A swarm of festive Italians bracketed the checkered finish line at Brescia, waiting. The scent of lime blossoms filled the air. Clusters of the white flowers whirled down from green foliage, to be flattened against scorching asphalt as car after car completed the tortuous thousand miles of open road of Italy's Mille Miglia.
The Italians were jubilant that their compatriot, 50-year-old Piero Taruffi had won the race, coming out of semiretirement at the 11th hour to fill out Enzo Ferrari's short-handed team. It was a triumph of unusual sweetness for the silver-haired Taruffi, the "old fox," who knew the Italian mountain roads better than any man but had raced in the Mille Miglia without success so many times before.
The crowd cheered Taruffi, who averaged 94.78 mph in his experimental 4.2-liter Ferrari, and the German, Count Wolfgang von Trips, who arrived in second place in a 3.8-liter Ferrari, and the Belgian, Olivier Gendebien, who was a brilliant third in a 3-liter Ferrari touring coup�. And they waited for the popular young driver, 28-year-old Alfonso de Portago, to complete a winning Ferrari foursome.
They liked his good looks, his shiny mop of curly black hair, his devil-may-care attitude about many sports. They called him uno simpaticone. They were with him. The loudspeakers said he had passed Mantua, passed Goito and was on the straight stretch between Goito and Guidizzolo. The people waited, and he did not appear.
De Portago had driven a hard race. He would not have driven at all, for it is a race much hated by most of the drivers, but young Cesare Perdisa gave up racing after the recent death of the Italian champion, Eugenio Castellotti, and De Portago, as a member of the Ferrari team, was asked to take Perdisa's 3.8 Ferrari. Reluctantly, with a premonition of disaster that he communicated to a few friends, he did. Even after Perdisa's withdrawal (to become a horseman), De Portago might have bypassed the race. The talented Luigi Musso might have taken the car, but he became sick.
Handicapped by lack of experience in the thousands of turns of Italy's narrow, sinuous roads, De Portago drove harder than most, attempting to win by sheer virtuosity. He had only 30 miles to go—a few minutes left to drive—when it happened. The narrow bridge of Goito was behind him, the tormenting twists of the Apennines forgotten, and the inviting tape of the road through the Po Valley lay before him.
The spectators who lined the road saw him coming—first a dot in the distance, looming larger every second. He must have been going 150 mph. Children tried to force themselves past the legs of their elders, up to the front of the crowd. There was a sudden report, followed by a hiss—a tire blowing out—and the dot that was De Portago, a red Ferrari by now, swerved violently. Its tail hit the bank at the left of the road. Then the car catapulted above the first line of onlookers, cut the telegraph wires above, and landed among the more timorous spectators who had stayed back for greater safety. Amid the shrieks of the injured and dying, De Portago died immediately, and with him his old friend, the 40-year-old American Edmund Nelson, who had come along for the ride.
A FRIEND NAMED NELSON
Nelson, a picaresque character like De Portago, had ridden with the Spaniard before—a victorious ride in last year's Tour de France for automobiles. De Portago first met him in 1945, when a bearded Nelson had come out of the Merchant Marine to take a job at Manhattan's Hotel Plaza. The young De Portago dressed in the latest Savile Row styles, sported a gold cigaret holder, smoked Oriental cigarets and spoke with a pronounced English accent. While living at the Plaza he became fast friends with the older Nelson. He copied Nelson's more casual dress, lost his Briticisms and even learned how to box from Nelson, who had been a light-heavyweight fighter. It was Nelson who taught the marquis how to bobsled.
Nine spectators were killed with Nelson and De Portago, 20 others injured. The deaths of a Dutch amateur driver, Josef Gottgens, who crashed a Triumph TR 3 into a wall at Florence, and a motorcycle policeman brought the toll to 13.