The Mille Miglia is perhaps the most significant classic-car rally in the world. The atmosphere is second to none, the four-day event is highly competitive and physically challenging, the exposure is memorable. But it takes more than driving and navigation skills and a fat wallet to participate. Most of the eligible cars (1927-1957 vintage) are extremely pricey, and newcomers to the qualification roulette need to field an exceptionally rare vehicle to entice the organizers, who are disposed toward Mille Miglia veterans and the repeat performers from the cash-rich motor industry. This year, 1355 candidates were vying for a place in the field of 375 entrants. The chosen will be charged a fee of [euro]7260 (about $9600), which includes a top-drawer lodging, wining, and dining package.
Too difficult, too elitist, too expensive? Here are three alternative European events that may be better suited to your budget, your driving ambitions, and your idea of a good time. To compete, all it takes is an eligible vehicle, a driver and a navigator, a driver’s license, a sports license, a medical certificate, and a pair of mechanical stopwatches. The sports license can be obtained on location, and the medical can be issued by your doctor. At the 2011 Kitzbueheler Alpenrallye, the oldest car was a 1925 Rolls-Royce Phantom I and the youngest was a 1981 Ferrari 308GTS. Anything in between goes, from a low-mileage early Volkswagen Beetle to a $5 million Bugatti Type 57. The organizers of the Ennstal-Classic are a little more restrictive. They will consider cars “of historical significance and value…[not] built after the 31st December 1972. They should possess an official approval and homologation for road service. Cars have to apply to the period specification.” The Gran Premio Nuvolari admits cars built between 1919 and 1969 that are accompanied by a FIVA passport, FIA Heritage papers, or a brand-register document, which is another way of saying that almost all old cars from that time period qualify, as long as they’re in good shape and not totally mainstream. Since there are more applicants than available slots, an automotive rarity will always be given preference over a run-of-the-mill model.
Vintage rallies are as adrenaline-pumping and deadly serious as you want them to be. If penalty points don’t hurt your self-confidence, it is perfectly fine to amble along in top gear, enjoy the beautiful landscape, and stop for coffee here or there. The key, however, is to not miss a checkpoint where the papers that qualify you to start the next stage get stamped. Those who are determined to take home a trophy or two should perfect the communication between driver and navigator so that the car’s front wheels hit the photoelectric barrier or the touch-sensitive tube exactly at the designated time. Normally, all you need to know can be found in the route book, which often is as thick as a lexicon. On certain special stages, however, a bit of mental arithmetic is essential to calculate the time it takes to cover a given distance at a posted average speed. All the literature is bilingual, so there’s no excuse for missing a turn, arriving too late at a checkpoint, or failing to maintain that average speed.
May 30-June 2, 2012 | Kitzbuehel, Austria | www.alpenrallye.at
[euro]2330 per car/team (including lodging)
The Kitzbuehel event is perfect for beginners. This is a laid-back rally, an easy 500-kilometer (311-mile) drive spread out over three days that is more of an inspired sightseeing tour than a hard-core motorsports event. The two categories offered to all participants are Sport and Classic. Sport puts a GPS transponder into your car for random en-route checks; throws in a few fast sections and the odd extra loop; and mostly comprises powerful cars like Porsches, Ferraris, and Maseratis, which take off before the rest of the field. Classic is perfect for older and slower vehicles and for those who prefer a more leisurely pace. Both groups share largely the same route, but with more than 200 cars taking part in the event, a high start number invariably means a late lunch and an even later dinner. Having said that, there are so many sightseeing breaks and snack stops that going to bed with an empty stomach is not a major concern.
Theoretically, the Kitzbueheler Alpenrallye could travel through some of Austria’s most beautiful Alpine regions. In reality, however, the route actually avoids some of the best bits. Since Kitzbuehel is a major tourist trap, traffic to and from the area varies from bad to worse, which makes channeling a convoy of old cars through notorious bottlenecks and along major transit links an often-arduous task. A three-day drive through Tyrol, Salzburg, and Styria would open up completely new opportunities, but since the participants come back to Kitzbuehel each night for dinner and lodging, they end up inching along the same perimeter roads over and over.
The Kitzbuehel rally tends to attract a large number of vintage Bentleys, Bugattis, Porsches, and Lamborghinis. With most participants originating from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, there’s a strong emphasis on European classics from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Because of VW’s corporate involvement, you see some rare VWs in action, such as a Kamei-tuned Beetle, a Karmann-Ghia 1500 cabriolet, a twenty-three-window Microbus, a Karmann TC145, and an SP2 coupe and a Puma GTS, both of which were built in Brazil. Our number 144 is a tomato-red 1973 Audi 100 Coupe S entered by the factory for Georg Kacher and Thomas Frank. A front-wheel-drive four-banger may not be the stuff dreams are made of, but the big Audi proves so roomy, comfy, and easy to drive that I’m actually looking for one that is good enough to start a small car collection.
Gran Premio Nuvolari
September 21-23, 2012 | Mantua, Italy | www.gpnuvolari.it
[euro]2500 fee per car/team (includes food and lodging)
Imagine the Mille Miglia without the hype; the Russian billionaires in their newly acquired toys; the service vans straddling the dotted line to stop other vehicles from overtaking their inept team leader; the star-studded cast sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and company, who typically roll out their most precious metal; the crazy local heroes in their obscure Italian midget coupes and roadsters; and the carabinieri on their motorbikes nullifying red lights and speed limits. Imagine the same stunning countryside, an equally challenging 994.3-kilometer route, and a comparable mix of time checks and chronometrical trials, but with fewer vehicles and a friendlier atmosphere. That’s the Gran Premio Nuvolari (GPN), a vintage car rally with flair, warm-hearted people, and a selection of exquisite vehicles.
We’re in a metallic blue 1969 NSU Ro80, a loaner from Audi Tradition, one of the event’s principal backers. Built from 1967 to 1977, the Ro80 was an engineering masterpiece ahead of its time. Designed by Claus Luthe, its four-door body is roomy, striking to look at, and exceptionally slippery. Matching the avant-garde shape is a dual-chamber rotary engine rated at 115 hp. Perhaps even more offbeat is the semiautomatic, touch-sensitive three-speed transmission that employs a torque converter as well as an electromagnetic clutch. As soon as you hit the gear lever, the electronics activate the clutch and wait for the upshift or downshift impulse. Sounds — and is — complicated, especially when gearchanges are executed at high revs.
Also part of our small group are a white 1960 Auto Union 1000 SP coupe and a black 1936 Wanderer W25K. More than half the participants are from Italy, so there’s a strong emphasis on Italian cars. Among the most exceptional specimens are an Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Sport, a very rare OM Sport 665 TT Superba, a Fiat 1500 Aerodinamica, a Cisitalia 202MM, a Stanguellini 1100 Sport Barchetta, and a Maserati 150S.
The route combines the best of all worlds: sleepy villages; long, fast straights; winding mountain roads; and even a side trip to the Autodromo Riccardo Paletti, near Parma. In essence, the GPN describes a loop that takes us to the Riviera di Levante at Viareggio and Livorno and then across Italy to the Adriatic Sea at Rimini. The start and finish is in Mantua. But this is much more than a
scenic drive: the posted average speed puts some of the slower cars to a real test, and a total of eighty-nine checkpoints — some of them unannounced — keep the navigators on their toes.
The GPN crisscrosses the Mille Miglia route, but whereas the Mille stops at every picturesque piazza it can find for a chaotic time check, the Nuvolari tries to avoid built-up areas and runs on the most picturesque back roads Umbria and Marche have in store. Unfortunately, when we arrived in San Leo on day two, the timekeepers were already collecting their gear, which led to an early disqualification. The Ro80 made it to Rimini in time for the festive dinner and for plenty of ice-cold prosecco, but we arrived too late to get our scorecard stamped. We then ventured into day three — through Ravenna and Ferrara — numberless, undecorated, and painfully anonymous. It’s always sad to end an event with a DNF, but when your grace period is mere minutes, one stop too many can make all the difference. I would love to return with a slightly sportier car and an uncompromised mission. The Gran Premio Nuvolari and I have a score to settle.
July 11-14, 2012 | Groebming, Austria | www.ennstal-classic.at
[euro]2200 per team (includes food but not lodging)
The Ennstal-Classic, which will be in its twentieth year this summer, is considered Europe’s secret number-one vintage-car rally. The Ennstal even eclipses the Mille Miglia when it comes to scenic beauty, the challenging nature of the event, and the amicable spirit, which really can’t be matched. This is a three-day event, but only the first two days are devoted to the actual competition. The prologue on Thursday is an energy-sapping, 400-kilometer marathon that takes you deep into the night. The main event on Friday is an even tougher 500-kilometer tour de force over some of Central Europe’s most demanding roads. On Saturday, the Ennstal-Classic unwinds with a timed but emphatically relaxed exhibition run through the village of Groebming. The key to victory is the 50-kph average-speed rule, which is enforced on various sections and stages of the main two-day tour. A transponder in every car and electronic timekeeping equipment warrant total transparency and accuracy. Penalty points await for every 0.01 second of crossing the line on either side of the clock.
We arrived in Groebming in the pouring rain — almost too late for the technical inspection, which is taken quite seriously here. When you are number 176 out of 185, Thursday is bound to feel like the longest day of your life. The parade gets underway at 8:30 a.m., followed by a brief hill-climb up the legendary Stoderzinken mountain. After a break, the first vehicle leaves the summit at noon for the prologue, which picks up speed fifteen minutes later in downtown Groebming. But not for us. Number 176 had four hours to kill, so we went swimming in a nearby lake, the fully dressed rally car parked next to an ice-cream stand. This time, my ride was the same 1973 Audi 100 Coupe S that I drove in the Kitzbueheler Alpenrallye. In case you don’t remember, here are the key specs: front-wheel drive like the NSU Ro80, 1871-cc four-cylinder engine rated at 115 hp, four-speed manual transmission, no A/C, and no power anything but inboard ventilated front disc brakes and a torsion-bar rear suspension with a Panhard rod. For a four-seater, the Audi is quite light at 2400 pounds. In its day, the 100S was renowned for its supple ride comfort, grippy roadholding, and fail-safe handling.
On most stages, our red coupe was sandwiched between the guy in front — former rally star Jochi Kleint in a perfectly restored Opel Rallye Kadett GT/E — and the guy behind — ace endurance driver Roger Bell in a yellow Lambor-ghini Miura S entered by the factory. We started every day in that order, but when night fell, Kleint and his 10,000-watt Christmas tree on steroids disappeared so fast that not even Bell could keep up. The first regular stop was the regional Niederoeblarn airport, where we whipped the red Audi through the cone gymkhana as if this were the ultimate time trial. A new addition to the route is the Red Bull Ring racetrack, which has been turned into one long, breathtaking special stage that produces more prominent spins than a series of wet hairpins. Although the weather, even high up in the Alps, is normally quite good in summer, we experienced everything from rain, sleet, and hail to a very humid 95 degrees and sunshine. On day two, a monster thunderstorm washed sand, rocks, and debris onto the road, so that section was neutralized when a fifty-car lineup had formed on one side of the obstacle. We didn’t see a single accident, but the dropout rate was high due to damaged tires, overheating engines, and electrical gremlins.
After six hours, the arms hurt, the legs hurt, the back hurt, and even the eyes hurt as night took its toll. We arrived in Groebming just before 1:00 a.m., hungry, thirsty, smelly, and ready for bed, which was still almost a twenty-mile drive away. Three wake-up calls later, it’s time for a shower, a quick breakfast, and a stop at the filling station. Ahead of us lies a murderous ten-hour drive, which forces every competitor to pull out all the stops. Famous geographic highlights include the Nockalmstrasse, Soelk Pass, Dachstein, and the Tauern region as well as countless smaller mountain ranges and valleys. Thomas Frank, the gray eminence behind Audi Tradition, is a seasoned navigator and an excellent radar-trap spotter. But crossing the finish line at exactly the right moment takes a lot of practice and a smoother driver than this author, who typically got there either a touch late or a fraction early. As a result, we finished at the back of the pack, fifty-first in our class. That’s the bad news. The good news is that number 176 ranked only seven positions behind New Zealander Mike Thackwell, who competed successfully in Formula 2. Better still, Sir Stirling Moss and his wife, Susie, came in three places behind us in their Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster. Beating one of the greatest racing drivers of all time in a 1.9-liter Audi won’t stop the world from turning, but it does a bruised ego a lot of good.