You can belly up to any bar between Sandy Hook and Nob Hill and get an argument by alleging that Joe Louis is the greatest fighter who ever lived, or that George Herman Ruth could out-hit Joe DiMaggio. Was Bobby Jones really the last word in golf? The nineteenth-hole experts will not concede it. Was Reggie MacNamara, the bone-setters’ delight, really the finest rider who ever strapped his feet to a racing bicycle, and was Tommy Hitchcock truly the greatest thing that ever happened to the game of polo? The hot-stove statisticians will deny it, and hurl Torchy Peden and Cecil Smith in your teeth. And so it goes in almost every sport from tiddlywinks to weight-lifting. But there is at least one exception, and that is automobile racing. This pastime, the practitioners of which are divided into two classes – those who get killed before they get good and those who get killed afterwards – had for years one absolute unchallenged boss, a small, fiery Italian named Tazio Nuvolari.
Nobody who knows anything about it will argue the proposition that Tazio Nuvolari was the greatest driver who ever held the wheel of an automobile. He was the racing driver’s driver, the epitome of the absolute professional. When Nuvolari was driving only the ranking experts could appreciate how good he was, and understand why, though conceding that they could not hope to emulate him.
Tazio Nuvolari had broken his back trying to go fast before most of his contemporaries had learned to shave, and he started his final races knowing that at the finish, if he could last that long, they’d have to lift him out of the car, his chin dripping with blood that had welled up into his mouth as he drove.
For more than a quarter of a century Nuvolari devoted himself to racing with a passion, an intensity of purpose, that has almost no parallel in any other sport. Nuvolari waited for the fall of the starter’s flag with the same savage, single-minded determination that marked Jack Dempsey waiting for the bell. Other fabulously good drivers came up, ran against him for a while and then went on, most of them killed at the wheel. His las great rival, Achille Varzi, died in the rain on a fast bend in the Swiss Bremgarten circuit in 1948. Rudolf Caracciola, the best known of Nuvolari’s contemporaries, is in retirement in Switzerland. But the little man from Mantua quit only when he had to, and then bitterly and reluctantly.
The kind of racing that produced Nuvolari has had no large-scale parallel in America sine World War I. It is road racing, altogether a different matter from the track racing known in the United States. The European circuits are laid out in three forms:
(I) Ordinary roads in everyday use, closed on the day of the race. The Rheims circuit, scene of the French Grand Prix, is such a course, a tough triangle formed of two main roads linked by a secondary highway and measuring just under five miles to the lap. The circuit can be lapped at 100 miles per hour and top speeds of around 190 are possible.
(2) Courses laid out in city streets. The Grand Prix of Monte Carlo is an example: 100 laps of two miles, with ten sharp turns, some of them hairpins, to the lap. Roughly there are 1000 turns and 2000 gear changes in the course, and many drivers have been lifted out of their cars after finishing, their glove stuck to the blistered palms of their hands.
(3) Courses built for racing and used for nothing else, some of them incorporating an oval track together with a great deal of regular roadway. A fabulous example of this type was the German Nürburg Ring, fourteen miles to the lap. Cut into the Eifel mountains just across from the Belgian frontier, the Nürburg Ring was built as a public works project in the 1920’s and is certainly the most spectacular racing circuit ever laid out. Two thousand feet above sea level, it carries about 175 curves, and a speed range of 60 – 160 miles per hour is needed to negotiate it with any hope of winning. The one straight in the course is about three miles in length and has two camel-back bridges cunningly arranged to put daylight under all four wheels of the cars as they pass at speeds in the desperate 150-m.p.h. category. One of these bridges killed the very able German driver E. von Delius when he came down to tick the rear of the car in front of him. When his big Auto-Union stopped bouncing it was a good quarter of a mile off the course.
(During the last few years American road racing has been revived, and some competent drivers are now practising in the country. But the U.S. races have been run by sports cars – high-efficiency passenger-carrying vehicles – with top speeds in the 130-m.p.h. range, rather than the full Grand Prix machines of 200-m.p.h. potential that dominated Europe in the years before World War II. Too, the distances run have been much shorter: 100 miles, for example, instead of 350.)
Running over the first-rank European courses in the three years 1934 – 1936 – the middle of the best decade auto-racing ever saw – Nuvolari won fourteen Grand Prix races and placed in nine. Allowing for the difference in length, say it’s the equivalent of winning five times in succession at Indianapolis and placing four times. Nuvolari’s nearest competitor, the master Caracciola, won nine times and placed four in the same years.
Although as many as 400,000 people have watched a race at the Nürburg Ring and crowds of 100,000 were common at other courses during the ‘30s, it has never been easy to extract the maximum commercial return out of a road race, with spectators scattered over half a country getting a free look. It was this factor, as much as anything else, that killed off U.S. road races, the Vanderbilt Cup and others. Nuvolari ran in the revived Vanderbilt races, in 1936 and 1937, when they were run on a special track full of bends and hairpins, on Long Island. In the 1936 race Nuvolari took the lead at the beginning and held it to the end. Mauri Rose and Wilbur Shaw, both three-time winners at Indianapolis, ran in the 1936 event. Rose came in 25 minutes behind Nuvolari. Shaw did not finish.
Nuvolari appeared again in the starting line-up at Long Island in 1937, but his Alfa-Romeo caught fire early in the race. He was accelerating out of a hairpin turn when a roaring sheet of flame slammed into the cockpit. The little man stood up on the seat, steering the car with one hand until it stopped, and cursing in Italian at the top of his voice. He never got the car started again. The Germans mopped up that year, although the American Rex Mays put up a tremendous show in an outclassed car and finally finished third for a great personal triumph.
Skill of the kind that characterized Nuvolari’s work is not routinely required in a track race, and thus the Americans have never developed drivers like him, or Seaman or Varzi or Rosemeyer.
This is not to suggest that Indianapolis, for example, is for boys. It is certainly nothing of the kind, but endurance of man and machine counts for more at the Indiana track than in most road races, and it is one of the dullest big races in the world to watch. It is, however, fast and easy to follow, and its devotees, many of whom see no other racing the whole year round, like it for those reasons.
It is the ability to get around corners that wins Grand Prix road races, and not since the first one-lunger chugged down the road has any mortal taken corners with Tazio Nuvolari’s abandon, grace and virtuosity. The method is simple and easily understood. Just as any musician can tell you how to play the fiddle, though it may take a Heifetz to do it properly, so any driver can tell you how to put a car through a corner, any corner, from a 15-mile hairpin to a 150-mile bend. If you’re an orthodox, you take the line on the corner that everyone else is following – there’ll be a lot of rubber on it to point the way – because you believe that there is only one correct line for any given corner, and that it cannot be varied by more than a foot either way. You believe that a coin placed in the road before the race should be hit by your right front wheel every time around.
We’ll assume that this is a right-hand bend, so you turn the wheel ever so slightly to the right. As the car goes into the bend the rear naturally starts to come around, building up a skid. You correct y turning the wheel to the left, ever so little. The engine is now pushing the car in the direction its nose is facing (right) while centrifugal force is pushing it to the left, and you are in what is known as a power slide. Thereafter you steer with the throttle. To go to the right, you use more power; to go to the left, you use less. As you come out of the curve, you twitch the wheel to centre again, perhaps correct a slight skid to the right and off you go.
Everyone knows this is how it’s done. But it is a little hard to learn because if you allow a couple of hundred r.p.m. too much, or one twitch of the wheel too little, you are off the road. People have lived through such incidents, but when they came out of hospital most of them found that they had suffered compound chronic impairment of the zeal.
Generally speaking, it’s considered poor form to slide too much in a curve. It looks spectacular, but it’s rough on tyres and the average driver will lose time in a slide. Nuvolari habitually broke this rule. Just as he broke almost every other rule in the business.
He did not believe that there was one and only one correct line on a corner. He might go into the curve straight and come of it sliding, or her might slide the whole way through. He might go into the curve with the car pointing the wrong way for the entrance but the right way for the exit, and hold it in that attitude all the way through. He could slide a car through a curve at 150 m.p.h. with the front wheels six inches from a fence at the beginning of the bend and the same six inches from it at the end. No one has ever bettered his fantastic judgement of a car’s balance: its speed sideways as well as forward, and the exact amount of weight resting on each of the four wheels as the load shifted from side to side and front to back under braking, turns and acceleration.
The little man’s career is full of examples of his weird art. In 1935 the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo was driven in a heavy rain. One car broke an oil line in the middle of a double bend, dumping an enormous quantity of oil on the already rain-slick pavement. The next car through crashed. The second crashed. No. 3 crashed. No. 4 piled into him and No. 5 repeated. Nuvolari was sixth and he hit the corner with his foot well down. He not only steered the car through the oil, slamming the wheels from side to side faster than the eye could follow, but he never touched one of the five cars stacked up all over the place. If it wasn’t the greatest display of sheer virtuosity ever seen on the road it will have to do until something better comes along.
Nuvolari was born in 1892 – November 16 – in the tiny village of Castel d’Ario in the province of Mantua. They still call him ‘Il Mantovano Volante’ – the Flying Mantuan. He was a strange, lonely, arrogant child. Because he was small as a boy he exercised violently to be strong and he was head man among the kids of his age in Castel d’Ario. When he played, he played to win: he was a hard winner and a poor loser. He would take no lip from anybody.
Nothing slowed the boy down. When a plane crashed near his home,, Tazio appointed himself salvage expert. The ship was one of the early broomstick-and-baling-wire affairs, and he rebuilt I to his own specifications. Then he hoisted it to the roof, tied it to the chimney and cranked up the engine. When it was turning over he cut the rope and took off. The flight was short, practically straight down, and the boy was picked up with a broken back. T was his first crash. He was to have seven major smash-ups later in life. They left him with one leg an inch and a half shorter than the other, a missing index finger and bone fractures too numerous and varied for him to remember.
Nuvolari at speed was never smooth, imperturbable, steady, like Caracciola, or the Frenchman, Louis Chiron, or the Siamese, Bira. He yelled, shook his fist, he bounced up and down in the car like a jack-in-the-box, he drove with one hand and beat on the side of the car with the other. Nuvolari, at his peak, was a show-off in spades, bit with a difference – he had what it took. He wasn’t bluffing.
Tazio’s long-suffering father eventually bought him a motorcycle and the unhappy villagers speedily learned the wisdom of getting off the road when they heard him coming. He learned that you could go faster, and get into less trouble, in a race, and so he got down to business and turned pro.
During the next few years he won about 300 races in Italy and abroad. There was a time at Monza when he found himself in a cast on the day of the race, forbidden to move out of a hospital bed for thirty days. He made his friends carry him to the track and strap him on the bike. Once they’d started him, he could stay on as long as he kept it moving. He kept it moving. He won!
He graduated to automobiles in 1921 and places second in his class the first time out: the Garda Circuit, 122 miles long. He ran again in 1922 and was absolute second, regardless of class, driving an Ansaldo. He won his first big race, the Tigullio Circuit, in 1924, and won his class in the Savio Circuit the sae year. Absolute winner that year was Enzo Ferrari, an automobile designer from Modena.
For the three years from 1924 to March 1927 Nuvolari raced only motor-cycles. Then in 1927 he ran a Bugatti in the Mille Miglia, perhaps the toughest race in the world and always his favourite. He came in fifth. In June 1927, he won the International Royal Prize of Rome race and decided to give up motor-cycles for good. From then on he drove in every big automobile race he could enter.
By 1929 Nuvolari was an acknowledged ranking expert. He switched from the French Bugatti car to the Italian Alfa-Romeo and began to trounce the great men of the day, drivers like Campari Arcangeli and Brilli Peri. He was 90 seconds behind Achille Varzi at Leghorn that year, and when the 1930 Mille Miglia rolled around again Nuvolari was out for blood.
The Mille Miglia has no exact counterpart among the world’s big races. Run over approximately 1000 miles of ordinary highway, it starts at Brescia, runs down to Rome, and then up the peninsula again to Florence, Turin, Milan and Brescia again. It is usually run in about 16 hours, and as many as 200 cars may start. Nuvolari took 16 hours 18 minutes 59 seconds to win it in 1930, and it was the first time anyone had averaged more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) per hour. Caracciola, in a big 6-litre Mercedes-Benz, was an hour behind him. Eighteen years later, in 1948, Nuvolari came within a hair of doing it again.
In ’31 Nuvolari really got going. He won, among other contests, the Targo Florio. The next year he won the Targa Florio again and the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara. The Pescara Circuit was a typical Grand Prix car killer, sixteen miles to the lap, a four-mile straight along the Adriatic sea-coast, then 2000 feet up into the mountains, through a couple of villages, and down to the sea again, the downhill leg being enlivened by a bend that had to be taken at 130 m.p.h. if one had any intention of finishing with the rest of the boys.
Nuvolari kept it up during 1933, taking the Mille Miglia once more, the Le Mans 24-Hour race in France, and many others. During 1934, Nuvolari ran in Maserati cars, then went back to Alfas again, winning often and finding time also to set new international records for the kilometre and the mile, flying and standing start both.
The winning of the German Grand Prix in 1935 may be the most authoritative measure of Nuvolari’s ability because to do it he had to beat the two finest stables of drivers in the world (the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union) who were driving cars that were infinitely faster than his own. The Mercedes-Benz was incredibly quick, and by 1935 the Auto-Union car was producing 400 horse-power and was good for 200 m.p.h. It had only one drawback: because of the placement of engine and driver, it was perhaps the hardest car in the world to drive. It was so tough, in fact, that the Auto-Union firm preferred to hire men who had never driven racing cars before and train them from scratch. If drivers had anything to unlearn as a result of having driven conventional cars, they were usually pretty sad on Auto-Unions, and the star driver of the team, Bernd Rosemeyer, was a converted motor-cycle racer who had never driven a racing car in his life. Nuvolari, of course, was something else again. When he got around to driving Auto-Unions, just before the war, he drove them as if he’d been born in one.
But in 1935 he was still driving an Alfa-Romeo of the type that had been supreme until the Mercedes-Benz came along. It had an eight-cylinder engine with the flywheel in the middle of the block, two carburettors, two superchargers, and two drive shafts, each one running to a separate differential on the back axle.
Both Auto-Union and Mercedes could leave Nuvolari’s Alfa in acceleration, and could outrun it on a straightaway. Further, they had superior braking and could thus hold speed for a fraction of a second longer before entering a curve. Nonetheless, the little man from Mantua beat their ears off over the rugged Nürburg Ring circuit in 1935 and did it on sheer driving and nerve. Stuck of Auto-union was second, Caracciola of Mercedes was third, Bernd Rosemeyer was fourth. Nuvolari had warmed up for this triumph the year before, when, driving his own Maserati asan independent, he had taken second in the Coppa Acerbo and third in the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix Masaryk, both times against the full factory-backed teams of Auto-Unions and Mercedes-Benzes.
Still driving for Alfa-Romeo in 1936, Nuvolari – or ‘Il Maestro’, as they were calling him now – won five Grand Prix races. He was second at Monza and the Eifelrennen in Germany. He continued to drive Alfas during 1937, but the car was so hopelessly outclassed by the big Germans that he accepted an offer to drive for Auto-Union during the next season, and won twice, at Monza and the Donington Grand Prix in England. In the thirtieth lap of the latter race he demonstrated again the art of driving on oil. An English Alta had blown up, dumping all its oil on the track. Nuvolari went through it safely; the next two cars through skidded out of control. Donington was the last Grand Prix race of 1938, and in 1939, before the war put an end to racing, Nuvolari picked up the Grand Prix of Yugoslavia for Auto-Union.
The little man began to drive again as soon as races were organized in Europe. But his health was going fast now, and what he did, he did on nerve. He ran in the Italian Champion’s Circuit in ’46, but didn’t place. He won the Grand Prix of Albi (France) in a Maserati, but collapsed after the race, holding the traditional winner’s bouquet of flowers. He won at Forlí and Parma in the new Ferrari, a post-war car. He entered the 1947 Mille Miglia, his old favourite, driving a tiny Cisitalia. He drove like a madman and was well ahead of the pack at Florence, more than half-way through the 1125 miles of the ‘47 course. But the last half of the race was run in a torrential downpour of rain, so heavy that some competitors stopped altogether, quite unable to see ahead, and on the last third of the course, between Turin and Milan, Nuvolari’s engine was flooded. He lost about twenty minutes changing the magneto and was nosed out for first place by a 2.9-litre Alfa, a closed coupe of vastly more power than his little pen Cisitalia. They had to lift him out when he came into Brescia.
In the 1948 Mille Miglia (Nuvolari would very much have liked to win this one once more) he came to into Rome, the half-way mark, thirty minutes ahead of the other 150 cars in the running. But his Ferrari had shed its bonnet. He was still ahead, and gaining, at Florence and at Bologna, but he had ripped the mudguards off the car and the seat was broken. Nuvolari has always been hard on his mounts, a great flogger of automobiles, a car killer. One spring after another let go until finally, near Modena, the Ferrari quit completely. It could not take the beating Nuvolari had given it. He sat in the car, miserable and dejected, until an old priest came along and took him to the parish house, made him eat and put him to bed.
At Bari, in the spring of 1948, he had to come into his pit during the practice, bleeding from the mouth. For a time he tried wearing a mask to keep the exhaust fumes out of his throat, but it didn’t work. At Pescara, in August 1948, a similar attack kept him from starting. He couldn’t get out of bed. He cried then, and for the first time he was heard to say, ‘I’m through.’
In 1951 he entered hospital in Verona for a tonsillectomy, hoping that the operation would enable him to tolerate exhaust fumes again, but to no avail. Still he would not admit absolutely that he could not hope to drive again. He had little else to sustain him. His two sons, Alberto and Giorgio, had been taken from him by death. Nuvolari had made some wise investments, was moderately well off, but business held no attraction for him.
In 1950 he fell in love with another automobile: the twelve-cylinder rear-engined Cisitalia, a Grand Prix car of the first rank which has yet to run as this is written. This fantastic little automobile had five speeds forward, an elective four-wheel drive, an estimated top speed of 230 miles per hour, and Nuvolari was sure, when he first read the plans, that with this car he could beat everything in the world. But the Cisitalia manufacturing company was financially too weak to contemplate the cost of financing a Grand Prix campaign for the car. A minimum of $75,000 in additional capital was required. Nuvolari undertook to raise the sum single-handed. ‘I shall make myself responsible,’ he said. It could not be done. The Cisitalia company moved from Italy to Argentine, and the twelve-cylinder Grand Prix car went with it.
‘Nivola’ won his last race, the Monte Pellegrino, on April 10, 1950, driving an 1100-c.c. Abarth. He was 58 years old. At one point in the running of this race he had one wheel spinning in empty air over a precipice, but he brought it back. He would not consider such a trifle notable. He could recall more exciting incidents: the time, for example, when he had had to leave a burning car. He go it down to 100 miles an hour, but there was no time left. He jumped. He was racing again in two weeks. A contemporary once remarked that in a race with the Devil he would have to bet on Nuvolari.
To win his second Mille Miglia, Nuvolari had to pass Varzi in the last 100 miles or so. Varzi was well ahead, and to keep him off his guard Nuvolari drove 60 miles through the pitch-black country roads with all his lights turned off! His riding mechanic, a brave man, and indifferent to ordinary hazards, was horrified. Nuvolari was within feet of Varzi when he flicked on his lights, blasted past and won by 500 yards!
In his lifetime this incredible man had finished in 130 automobile races. Won 64 in all, 52 absolutely (regardless of engine size). He won 12 races of the grandes épreuves category, the first rank, and 49 grands prix races. In 1933, a typical year, he entered 15 races, won ten of them (including the Mille Miglia and Le Mans!), was second three times, fifth once, eleventh once. In his whole lifetime he finished second only 17 times, third only 10 times! Usually he either won or broke up the engine.
Tazio Nuvolari was very ill the last two years of his life, and in a paralytic coma for many weeks before his death on August 10, 1953. He died at his home in Mantua.
Most authorities think we will not see again the like of this little man. Nuvolari was 29 years in putting together his fantastic record, and merely to survive 29 years of professional automobile road-racing is miraculous. But no one who ever saw him can forget him, and there are many who close their eyes and remember him, remember the slight, short figure, the brown hairy arms, the blue mechanic’s trousers, the yellow turtle-neck sweater with its flamboyant monogrammed ‘TB’, the turtle brooch, a gift from D’annunzio, the lean, tanned vulpine face with its great out-jutting jaw that was like no other jaw in the world save that over which Juan Belmonte, terero, matador, immortal, stared as he killed 3000 bulls.