Sandy on Assignment: At the start... of the Mille Miglia

June 19, 2014 Comments (4)

By Sandy Cotterman, Motorsports Enthusiast

The 2014 Mille Miglia winners at the start to reclaim their 2011 title, Giordano Mozzi and Stefania Biacca driving an original Mille Miglia car, the 1928 Lancia Lambda tipo 221 spider Ca.Sa.Ro.

The 2014 Mille Miglia winners at the start to reclaim their 2011 title, Giordano Mozzi and Stefania Biacca driving an original Mille Miglia car, the 1928 Lancia Lambda tipo 221 spider Ca.Sa.Ro.

Who wouldn’t want to go to Italy… to watch the start of the Mille Miglia? When the opportunity presented itself to rendezvous with my daughter, I was thrilled with the timing. I was about to repeat last year’s adventure concept… motorsports bookends... the Mille Miglia on one end and Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este on the other.

Today’s Mille Miglia is on many a bucket list. As a spectator verses entrant, there are huge differences in approaching this event, as one would expect. All the same, it was still exciting and a thrill to watch the field of this year’s 435 official entries go through the scrutineering and start day fanfare, before they actually took off on their four day adventure, the third weekend in May.

Brescia’s Piazza della Vittoria maintains its historical significance to the Mille Miglia.

Brescia’s Piazza della Vittoria maintains its historical significance to the Mille Miglia.

It all starts in Brescia, about an hours drive east of Milan, Malpensa being the airport of choice. Everyone discouraged me from renting a car in Italy, including my native Italian friends. Forget it! I had a blast driving the narrow hilltop roads and autostrade, during our two-week stay.

Brescia has a rich motorsports history starting at the beginning of the 19th century, as a hub for auto manufacturing and its Brescia Motoring Week and Florio Cup. Originally, hometown to the first Grand Prix of Italy in 1921, it was that event‘s organizer who pulled the rug out from under Brescia, quickly moving the event the very next year to a newly built circuit in Monza, establishing the Italian Grand Prix, as we know it today. The betrayal is what ignited the imagination of a small group of young sportsmen referred to in the history books as the Four Musketeers, Giovanni Canestrini, Aymo Maggi, Franco Mazzotti and Renzo Castagneto, to put together the Mille Miglia, in less than three months time.

Overlooking scrutineering at the Fiera di Brescia.

Overlooking scrutineering at the Fiera di Brescia.

First, for those of you who want to check this off your bucket list, here are a few travel tips. Arrive Wednesday morning, before Thursday’s start, and head directly to scrutineering at the Brixia Expo-Fiera di Brescia, a large exhibition venue, on the outskirts of Brescia. Bring, and I emphasize, bring your GPS from home, downloading Italy’s roads beforehand. A GPS is invaluable and costly, if you rent it at the airport, as we did. We walked right into the Expo and there before us were many of the classic and historic cars, plus a section of newer cars, all going through the paces of registration and technical inspection. I found it fascinating, a sort of history lesson, as all the cars were examples of those raced during the span of the event from 1927-1957.

A walk back in time, during registration and tech checks.

A walk back in time, during registration and tech checks.

Moving through scrutineering.

Moving through scrutineering.

This year’s official registration list noted 71 cars that had participated in the original races. Sixty four different marques would be arriving from 34 countries around the world, with the most, 113, from Italy. From the total 435 teams, 62 were composed of members of the same family, father and sons mostly. Thirteen female teams were listed, in addition to quite a few husband and wife teams counted in the family total.

Jay Leno and Ian Cullum at the start in a 1951 XK120 Sports Ecurie Ecosse

Jay Leno and Ian Callum at the start in a 1951 XK120 Sports “Ecurie Ecosse”.

We got to meet and talk with a few owners; otherwise most of the cars were unattended. This was the best opportunity to take time and look over the cars without competing crowds. Outside the hall, Jaguar Heritage Racing with their ten celebrated 1950s models and celebrity drivers were milling around. Jay Leno, who commented that he favors the XK120 era and his co-driver, Ian Callum, Jaguar’s design director, would drive one of the Ecurie Ecosse race cars. Andy Wallace, ex-Jaguar Le Mans winner, whom I cheered on at Goodwood last fall, was there to drive a famed 1952 C-type. The celebrity list of Jaguar drivers was impressive.

This first early afternoon, at the Expo, was also an excellent time to make souvenir purchases, without crowds. At this point, I will mention that the Mille Miglia, like my recommendation for the Goodwood Revival, is an excellent trip for spouses. There are so many opportunities for shopping, eating, sightseeing, and wine tasting… after the car enthusiast gets his or her fix of the cars.

The Bentley Driver’s Club in Sirmione, a favorite stop for car club rallies during the Mille Miglia.

The Bentley Driver’s Club in Sirmione, a favorite stop for car club rallies during the Mille Miglia.

Accommodations for the Mille Miglia were tricky, yet they need not be. I asked friends who had participated in prior years and got an excellent recommendation to stay at the Best Western Master in Brescia. Jaguar thought so too, as the Jaguar Heritage team was also staying there! Unfortunately, the prices are so inflated that it’s hard to recommend actually staying in Brescia. Like the original races, promotion and tourism are still key objectives of the event.

Following the start and a spin through the streets of Brescia, the cars work their way up to Lake Garda and the quaint touristy town of Sirmione, no more than 45 minutes north. They drive through the entire town and historic section. It would be my recommendation to find a hotel in Sirmione. We followed our two-night stay in Brescia with another two in Sirmione with rates about two thirds less, and directly on the lake.

Thursday morning, we noticed cars beginning to park near the race start, so heading back into Brescia from Sirmione for the entire day may be just as realistic as staying in town. You may not even feel the need to be at the start, which for spectators means lining the streets and watching the cars zoom by. Heading back to Sirmione around 3pm, in time to line its streets, might be just as exciting.

We were told that Thursday before the start, the museum, Museo Mille Miglia, hosts a pre-race diner for competitors. Knowing this, we adjusted our Thursday itinerary to arrive at the museum shortly after it opened at 10am and took our time. If you are driving to the museum you will have to be creative in parking. We saw a line of newish Ferraris parked along a chain link fence across the street from the museum and tucked right in. In hindsight, they were probably part of the Ferraris doing drives as a Tribute to the Mille Miglia!

The museum is situated inside the Monastery of Saint Eufemia, a beautiful building with historical significance itself, built in 1008. Opened to the public in 2004, you step back in time, not only into the history of the original Mille Miglia but the entire Italian social and political culture of those years, with multi-media displays and historic cars creating a sense of being there. Written in Italian with English translations, the museum book is an excellent walk through each individual year with a concise summary of the road infrastructure challenges and petrol and tyre rationing, facing the 1947 start up after the war and seven year pause of the event, as well as the final demise due to a tragic accident and unsuccessful attempts to sustain itself afterwards.

Italians Francesca Grimaldi and Lucia Fanti in their XK120 OTS Jaguar maneuvering the narrow streets off the Piazza, before they take off to victory in the female team division.

Italians Francesca Grimaldi and Lucia Fanti in their XK120 OTS Jaguar maneuvering the narrow streets off the Piazza, before they take off to victory in the female team division.

German’s Peter and Dr. Claus-Peter Amberger in their 1928 4.5 Bentley fight the crowds out of the Piazza towards the start.

German’s Peter and Dr. Claus-Peter Amberger in their 1928 4.5 Bentley fight the crowds out of the Piazza towards the start.

I find the tidbits of history fascinating for this event. Initially it was meant to be a one-time race. More of a shot in the arm for the Italian people, especially Brescians. A sporting event on local roads which would not only capture the spirit of sports car enthusiasts, but would hopefully inspire technological innovation from the auto industry and road improvements. The route was determined to be half of Italy, Brescia to Rome and back… 1600km, or 1000 miles, thus the title, Mille Miglia.

This event spawned the pleasures of grand sports motor touring that many of us enjoy today.

At high noon on Thursday, the itinerary calls for the cars to congregate in the Piazza della Vittoria, the location where pre-checks were moved to in 1932. One must keep in mind, the original Mille Miglia was continuous. Stopping only for fuel and repairs. The 1927 first place winner, in a hometown manufactured O.M. (Officine Meccaniche), clocked in at a total time of 21 hrs, 04 mins, 48 secs. Today’s event is actually a four day regularity run.

At the Piazza, you get the same sense of these cars as you do when the Pebble Beach cars end their road tour in Carmel… pandemonium. When you think about it, like Pebble Beach, these are million dollar cars, just parked for mobs of onlookers to see… and admire. That is another very nice thing about this event. It’s approachable for the public at no cost other than getting there.

Another recommendation is to make lunch reservations at one of the local restaurants just off the Piazza when you arrive race day. It takes the edge off things, when everything gets crazy at lunchtime. We actually didn’t do that, but there was a silver lining. While walking out of the city towards Viale Venezia, the start, we remembered friends mentioning they sat at a cafe on the street and watched the cars go by. We caught a late lunch and got to watch them, presumably en route the Museum tour and dinner.

American co-driver Mark Gessler, president of the Heritage Vehicle Association, in an original Mille Miglia Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 GS Zagato accompanies Manuel Elicabe to a stellar 11th place finish!

American co-driver Mark Gessler, president of the Heritage Vehicle Association, in an original Mille Miglia Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 GS Zagato accompanies Manuel Elicabe to a stellar 11th place finish!

About an hour and a half before the 6pm start, we were front and center, a coveted location we were thankful to secure as media guests. We made friends with our media mates on either side of us. Everyone was staking out territory for the perfect shots. To be honest with you, the most interesting shots are more likely back at that little café along the roadside. Every inch of road is a good spectator spot to watch the Mille Miglia, so don’t worry... you’re so close you can do a high five with the drivers if you want!

We admired every driving team for undertaking the journey. It was fun to have spotted the winning teams when they were driving in the Piazza before the start and to have caught a glimpse of most of the cars as they rolled up onto the start stage.

On the lawn at Pebble Beach in 2013 to the start of the 2014 Mille Miglia, Tony Shooshani is all smiles in his 1921 Alfa Romeo G1 with driver Craig Calder.

On the lawn at Pebble Beach in 2013 to the start of the 2014 Mille Miglia, Tony Shooshani is all smiles in his 1921 Alfa Romeo G1 with driver Craig Calder.

And off they all go…

And off they all go…

Mille Miglia logo

When I see the red arrow, a logo they say has been around from the beginning, it will forever draw me in because there has to be a fantastic story behind who’s wearing it or sporting it on their vehicle, even if they were like me… a spectator. It was magical just being there.

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Comments (4)

  1. Jonathan Kirshtein:
    Jun 20, 2014 at 08:52 AM

    Great article and perspective. My friend Andy Kress and I were invited to be co-drivers(navigators) in this year's MM. In car 87 , a 1933 6C1750 GS Alfa Romeo and 1939 6C 2500 SS Alfa Romeo. From our perspective as participants--- it was completely insane. From the demands on time and concentration to the complete chaos and typical Italian disorder, the MM is a true bucket list activity which took little time for me to decide to attend, knowing I had to return to the US and then back to Italy in 10 days for work. Sleep--forget that. We had accumulated 10 hours total for three nights. Concentration--always at 100%. Whether it was watching for a passing opportunity( cars were both RHD) or trying to stay on route and avoid the normal Italian obstacles, we were always at a maximum attention level and driving flat out. Eating--well that is another story. Catered lunches were as expected, fantastic. While driving, at various check points in some piazze, we were given biscotti, cherries, fragole, small sandwiches by spectators and in one case a cup of wine. Evenings, we were on our own and with the exception of Bologna, we had no dinner. We ate whatever was in the car given to us along the route as we arrived in Rome or Padova well after mid night. Finding the hotel after a long stage was another challenge as we arrived at a final checkpoint with no idea as to where to go next and which hotel to stay at. Usually by 2 am, we arrived to the hotel exhausted, wired and taking note of all the Jaguars being re-worked each night. To summarize, how could you not enjoy the scenery, the crowds, the passion, women jumping up and down, police escorts up the middle of the road at high speed and all the amazing cars? As a real car guy and lover of all things Italian, I hit the lottery on this one. Saluti!

  2. orazio:
    Jun 20, 2014 at 11:22 PM

    I'm born in Padova, Italy, in 1940 and I remember well everything about those fantastic years of glory! Cars at those time are not to much elaborated in the sense you had the possibility to run also with your every-day-car ! Tks so much to the reporter for the fantastic article written
    with a unique hystorical car passion and love for my Country ! Come back soon, dear friend, and be shure you'll be always welcome ! Orazio Leonardi, Alfa Romeo's owner.

  3. Sandy Cotterman:
    Jun 21, 2014 at 05:27 AM

    Orazio,
    Thank you for your kind words. It was a magical event and yes, I would love to return.
    Sandy

  4. Sandy Cotterman:
    Jun 21, 2014 at 05:44 AM

    Johnathan,
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I was hoping someone would tell the other side of the story. I have a fantastic image of Andy in car #87 and you in car #134 at the start! I would love to share them. Sandy


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