The Mille Miglia endurance race took place on the roads around Italy 24 times between 1927 and 1957. In 1977 the Mille Miglia was re-launched as a regularity race for classic and vintage cars. Only cars produced in 1957 or earlier are eligible to take part. What's more they must also be of a type that attended, or were registered for, the original race. All such cars are well out of my price range but, determined not to let a little think like that stop me, Heather and I hired a Fiat Panda and took part in the tradition of 'chasing the race'.
The route varies slightly from year to year but, in the tradition of the original race, begins and ends in Brescia with a mid way stop in Rome. The smallest, slowest cars are released first from the Viale Venezia in Brescia with the fast, big engine cars leaving last. The theory was that this would minimise the length of time marshalls had to be on duty. It also makes a great spectacle for anyone who shows up to watch, like us.
We picked up the action close to Heather's home town of Rovigo. Red arrow sign posts marked the course for race participants and fans alike. Wherever the action went, we followed in our little Panda. Spectators lined the streets in towns, villages and even out in the country as the cavalcade rolled on.
Mille Miglia translates to English as '1000 miles', the approximate distance of the race. In the old days it was a non-stop race, taking 20 hours or more to complete. The record was set by a Brit, Sir Stirling Moss, at 10h 7' 48". He set the record in 1955 alongside his navigator, motoring journalist Denis Jenkinson. The pair ran six reconnaissance laps prior to the race, making course notes on a scroll of paper which Jenks read back during the race. That and their coded series of hand signals gave them the edge they needed over the competition, despite many of the other competitors having the advantage of local knowledge. It was one of only a few occasions when the race has been won by a non-Italian team.
The race was banned after two fatal crashes in 1957; between 1927 and 1957 the race took the lives of 56 people. The re-creation is run as a three day endurance event, rather than an all out race, and at much safer speeds.
Heather and I followed the race south, through San Marino, past Perugia and Terni. From Terni we deviated slightly from the route, as the competitors drove into Roman traffic for their night stop we cut across country to a beautiful hotel on the shores of Lake Bracciano. Being north of Rome this put us ahead of the action for the next days racing.
We were joined in the hotel restaurant by a group of Italians also 'chasing the race'. Their choice of cars for the drive were slightly more upmarket than our Panda; an Austin Healey 3000 and a Jaguar D type re-creation! Our diminutive Fiat looked a little out of place in their company but united by a love of historic motorsport and Italian culture we formed a little convoy as we wound our way north into the Tuscan hills. The renaissance town of Pienza provided the ideal viewing point to watch the race participants. Normally pedestrianised zones are opened up to allow the cars to drive through high archways in the city walls, along cobbled streets and past ancient buildings. Crowds of spectators had turned out in the small town but parking was still easier and great views of the action easier to find than in the large cities.
The vast city of Sienna proved too much of a challenge and we lost our new friends in their classic cars. The city centre was closed to all but official race traffic; we found ourselves diverted out to the ring road and pushed further north toward are final destination, Brescia. We'd booked Bed and Breakfast accommodation in Brescia and pushed on ahead of the racers. We found parking, checked in, had dinner and were at the finish line in plenty of time to welcome the race leaders. Once parked, or cars abandoned at the roadside in some cases, rally entrants headed straight into the nearest bars. The street party continued into the early hours of the morning with each new car cheered down the road and it's drivers greeted with a glass of wine, or two!
A good time was had by all whether racer or chaser; we partied alongside owners of rare vintage cars with values running into the millions. It didn't matter to them that we had only followed the race in a Panda, we had shared in their experiences; although it may have helped that we had some fabulous photos of them in their cars along the route.