A Short Finish to a Very Long Race

Spoiler alert. I just ran my first Mille Miglia Storica, in a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing with Steve Cannon, the head of MBUSA. Unfortunately, we completed our turn in one of the world's most grueling, prestigious vintage events after a mere fifty of its 1000 miles. I have often said -- in the context of twenty-four-hour races I have driven or crewed for -- if you're going to break, it's much better to break in the first hour than the last.

Well, never mind that. It sucks. And never mind that it's ridiculous to assume that a priceless, sixty-year-old car could (or should) be driven for two and a half days in horrendous wind and rain, almost nonstop, like it was back in the days of the real race, which was held on and off between 1927 and 1957.

I've had a lot of extraordinary adventures during my career, and the best of them happened in vintage cars. My virgin vintage voyage was twenty-seven years ago, when I drove 3600 miles across America in an even rarer 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing (number twenty-eight of the twenty-nine aluminum-bodied Gullwings made) with Alex Finigan of Paul Russell and Company, the premier Gullwing restoration shop in the United States. It was a glorious trip, not least because of the unimaginable amount of time spent driving one of history's most storied sports cars. (You can find my account in the December 1986 issue or at JeanKnowsCars.com.)

No wonder our founder, David E. Davis, Jr., had his hand up first for anything that involved a long drive in an old car. That was especially the case if that drive happened in England, where he could meet with his Savile Row tailors followed by quality time in one Jaguar or another, or in Italy, the country that produced so many of the legendary drivers, sports cars, and races that formed the white-hot core of his automotive passion. I was lucky to get a raised hand in edgewise, scoring a 2000-mile drive across the Alps in a 1965 MGB with the great Sir Stirling Moss.

A third drive of a lifetime was the weeklong Pan Pacific Rally around New Zealand's north island in a 1916 Benz from the factory museum in Stuttgart. I have been blessed.

Just never with a coveted spot in the most famous vintage-race re-creation of them all -- the Mille Miglia Storica. My time finally came and I seized it without a second glance across the deserving heads of those occupying positions of distinction on the masthead. Positions lower than mine. Suckahs!

My ticket to ride came from Cannon, a man with the otherworldly calm that comes with having nine children, seven of whom are girls. The Mille Miglia! My dream, his bucket list.

We would be part of a fifteen-car team from the Mercedes-Benz factory, with a support staff of forty to hand-carry us. Perhaps they would be most focused on board members and ex-F1 drivers David Coulthard, Jochen Mass, and Karl Wendlinger. Well, they wouldn't have to worry about us for long.

Mercedes is the biz here, having been the first non-Italian carmaker to win -- in 1931 -- with Rudi Caracciola in an SSKL.

Sir Stirling drove the wheels off a 300SLR here in 1955 while navigator Denis Jenkinson read trip notes handwritten on a continuous seventeen-foot scroll of paper that he kept in a box and rolled through as the race progressed. It was a heroic drive, never to be topped. The great Juan Manuel Fangio finished close behind Moss/Jenks, also in an SLR, driving alone.

Moss sent video greetings to Cannon, telling him how much he would love it and how berserk the town of Brescia would be. He was right on every count. The car was magic, the food was endless, and crowds pressed ecstatically around us. It was joyous bedlam: grandmas shouting and cheering us on, children waving flags, boys with caps askew sauntering in front of the onrushing cars, casually stepping out of the way at the last moment.

Only it didn't last. We made it exactly 50.4 miles to Verona, where the event stalled in the face of flooding. Once stalled, the old cars began to complain. Ours blew a head gasket. With no spare, we were done. My hand is up for next year, suckahs!

For more Jean, visit JeanKnowsCars.com.

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