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A FRENZIED RALLY
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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Of the 305 cars that had rolled down the starting ramp, only 208 were still in the running. Even in this supposedly tamed-down version of the race, attrition was taking its toll. From Siena to Brescia the route was strewn with wreckage: blown pistons, stripped gears, cracked engines and deflated egos. As the evening's sun dissolved in the Lambrusco vineyards of the Po Valley, we were escorted by a deft motorcycle cop down the ancient Roman Via Emilia to Ferrari headquarters in Modena.

"For anyone who likes fast red cars, this place is Mecca," said Moss. Later, as we pulled out of the factory parking lot, Piero Lardi-Ferrari, the late Enzo Ferrari's only surviving son, presented Moss with a commemorative Ferrari valve burnished and mounted on mahogany. "I would have preferred the whole car," said Moss as we surged off to Brescia.

On this final sprint in 1955, Moss and his SLR had outrun a twin-engine plane buzzing the highway at 165 mph. "I was younger and braver back then," he said. "Mind you, I must have been bloody mad too."

Shortly after 9 p.m. we stopped for tortellini Bolognese near Guidizzolo, where a small monument on the edge of town memorializes de Portago, Nelson and the nine villagers who died in the 1957 crash. Our dinner conversation turned to the dangers of vintage-car racing and the accidents at Mexico's La Carrera Classic two months earlier. Racing in excess of 140 on shoulderless two-lane blacktop, two cars, in separate incidents, crashed and burned, killing two participants and injuring a third. The race organizers came under attack because neither driver was race-trained, nor were the racers required to wear fireproof clothing or have their cars equipped with roll bars. "Times have definitely changed," said Moss. "Obviously we have to change with the times and can no longer accept into a vintage race anybody with enough money to buy a car. Yes, I'm for tough safety regulations in vintage racing...but against roll bars. It spoils the look of the cars."

At the Mille Miglia's conclusion late Sunday night, we parked in a half-mile-long concrete cattle pen outside Brescia, waiting to pass the last time control at 10:25:50 p.m. By more luck than navigational skill, our times through the preceding 45 checkpoints had put us near the leaders. Now the possibility of winning stirred Moss. He quit signing autographs and closed the car door to unwind. With four minutes to go he stared at the dashboard and ignition. Suddenly a cold, white dread crept across his brow as he said, "The keys, old boy. Bloody hell. They're gone!"

Moss flung open his door and began rummaging on the pavement. I reached over and picked the key chain off his black leather seat and dropped it in his palm. He exhaled a lengthy sigh.

With a minute and 100 meters separating us from our final checkpoint, Moss cranked up the engine and depressed the clutch. "Keep your bloody finger on that stopwatch button," he said. "We don't want a cockup now." Shooting to cross the line at 22:25:50, I counted Moss down against my stopwatch: "Thirty-five, 40, 45 ..." We crept forward, slowly gathering speed: "... 46, 47, 48..." With 15 meters to go, he goosed the engine. It rasped and recovered just in time: "...49, 50!"

"Bang on!" shouted Moss as we hit the electronic tape and the crowd engulfed us.

The next morning the Mille Miglia competitors and hundreds of Italian dignitaries were seated for the award ceremony in Brescia's Salone Vanvitelliano, a high-ceilinged Palladian marvel hung with medieval tapestries and 18th-century portraits. Moss beamed when the race officials announced that we had placed first among the 161 non-Italian entries and 21st overall. First prize overall went to another Gullwing, driven by two Brescians, a factory-owner and a middle-aged lawyer who had driven to Rome and back, supposedly singing Verdi arias to each other.

Accepting his trophy, a silver platter the size of a manhole cover, Moss said with cheeky grace, "For an Englishman this award is the highest of honors." He grinned impishly. "In an Italian race, without an Italian car or an Italian name, you can't expect to finish better than best non-Italian."

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