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Ingram: Small Man, Big Hero of The Machine Age

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 13 2010

Tazio Nuvolari gets votes for being the best race car driver ever.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief™:

At a time of year when the discussion often turns to who had the best season, the biggest impact on motor racing or who was the best rookie, my mind wanders (as usual some might say) to the big picture. Who was the greatest race car driver ever?

Since this is an opinion column, instead of trying to establish the criteria on some objective basis such as accomplishments, personality or impact and nature of the competition, I must confess that my choice is largely subjective. It has much to do with a love of history as well as respect for the opinion of some journalists who have also worked this ground such as Charles Fox, Brock Yates and Murray Walker. Above all, it has to do with the degree of difficulty as presented by the nature of events when drivers were competing, such as the cars they drove and the risks they assumed.

There are quite a few people beyond those already mentioned who continue to think the all-time best race car driver was a skinny guy with a long face, a broody complexion and eyes set a tad close. Given his height of 5-foot-5 and bandy legs, none of this would indicate an imposing person. But put Tazio Nuvolari behind the wheel of some of the world’s best racing cars of the 1920’s and 1930’s and he was nothing short of extraordinary.

Using a shimmy-like technique on the steering wheel in corners with his goggled head poked forward and elbows flailing,  Nuvolari looked and drove like a demon. By the rapid sawing movement of his hands, the “Flying Mantuan” invented the four-wheel drift technique that remains mandatory for winning to this day. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, he posted more victories in major races than any other driver.

In his seminal book, “The Great Racing Cars and Drivers,” it was Fox who best points out the context of the era upon which Nuvolari stamped his name. The enormous cars powered by engines like the supercharged straight eights, driven by solid axles and stopped by brakes considered a last resort nevertheless symbolized a new age of technology. “He lived at the height of the machine age, when racing cars – and not jets or rockets – were the popular symbol of speed and courage,” wrote Fox. “No matter what or where he drove, people were exalted by his mastery. Tazio Nuvolari was an intimate, universal hero in the age of such heroes and no mere racing driver can ever achieve that status again.”

His services were so sought after Nuvolari was regularly called upon by the likes of Alfa Romeo, Auto Union, Bugatti, Ferrari and Maserati. But despite the glamour of his career, driving a race car was a poorly paid occupation at the time. When not traveling and racing, Nuvolari lived a quiet life on a farm, dedicating himself to wife Carolina and two sons, Giorgio and Alberto.

Remembered best for a stunning victory aboard an aging Alfa P3 over the Mercedes-Benz W25 and Auto Union A-Type entries at the Nurburgring in 1935 when Hitler was touting his country’s racing cars as proof of the superior technology of the Third Reich, Nuvolari was not the least bit political in the civic sense. Despite his heroic stature, Nuvolari was among those implicated in the Race of the Millions scandal at Tripoli, when an Italian National Lottery prize of a million lira was based on the results of the race. When the Allied bombing became a problem during World War II, he simply retreated to the Ardennes mountains until the conflagration had passed.

In an age without seat belts but with speeds up to 190 mph, the majority of Nuvolari’s contemporaries died in racing accidents. But despite his small size, a reputation for always pushing his equipment to the limit and numerous horrendous accidents and broken bones, Nuvolari eventually died in bed not long before his 61st birthday from lung fibrosis. It’s possible that his long career ingesting dust and fumes in the open cockpits of the times may have been the source of his illness, apparently the cause of a fatal stroke.

With recuperative abilities that were legendary during his prime, Nuvolari often competed with broken bones using a self-styled corset made of tape, despite the fact his heyday did not arrive until the mid-1930’s when the little Italian was already past 40.  Even in his earlier motorcycle days en route to European championships, accidents and injuries rarely kept him out of competition. If injured, he had plaster casts fashioned so that he could maintain his riding position.

The cruelest irony of this incredibly strong man’s life was the loss of both of his sons to disease. His first son, Giorgio, died at age 17 from complications of typhoid fever. Nuvolari promised Giorgio he would bring back the trophy from his lone appearance in America, but the boy died soon after his ocean liner sailed from Genoa. Driving four hours and 44 minutes at Roosevelt Field, Nuvolari lost nine pounds en route to winning the gigantic Vanderbilt Cup in his son’s honor. Ten years later, Alberto died of nephritis at age 18.

That same year of 1946, Nuvolari returned to the cockpit after a five-year hiatus for World War II and took up winning again at the Albi Grand Prix in a Maserati 4CL. But that would be the last of over 40 major grand prix victories, scored at the age of 53. Typically, Nuvolari did not stop competing in some of the other major tests of the day. In 1948, he drove one of Ferrari’s new 2.0-liter sports cars in his final Mille Miglia, the 1,000-mile race on Italy’s public roads which he had won twice. It was the shoddily constructed car that collapsed, not the aging driver.

Running at reduced speeds was not one of Nuvolari’s habits. Another irony of his career was the constant criticism from the Italian press for being a car “destroyer” despite the fact he won nearly every race worth winning in his era. He refuted these critics by winning at the 24 Hours of Le Mans aboard a supercharged Alfa in his first appearance in the French classic in 1933.

Ultimately, racing cars quite possibly destroyed Nuvolari’s ability to breathe and he was finally forced to quit when blood began pouring from his mouth during races. The little Italian expressed his regret and dismay that life held such a fate for him, longing to have been fatally marred or killed in a racing accident rather than giving up to incapacitation.

Such a sentiment was typical of a ferociously brave, strong and competitive man. When an Italian journalist once chided Nuvolari for taking so many risks in a racing car, he replied, “You think you will die in bed?” His assailant replied in the affirmative. “If you are afraid of death,” said Nuvolari, “then why do you go to bed at night?”

Quote of the Week: “The greatest of all time was Tazio Nuvolari. In my opinion, no one before or since has had his winning combination of determination, ability, success and charisma but many will disagree – especially today’s countless enthuasiasts who have never heard of him!” – Murray Walker, columnist for F1 Racing magazine and longtime TV commentator for F1 events.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, December 13 2010
One Comment

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  • Terry says:

    I love this time of the year…..
    I get to read great articles about REAL racers instead of who had the bigger hissy fit Kyle or Denny…..
    I get to read about MEN who drove till the blood ran from their mouths…..instead of how JJ’s golf game is coming along….
    I get to read about drivers man handling cars that dictators are fighting wars over…..instead of ” can Jr ever learn to explain why his technoclone car doesn’t suit him ”
    I get to debate the greatest race drivers ever…..instead of wondering if Danica and Kasey are using the same make-up.
    Thank you Jon……NICE JOB…
    I am waiting for Jim to write about the KANSAS CITY FLASH….
    This is the BEST part of the season……