The great race

Italy, the 1920s: Two young aristocrats, Franco Mazzotti and Aymo Maggi, take a weekly road trip from their hometown of Brescia to Milan, racing trains along the way. The pair then head to Biffi, a historic restaurant near the cathedral that’s a mecca for auto enthusiasts. There they vow to restore their beloved Brescia, the birthplace of motorsports, to its former automotive glory.

So in December of 1926 they meet with sports journalist Giovanni Canestrini and Renzo Castagneto, secretary of the new Brescia Automotive Club. Together, these latter-day “Four Musketeers,” as they come to be known, devise a 1,000 mile race from Brescia to Rome and back — Mazzotti, who visited America, thought miles sounded sexier than kilometers — that would make legends of Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes Benz and Porsche, to say nothing of drivers like Clemente Biondetti, Rudolf Caracciola, Stirling Moss and Tazio Nuvolari.

Mille Miglia, as the race was called, was run 24 times from 1927 to 1957 — 13 times before World War II, 11 from 1947 on.
The race was banned in 1957 after two fatal crashes, the more famous of which involved Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca, the 17th Duke of Portago; his navigator/co-driver Edmund Nelson and nine spectators, five of them children, in Guidizzolo, where his tire blew out at a speed of 300 mph just 25 miles from the finish in Brescia. (Since its inception, 56 people have died as a result of the race.)

In 1977, the race was reinvented, while in 2007, it inspired a documentary, “Mille Miglia — The Spirit of a Legend.” In keeping with the intervals of seven, the 2014 Mille Miglia has been captured in a new book by teNeues, “Mille Miglia: Miles of Passion.” The 230 color and black-and-white photographs by René Staud and his team chart the course of what is no longer an open-road endurance race but rather a four-day regularity rally in which contestants travel a certain distance in a certain time at a certain speed.

Only car models that participated during the historic years can enter. On the pages of “Miles of Passion” they gleam like giant, jeweled-colored lozenges. The drivers are no less sleek. Among those who took part in the 2014 race were former “Tonight Show” host and car collector Jay Leno; Oscar winners Adrian Brody and Jeremy Irons; and the father-and-son team of Wolfgang and Ferdinand Porsche in a Porsche 356 designed by Wolfgang’s father.

What begins in Brescia as perhaps the most glamorous car show in the world nonetheless turns into a gritty test of endurance even as drivers are cheered by the faithful as they make their way through some of Italy’s most romantic, picturesque real estate, including the Tuscan countryside. Here’s the log from “Miles of Passion” for the half-way point in the race:
“Yesterday was hard. The long day of driving, 15 to 17 hours for all the teams, has left its marks. The real Mille Miglia look can now be observed, with drivers and co-drivers a little scruffy and cars covered with grime, mosquito traces, and some permanent marks. This morning, an early one considering that for many the wake-up call is only a few hours after their arrival in Rome, spawns an incredible number of people with red eyes. It almost seems as if those driving in the Mille Miglia are playing the part of a vampire in a scary movie: The reality is that the wind, dust, and the strains of night driving along with only a few hours of sleep have all taken their toll. But there are still smiles, the ones that come from driving in such a long classic: a good sign.”

They’re the kind of smiles you’ll wear poring over this book.

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