At its height, the Mille Miglia (Thousand Miles) was one of the world’s most iconic automobile races, with drivers travelling through the Italian countryside at high speeds. Unfortunately, it was cancelled in the mid-late 1950s due a crash involving a Ferrari.
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Unlike endurance races at Le Mans or Daytona, the Mille Miglia is a race against the clock rather than against other cars. Each car was released with one-minute intervals and smaller, lower displacement cars started first.
The first event was held in 1927 and organised in response to the fact the Italian Grand Prix was moved from Brescia (the organiser’s hometown) to Monza. Mille Miglia translates to thousand miles, which was roughly the total length of the course.
The 1957 race
The 24th edition of the Mille Miglia was held on May 11-12, 1957 and was Round 3 of the World Sports Car Championship season. Scuderia Ferrari and a variety of privateers entered with 15 cars, one of which was a Ferrari 335 S – number 531 – driven by Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago and his navigator Edmund Nelson.
The race was won by Scuderia Ferrari driver Piero Taruffi, who completed the course in 10 hours, 27 minutes and 47 seconds. He finished 3 minutes in front of his second-placed teammate, the German driver Wolfgang von Trips. Olivier Gendebien and Jacques Washer were next, ensuring that Scuderia Ferrari finished 1, 2 and 3.
De Portago and Nelson left Brescia at 5:31 AM at a good pace, though some 70 kilometres from the finish line, the front tyre of the Ferrari 335 S exploded in the town of Guidizzolo. Portago lost control of the car and hit a telephone pole. He had so much speed that the car jumped over a stream of water, hitting a few spectators along the way, and bounced back onto the road where the car hit more spectators. The car slid over the road and ended up in another stream next to the road.
Both de Portago and Nelson were pronounced dead immediately after the crash. Ten spectators, including five children, lost their lives as well. Around 20 others were injured.
Three days after the race, the Italian government ordered the end of the Mille Miglia and banned all motor racing on public roads.
The crash investigation revealed that Portago was so desperate to win the race, he had waited too long to replace the worn tyre. Both Scuderia Ferrari and the tyre manufacture were sued and investigated, too. Enzo Ferrari himself was charged with manslaughter, but the case was finally dismissed in 1961.
The Mille Miglia briefly came back as a rally from 1958 and 1961, and in 1977, it was revived as a historic event just for pre-1957 race cars that had previously entered or registered for a Mille Miglia race.
Written by Max Lammers.