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Mille Miglia: The Race With The Most Beautiful (Back)Stage in the World

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An elegant place for an elegant car, the 1951 Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 SS Villa DEste.

[Editor’s Note: Matteo Giacon, italianiron to the commentariat, recently took in this year’s edition of the Mille Miglia and came back with plenty of photos to share with us. Thanks, Matteo!]

It’s mid May, it’s warm again, after long months of unusually dreadful weather for Italy, and Brescia was again ready to host its world renowned glamour fest, the Mille Miglia. This year marks 90 years since the first edition started on dusty 1927 Italian roads for a ride soon to become the talk of the town (and of course, the talk of all the world’s automotive scene). The Mille Miglia is one of those races which the stuff of legends are made of, and there is no problem in omitting to mention the plethora of cars and racers which were seen in and out Brescia during the ’27-’57 no-holds-barred original competition: Every self-respected petrolhead has his (or her) degree of knowledge about the race, and everybody has his (or her) beloved cars, pilots, events connected with the Red Arrow (Freccia Rossa in Italian) race.

The same can apply to the modern competition, (hey, that’s 40 years since the mythical first Mille Miglia created for historical cars, and 31 since the race’s reawakening became a yearly affair), and here too glamour factor has increasingly became as important as the kind of cars one can expect to admire. But one more intriguing detail is the passion offered by Brescia and its inhabitants: I suspect that most of them literally live for the race, also those apparently not overtly interested in old motors, smelly exhausts and raucous, sonorous engines. Also those usually not completely aware of a ’53 Ferrari’s beauty, or those not knowing what kind of differences can be between a ’29 Alfa 1750, a Blower Bentley or a ’54 Gullwing SL, in sum also those not-in-the-know become totally captured by the fascinating allure of the competition. So, I always had a bit of envy since I was a boy for Brescia’s people, for they had a veritable treasure chest at hand just a few steps outside their doors. And while a most important portion of this blessed country is visited by the Mille Miglia, what with some of the most important cities and most scenic landscape of Northern and Central Italy being crossed by the Freccia Rossa thriving fleet, Brescia offers maybe its most charming aspect to a tourist during the days of the race, especially those immediately before the start and, most important of them all, the start day: In our case, May 18th 2017, with the unusual 2:30 p.m. hour to press the gas pedal. But what astounded me once again wasn’t the glamour factor, nor the city’s stupendous vitality, nor the joyous foreign voices oozing around streets, boulevards, squares and the likes: No, it was the relative easiness one has to endure to be part of this show.

While being part of the racing itself is no small feat, and it can easily be considered as sort of acme for whoever desires to participate in racing with a beloved classic jewel, being part of the show is rather easy: No admittance tickets, no insormountable timetables nor logistical difficulties (well, apart from arriving in the Italian locales touched by the competition), and also costs can be well within most pockets. As an example I can cite my own experience: After some years of absence, I felt obliged to go to Brescia to take a very deep look at the cars and at the whole backgrounds, so I started early Thursday morning, and after not even 100 miles of autostrada I could park at a stone’s throw from the starting point (my usual parking lot is alongside Viale Rebuffone, a nice parallel road to the main racing start and finish, Viale Venezia). The cost? A reasonable 25 euros, divided in gas and turnpike ticket. Park is free, all day long, and arriving early in the morning, this alone can be the most enviable fact. But also food prices can be equally sound, without resorting to the exclusiveness of some renowned restaurant: A small place conveniently located just 100 feet from the aforementioned Viale Venezia provided good sandwiches and chips, coffee and drink for only about 10 euros. Oh, and the joy of almost touching a gazillion of the rarest and most sought after thoroughbreds of the worldwide motordom is undisputedly – and literally – priceless. There were tens of thousands of other aficionados with my same thoughts, for in downtown Brescia, where cars concentrated during Wednesday and Thursday morning check-ins, there was precious few space left for careless and free movement, so many people flocking around the cars (and often, taking a look more at the various VIPs around and into them). But with some careful knowledge, there were many locations almost devoid of fans and still full of cars, and equally remarkable, the same cars were usually available for a photo, or a whole series of them, just like in your average normal classic car show. But this is no average car show. Difficult to find something “average” about a race where there are more Gullwing Mercedeses scattered alongside downtown streets than Fiat Pandas. Not to mention Prancing Horses cars, or prewar Alfas, or raucous Porsches not exactly seen on every day office trips.

Maybe, the most incredible thing happens when the cars begin to concentrate just before the starting: They are literally scattered – yeah, “scattered” is the best word here – in indifferent style along the road leading to the main course, and they are equally available to sightseekers, onlookers, simple curious ones and true fans. And naturally, if all these fans or “tourists” are clever with a pocket photo camera or a smartphone, good for them! No driver literally lamented about the spectators’ relative closeness to their machines: This is part of the game, and while it can be achieved along most portions of the course, it is in Brescia that everybody can literally be part of the game. Taking a pic of your favorite is the easiest thing to do, provided you are patient enough to wait for the three-hour-plus parade (this year, something like 460 officially admitted cars and something like 20 “pre-racing” crews); otherwise, take a good pair of shoes and set you for a cavalcade along the waiting drivers, co-pilots and their respective mounts. They are there to be seen, and believe it or not, seeing some car of enormous value (both from a historical as well as monetary perspective) parked in a not-so-dignified manner along an almost anonymous Italian road, is still something magical. And maybe, while we are mostly accustomed to the idea of the Mille Miglia as the Great Landscapes Race, I am more and more convinced that it is this mix between exceptional vehicles and “normal” settings that really gives flavor to the whole event. Nothing too much exclusive for a real fan. Nothing too boring for a real connoisseur either. The perfect blending of the best of the two worlds, common-day normality and jet-set exceptionalism. And I love every drop of it.

As anticipated, Brescia was likely the best place where one can take good glimpses of the whole Mille Miglia phenomenon, but this year, courtesy of the four parts the race was divided in, there were plenty of opportunities for those desiring a deeper look at the various Italian beauties the Mille Miglia can cross along its path. Thursday’s stage was between Brescia and my hometown, Padua – so, if I wanted to save time and money, I could always have come in Prato Della Valle, sitting and waiting for the cars and the stars; but I wanted more, hence the trip to Brescia; Friday’s stage was between Padua and Rome, Saturday’s was between Rome and Parma, with the final Sunday leg finishing again in Brescia, where it all began. Cities and towns like Desenzano, Sirmione, Verona, Vicenza, Asolo, Ferrara, Ravenna, San Marino, Urbino, Gubbio, Perugia, Rieti, Viterbo, Siena, Pistoia, Modena, Reggio, Cremona, Mantova, Guidizzolo, Rovato were all parts of the course’s path, with all the magic, the mystical and the phantasmagorical charm those places can give.

As usual, for those interested in people as well as cars, plenty of VIPs, true or so-called ones, were part of the Mille Miglia: Joe Bastianich, Arturo Merzario, Toto Wolff, Italian actress Anna Kanakis, Jodie Kidd, Jen Paul Jarier, Jochen Mass, Adrian Sutil and John Watson just to name a few. And, obviously, some of the most renowned names in the historic race world. This year, the overall winners were, just like in 2016, the Brescia-based Vesco and Guerini, aboard an Alfa 6C 1750 Gran Sport. Second overall, the Vicenza couple of Patron and Casale, driving an OM 665 Sport Superba 2000; third overall, another seasoned winning-circle couple, husband-and-wife Mozzi and Biacca, aboard another Alfa, a 6C 1500 Zagato. Fourth overall another well-known team, the Argentinians Tonology and Berisso. All in all, an exceptional edition, easily one of the best considering the cars’ qualities and the organizers’ efforts. And for once, the weather was decent, at least while the starting was taking place. I distinctly remember some old editions of yore where the word “deluge” was more apt. Nice also to remember that there were still the nice accompanying tributes: the now classic “Ferrari Tribute”, and the “Mercedes Benz Mille Miglia Challenge.” All in all, a veritable show for connoisseurs, where the admittance was easier than one could expect… provided one could be happy to be a spectator, of course.

But now, stop with my words, let the photos speak for themselves. They are aplenty, and I hope your author also had a hand quite fit for the exceptional subjects visible in them. The Cars Are The Stars. You are maybe thinking I forget something, and you are probably right: I forgot to mention what other kind of cars were available this year for the Red Arrow race. Gullwings, Prewar Alfas and early Fifties Ferraris are almost taken-for-granted commodities for the Freccia Rossa.

In any case, 300 SLs still were able to catch my attention, for I can safely assume, considering what I saw, that this was the year of the Gullwings: I spotted no less than fifteen of them. Aside from them, the usual invasion of Bugattis, including a rare postwar beast, a great deal of Cisitalias, and, most intriguing, a higher than usual number of closed Ferraris: 250 Europa and GT Boano, like I had never seen before. Oh, and let’s not forget almost every other legendary firm which furnished cars for the real-deal event in the glorious years until 1957 (and the one-year only 1958 edition, done with a far different formula than previous ones). Alfas, Lancias, OMs, Fiats, Oscas, Masers, Siatas, Stangues, Talbot Lagos, Porsches, ACs – yes, a sizable number of them too – Nash Healeys in both first and second edition, Austin Healeys, Healeys, Alvis, even a Sunbeam Rapier and a Rover sedan. Of course, Bentleys a go-go, Astons, Lagondas, Rileys, MGs, some precious Pahnards, Citroens, Renaults. And, very important, a nice fleet of BMWs, and an Isabella too. Well, and the good old iron of US of A? I will not anticipate anything, I will call them “surprises,” for there were some of them, and it is always a surprise to know that many decades ago, sister cars to those seen today really were driven on the twisty and dusty original Mille Miglia roads. Who could imagine so immensely and mighty machines could find a place in the Mille Miglia? Yet they are here, because they were there.

And so, I hope photos can also bring some of the magic I met while walking in downtown Brescia, in a nice sunny Thursday of mid May, one of the very first hot and sunny days so linked with traditional Italian weather, finally being a reality just in the most fitting moment: When also the sun must take a glimpse at what is lurking below, across the busy streets, squares and alleys of a city literally crazy for a historic car race.