2005 Mille Miglia
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Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Brescia, Italy – It was around the time the, oh, fifteenth Mercedes 300SL gullwing roared by the patio where I was sitting that I started to hyperventilate. I mean, it’s rare enough that you see a gullwing on the road at all, let alone tearing through the piazza in some little Italian town. It’s rarer still that you see one in original livery – that’s something normally reserved for auto shows and classic car auctions. But five? All of them with their engines being revved like crazy, with their wheels being spun for the cheering crowd? This is something really special.

This is, of course, the Mille Miglia, a re-creation of a race that was run between 1937 and 1957 on 1000 miles of public roads from Brescia to Rome and back. In those days, they used to close the roads, and legendary racing drivers would go top-speed across the countryside, competing for national glory as they slid their big, fast Mercedes, Ferraris, Alfas, and Jaguars around tight corners, looking to shave a couple of seconds off their stage times. The “new” Mille, which has been run off and on since 1977, but as an annual event since the early nineties, is a slightly less frenetic time-speed-distance event, with two-person teams competing to match a (relatively high) average speed of 45 mph instead of going all-out.

2005 Mille Miglia
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They don’t close the roads anymore for the Mille, but that doesn’t mean that a significant portion of Italy doesn’t still shut down to watch the cars go tearing around the country. Schoolchildren are given the day off when the Mille is scheduled to pass through town, and they line the roads three, four deep to cheer on the passing cars. Grandparents who watched their heroes run the original Mille hold their grandkids up in the air to give them a better view, mouthing “Mille Miglia” silently to them as the cars pass. There’s cheering and flag-waving around every corner, no more so than at the starting point in Brescia, where the 350-plus participant cars sit in the Piazza on show for the public to admire before the 8:00 pm start of the race.

2005 Mille Miglia
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For a car fanatic, there is simply no better place to be. I saw more gullwings in a day than I have seen in my entire life. Bugatti Type 35s were like water. There were rare Alfas and Ferraris and Aston Martins and blown Bentleys everywhere. Eligibility to the event is determined by a panel; the rough rules are that cars entered in the new event should have been eligible for the original – produced between 1927 and 1957. But the organizers have been known to make exceptions for particularly interesting cars built before or after the cutoff date, just because they like them. It’s that kind of organization.

Like the cars themselves, the people that drive them come from storied and interesting backgrounds. When the organizing committee put together a marketing plan for the new event in the early eighties, they decided that an element of celebrity would be important to draw the media and crowds.

2005 Mille Miglia

2005 Mille Miglia
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So the mix of drivers includes not only wealthy car collectors (the cost of entering the event, transportation, and insurance adds up to about $10,000) but also counts and countesses, captains of industry, and people who, at least in my observation, seemed famous because of their former exploits in the Mille. This being an Italian event, everybody’s dressed in their Sunday best – even though it’s Thursday – many in matching vintage uniforms and helmets. The crowd eats it all up, cheering as the cars drive off the podium, their drivers and passengers waving, often trying to drive while making an impromptu video at the same time.

It is the attitude of the crowd that sets the Mille apart from any other automotive event I’ve ever witnessed. From young to old, and crossing every ethnic and economic background – people travel from as far as Japan and Argentina to compete or spectate – they’re united by a unique love of old cars, and for keeping their memory alive. The starting gate is lined with as many young women as it is old men, and they’re all competing to grab a driver’s momentary attention.

2005 Mille Miglia
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Perhaps most amazing is that the loudest cheering comes not for the factory-prepared entries (Mercedes, for example, brought out Stirling Moss in an immaculate SLR on the 50th anniversary of its running of the original Mille, and would permanently retire it thereafter) but for the smallest, grungiest Fiats and Lancias, some of which struggled to make it up the ramp to be presented. In order to maintain a true period look, the grime and dirt streaked down their sides had been clear-coated into place, permanently sealing their place in time.

There’s no place in the world other than Italy you could run an event like the Mille. The country’s undying passion for automobiles – and for driving them in the way their creators intended – is unlike any other’s in the world. Deep into the night, long after most of the headline entries had roared across the stage and onto the first of four days of hard driving, the crowd was as enthusiastic as ever.

2005 Mille Miglia
Click image to enlarge

The sight and sound and smell of it all literally brought a tear to my eye, and by the time I was dragged kicking and screaming back to the hotel shuttle, I was a blubbering, emotional mess. I wanted to stay and watch the rest of the cars leave. Then I wanted to get in some old wreck myself and follow them for the next few days over the Italian countryside, braving the sometimes-unpredictable elements (the 2004 race featured snow and ice as well as the typical rain, all kinds of fun when you’re in a race car without a roof or indeed a windshield), squinting through a pair of vintage racing goggles and screeching the bicycle tires around every corner.

Normally, I would have been embarrassed about it all, but as I looked around me, I realized I wasn’t the only one. The Mille is just magical that way.

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