SI Vault
Stewart McBride
November 06, 1989
Stirling Moss was in form at the Mille Miglia
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November 06, 1989

A Frenzied Rally

Stirling Moss was in form at the Mille Miglia

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Moss surveyed his instrument panel, reacquainting himself with the Mercedes. In age, shape and suspension geometry, the sleek Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing he was driving was kindred to the lightweight, open-cockpit 300 SLR he had piloted in 1955. Moss travels with the tools of his trade. From a briefcase he took a large rearview mirror and affixed it to the dashboard. "The little mirrors in these cars are useless," he said, settling into the cockpit.

At precisely 12 minutes and five seconds past 10 p.m., the steward lowered the Italian flag in front of Car 282, and we rolled down the starting ramp. With horn blaring and lights flashing, we began plowing through a corridor of hollering Italians. "The start is always a bit dodgy," said Moss, master of overdrive and understatement. In glorious defiance of sanity, the Italian race fans stood in the drizzle bellowing, "Morse!" "Starelink Morse!" "Avanti, Morse!" They were four-deep by the roadside, and near the outskirts of town, shouts turned to percussion. Fans twanged our wipers, gonged the roof and drummed our fenders like bongos—anything to play a part in racing history.

Lonato, Desenzano, Peschiera, Bussolengo, Verona. Vicenza: We whizzed through the towns along the Mille Miglia route. Forty-six checkpoints scattered over the 1,000 miles. At various checkpoints teenagers offered us prosciutto sandwiches, cake, wine, umbrellas, T-shirts, pears, carnations, neckties, cassettes, pens, chocolate-coated almonds and reams of brochures promoting pizzerias and dry cleaners.

Our first evening took us to Verona and into Padua, on roads whose cobblestones were already ancient when Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet. Racing through the star-cross'd lovers' trysting grounds, Moss began reciting what he calls " Shakespeare's pro-England speech" (from Richard II): "Ah, this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle...this demi-paradise...this precious stone set in the silver sea—" The verse came to a screeching halt when Moss braked to dodge a 19-horsepower '38 Jawa Minor.

"Stupid bastards," Moss said, easing back into third and shifting the conversation. "Jenks and I came whapping down this road at full song, 170 mph. The SLR had a great snarl. Neee-miaowwww! The noise rattled the plaster off the walls."

Saturday morning: On the Ferrara starting line, at the beginning of our 13:59:55 passage to Rome, Moss looked puffy-eyed. He didn't blame his insomnia on our late-night pit stop for cappuccino and gelati outside Rovigo. He accused the party in the next bed, his raucously snoring navigator.

Outside Portomaggiore we hit a squall and the Gullwing nearly capsized in the rooster tail of a Jaguar XKSS. Moss squinted through the foggy windshield and cursed under his breath. "Hmmph! Sod's Law again," he said. "If one wiper on a car doesn't work it's always the driver's." That said, we plunged on with no noticeable decrease in speed.

After stopping in Rieti for a gargantuan antipasto luncheon—which according to my stopwatch, we ate in 29 minutes flat—we were back on the highway to Rome. In 1955, Moss and Jenkinson's first pit stop had taken but 28 seconds. They probably hadn't ordered seconds on baked apples.

We arrived in Rome at midnight. Moss ran between street lamps, hustling our luggage to the hotel in a grocery cart he had appropiated from a nearby supermarket. Looking like a cat burglar shopping for Samsonite, he was determined to get some rest. The only detour was for a stop at the hotel banquet table, from which Moss spirited away a bottle of vino. In the room he took a couple of slugs before crashing into bed.

To the strains of the Sunday-morning bells of St. Peter's, Moss revved the Mercedes engine and patiently waited for our 8:57:05 departure for Brescia. A race official informed us that we had fewer penalty points than any other non-Italian team. That was all Moss needed. On the road again, we began to pass cars at a furious pace. Moss nodded sympathetically out the window when we roared past a Lotus 11 stalled on the gravel shoulder. "See those bungy cords on the Lotus's luggage rack?" he said jokingly. "That's all that's holding the car together. Driving a Lotus is a triumph of bravery over intelligence." Moss won more than a dozen races in various Lotuses during his career.

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