2013 Mille Miglia: Epilogue

The end of Jean's Mille Miglia journey.

What the heck happened to Team 303 in Italy? you ask. The last you might remember was that my teammate, Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Steve Cannon, and I were waiting at the Teatro Grande in the center of Brescia, staring at Gina Lollobrigida, trying desperately to find a working cell tower and waiting for the evening start of the Mille Miglia. (Read Part One and Part Two of this tale, if you haven’t already; then come back.)

Obviously, something went very wrong. If you follow JeanKnowsCars on Twitter, you already know from a handful of sporadic posts that we were able to send in rare moments of cellular service that our lovely old 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing had terminal engine failure a mere 50.4 miles from the start. Here’s the long version of our sad story.

Thursday evening: It’s time to leave the Opera House and join the stream of Ferraris old and new blasting through the dense crowd of spectators. No worries about finding our way. The route out of downtown is mobbed on both sides of the street, despite the rain, the wind, and the fact that it’s the middle of the day and the middle of the week. Young men are sauntering brazenly into the path of the cars with hats cocked sideways, while grandmas are sweeping their hands encouraging more speed. Little kids are waving flags. Traffic lights do not exist. We are heroes. At every intersection, police are waving us through. Every agente di polizia with a scooter is on it and assigned (or self-assigned, for all we know) to the race. Stirling Moss is right: Brescia is in a frenzy.

And we are only going to the museum. Another couple of hours, another groaning buffet. “Are we supposed to be carbo loading for this?” Cannon asks. He is serious. This is a guy who won the Phys Ed award at West Point, which is saying something. I am the exact opposite. “Yes,” I say, equally serious.

Our wall of gray-jacketed Mercedes-Benz mechanics is waiting by our car with crates of snacks, water, and a bag of supplies that includes flashlights on headbands, hand wipes, eyeglass wipes, and on and on.

They should strike, if not fear, than intense jealousy into the hearts of the competition. Mercedes is not only the main event sponsor, but the fifteen-car factory team includes board members Thomas Weber and Joachim Schmidt and head of PR Jörg Howe, among other luminaries including former Formula 1 drivers Jochen Mass, Karl Wendlinger, and David Coulthard, who watches the courtyard full of cars firing up from an open window in a tower above the crowd. “I’m going to do a Le Mans start,” he shouts down to me. Which means he is going to run down the stairs, leap into the car, and take off. Such a joker, this one.

We feel like we’re in a protective cocoon of fabulousness and invincibility. That, of course, would be wrong. We are dashed to earth immediately on leaving the museum for the starting ramp. We’re directed out the back driveway, and we pop out into traffic with no idea where we are and without sight of a single other of the 400-plus competitors. I have no idea which way we’re even pointed.

“Not again,” I say.

“I think I remember that building,” says Cannon. We both start laughing. “We have an hour to go two miles,” I remind him

 Just as we notice the crowd walking on the sidewalk suddenly thicken, we come around a turn and join the throng of vintage cars and trucks, driven by entrants from twenty-eight countries, clogging the street in front of us. We have joined the 2013 Mille Miglia. Within no time, we are waved off amid the cheers of the crowd, the roar of our engine, and the sounds of our names over the loudspeaker.

I tell Steve I’m absolutely overwhelmed and close to tears. “Not just you,” he says to me.

It is really overwhelming. And it’s hard not to go as fast as possible, even though this is merely a re-creation of a very real and brutal race, which ran from 1927 to 1957. The end came when popular Formula 1 driver Alfonso de Portago crashed near the finish in Brescia, killing himself, his co-driver, and nine spectators.

The crowd wants fast, even from Team 303, which means that 302 cars in front of us already gave them fast, and they are still there, as excited for us as they were for car number 1. Mille Miglia

From Start to Finish

I’m an overachiever navigator. That means I go through the book with a highlighter, and I mark every potential place we could miss a turn. There were so many roundabouts one on top of another and opportunities to get lost that I had highlighted half the book. I was feeling really good that I had marked the whole first leg, from Brescia to Ferrara, a total of 158.5 miles. I would worry about leg two, Ferrara to Rome, once we got in.

This was going to be the easy night, and as it turned out, we really didn’t need to worry so much about the turns, because even into the night, the route was lined with spectators pointing the way. There was a policeman at every turn pointing to the turn. There was a Mille Miglia arrow signboard pointing the correct way.

About fifty miles into the event, night had fallen and we had entered the ancient walled city of Verona. The last time I was in Verona, I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s Carmen in the Roman amphitheater. At intermission, I drank champagne with Zeffirelli, he of the dyed yellow hair and orange skin, neither color found in nature. It was an emotional experience, and as we passed the amphitheater and I was telling Steve the story, I got choked up again.

In the end, tears would have been the correct emotional response to our time in Verona. We got into a traffic jam almost immediately, right by the amphitheater. All the race cars were around us. Cars were overheating right and left. Some were making U-turns and going down side streets. Others had their drivers pushing them.

We crept along and crept along. At one point, we were side by side with Roger Penske and Mario Illien, and we shouted to one another like it was old home week and joked about Mario’s array of high-tech timers stuck across the dash on the passenger’s side that he was using to negotiate the strictly timed portions of the rally.

They were clearly in it to win it. We were more in it to not spin it.

One of the organizers came through the gigantic traffic jam of stopped racing cars, handing out new directions for leaving Verona because the route was partly flooded. This did not bode well for the rest of the event, since weather forecasts called for continuous heavy rain and high winds. In the end, we didn’t have to worry about that, because just as we came within view of the timing control point where our time card was to be stamped, steam began to pour from the engine. As one, we looked at the water temperature gauge. “It’s on 0, it’s not working,” said Steve. He tapped on it. I tapped on it and looked closer and I said, “Oh it’s working, it’s pegged.”

Our engine had overheated and was pouring steam out, and Steve immediately got on the phone to the mechanics. They told him, “Turn it off, wait until the temperature gets down to 80 degrees, fill it with water, and you’ll be fine.”

We sat within view of the timing stand as the other cars inched past us, one after another.

After thirty minutes, the temperature was still at 100 degrees. As the last of the stragglers were passing the control point, our temperature was still at 90, and we decided to go for it.

Once we cleared off the steam and heat, we filled the whole thing with water, fired up the engine, and watched white smoke billow from the tailpipe.

Steve revved it a few times, and more and more white smoke came out. Everyone standing around looked at it and said aloud what we knew in our hearts was true: there was water in the engine, which was not a good sign.

We went through the control, got our time card stamped, and went down the road just outside the city wall. Then we pulled over under a streetlight and parked, hoping it wasn’t true, but knowing that our race was over.

The mechanics were an hour away, but we were kept company by people who had come to watch the rally and now had one car that they could just sit and stare at. So they did. We were never alone, always with bystanders. As some drifted away, others came.

One person stood and watched the entire time, making occasional comments in French. In the U.S., we don’t have that kind of time. We’d be all, “Dude, looks bad, need help? No? Okay, gotta run.” Not our Frenchman. He stood by while we waited for our guys to either rescue us and get us running or tell us the race was over.

The End

No one wants to be out, least of all the mechanics, who have worked hard on the cars, brought them to Italy, and had individual sessions with each driver to explain the idiosyncrasies unique to each of our sixty-year-old sports cars. I have never met a racing mechanic who didn’t think that, if given a chance, he could outrace his driver.

It must have been brutal for our rescue team—Klaus, Sven, and Nate Lander from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in the U.S.—to see us out of the race and not wonder what they would or could have done differently to prevent our car from overheating. What if we’d pushed it along the traffic-clogged streets of Verona instead of firing it up?

But no. Klaus apologized. “It is our fault. We gave you a car that had a problem.” He was sincere in suggesting that the problem was very likely lurking below the surface and had just worked its way to the fore. This is the beauty of being on Team Mercedes-Benz. Great guys, great cars, great organization.

The decision was made to flatbed the Gullwing about an hour south to Ferrara, where a fresh crew of mechanics could possibly change the head gasket, if parts were available. During the wait, they added water and ran the car up and down the street, causing both black smoke on acceleration and white smoke on deceleration, indicating there was water in the engine.

It felt like waiting for the College of Cardinals to vote for the new pope. They pulled spark plugs, which were surprisingly dry, and they pulled the dipstick to look for water.

The flatbed arrived, along with a phone call letting us know we had no spare parts. By then, we’d arranged the mechanics’ luggage and parts in their GL support vehicle to hold our stuff, too. A head gasket wouldn’t have fit in that stuffed GL.

Back at the hotel, the Jag boys and David Coulthard were up entertaining Brit journalists, and it occurred to me that I was mighty glad I was going to bed by 4:00 and not getting up at seven for the long drive to Rome in the pouring rain. Not ecstatic, mind you, but I left Italy with my precious invite from Mercedes-Benz secured for Mille Miglia 2014.

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