“Was it fun?” More than any other, that’s been the question I’ve been asked most since returning from the 2016 running of the Mille Miglia. Was it fun? Well, I think sitting around with your friends drinking beer qualifies as fun. The Mille is something I’m still wrapping my head around. If you’re not familiar, the Mille Miglia is a rally that takes figure eights around Italy for four days and 1,000 miles. That’s what Mille Miglia means: 1,000 miles. The starting line is up north in Brescia—if Milan’s New York, Brescia is Philly—then runs down to Rome and back up again, finishing on the street where you started.
Along the way, approximately 90 billion cheering, clapping, screaming Italians jump up and down with joy as you speed past. Emphasis on speed. Oh yeah, there’s a squadron of sharply dressed polizia riding motorbikes who follow you around the entire event, creating holes in traffic to ensure that you can maintain the frenzied pace of the Mille. The 449 cars entered in this year’s event all hail from between 1927 and 1957, the years when the original Mille race was run. My ride? A red-wine-on-white-carpet-colored 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing that we nicknamed Dunkel Rot. Is this fun? Keep reading.
My co-driver was Rob Moran, the sure-footed, quick-witted PR chief from Mercedes-Benz North America. Rob had run the Mille two years prior in a different Gullwing with my boss, Ed Loh. One would assume Rob would have tons of advice for a rookie like me. However, aside from, “We’re going to be hot, sweaty, and exhausted the entire time,” Rob had little wisdom for me. He never even told me not to crash his $2 million museum piece. He didn’t need to. Veteran Ed did have wizened words, including that all of the other Mille drivers hate the Gullwings. Turns out that not only are the 300SLs faster than every other car in the race—each morning we passed the same 30 cars—but they’re also more reliable and comfortable. Not surprisingly, those attributes were the big selling points for the 1952 W194 300SL race cars.
I experienced a seemingly never-ending series of epic, unforgettable drives.
My first few hours of the Mille took place under the cover of rain. Hardly an ideal situation for a Southern California boy, especially when you factor in drum brakes, bias-ply tires, and no seat belts. Combine that with a Mercedes man who wants his car back in one piece, and I can admit that my first stint was, from a competitive point of view, weak. We finished way behind several bogies we’d set, including Mercedes head of design Gordon Wagener’s team, Weißehosen. By the second day I had learned that if you don’t drive as fast as you’re able, if you don’t run every single red light, if you fail to break the totality of Italian traffic laws, you can’t compete.
When you’re not driving, you’re navigating. It’s arguable which one is more work.
From that point forward I experienced a seemingly never-ending series of epic, unforgettable drives I’ll still be telling people about in 30 years. One that pops to mind was a fast run between Bologna and San Marino. Another Gullwing was leading the pack, and a Porsche 550 Spyder was behind the leader, followed by Dunkel Rot and another Gullwing. For 90 minutes our Teutonic foursome flowed through the Italian countryside like molten mercury. Later that same day, an Italian bike cop led a green Alfa Romeo 1900 SS, a teal Porsche 356 Carrera, and us across the Apennines that lead into Rome. The cop and the Alfa eventually let the two Germans roar by, and I rode that four-cam Porsche until—BLAM—it turned into a three-cammer and pulled over, and our 300SL was free to keep up its frenetic pace all the way into the center of Rome, where, I must brag, we enjoyed a closed-street, police-guided midnight tour of the city. Did I mention screaming across the banking at Monza? Fun doesn’t do the Mille Miglia justice.