italians complain. The crowds everywhere are huge and there are so many photos taken that you can get disoriented from the flashes. Invitations are very hard to get and few Americans, only six teams this year, get the nod.

The route runs from medaevil alleys to Alpine passes, through the mountain fastnes of San Merino to the streets of Rome. The cars were presented to thirty thousand fans before the Castell San Angelo and then driven around central Rome, from the Vatican to the Coliseum, in closed streets. Yes, closed main roads in Rome at night. An inconceivable sight, except for the Mille. Also, unforgettable.

Negatives? Many, apart from exhaustion. Italians adore the Mille. Anyone with a classic car, a Ferrari of any age, or juvenile aspirations tries desperately to get into the act. The police weed them out but some bozo trying to cram a Ferrari into a space big enough for a scooter, maybe, at 80mph, is a little too exciting. Most of the drivers are high quality but the Mille takes any car which ran in the original race. That includes tiny makes, 2CVs, for instance, that once had their own class. Fine, but not if they are blocking the road up the Futa Pass.

At first glance, the Mille seems to be pure chaos. Most of this is inadvertent. Italians know what to expect. We don’t. Where the Mille fails is that it doesn’t explain and it doesn’t really care. The meal schedule is handed out but it turns out to be a draft and it gives no details. Importantstuff, like, addreses. We survive on panini and endless doppio espressos.

We drive a 1957 Jaguar Mark VIIM. Sold first in Melbourne , hence her name, Barbie, she lived for 53 years under Outback sun. Thus, the worn, scarred paint is irreplaceable, “patina”, much appreciated. But an English firm, JD Classics, does a complete mechanical renovation (strictly within the limits of 1957 engineering) and she runs without hesitation for well over a thousand miles, over six thousand foot passes and for flat-out stretches in Lombardy. Really remarkable work.