Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram*
The Flying Mantuan
Every race fan has a favorite racing hero from days gone by. Mine was a guy with a long face, deep set eyes and a broody complexion. Bandy-legged and short, there was not much about Tazio Nuvolari that suggested greatness before he got behind the wheel.
Born in Casteldario, a small town in Northern Italy near Mantua, few things ever fit together for the little man other than the combination of a prodigious competitive spirit and a talent for manhandling the gargantuan grand prix cars of the 1920's and 1930's. No matter where or what Nuvolari drove, wrote racing historian Charles Fox, "people were exalted by his mastery."
Touched by tragedy, tinged by the scandal in Tripoli and born too soon to compete with Fangio or Clark on a head-to-head basis, Nuvolari became what many regard as the greatest of all time by scoring more major racing victories between the wars than any other driver. By some counts, his career victory total reached 70.
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.
Despite the glory and the glamour of the era when racing cars were the most compelling symbols of the machine age, Nuvolari lived a quiet life on a farm when not traveling, dedicating himself to wife Carolina and his two sons Giorgio and Alberto.
He lived a humble life in part because he was vastly underpaid. But other than a lack of decent money for his services, Nuvolari was very much appreciated in the racing world. He was sought by Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Maserati, Auto Union and Ferrari.
Remembered best for a stunning victory in the rain and mist aboard an aging P3 Alfa-Romeo over the Third Reich's Mercedes-Benz W25 and Auto Union A-Type entries at the Nurburgring in 1935, Nuvolari was not the least bit political in the civic sense. He sat out the World War II on his farm and when the Allied bombing became a problem, he retreated to the Alpenne mountains to wait out the conflict.
In an age without seatbelts but with speeds approaching 200 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.
His lung fibrosis may have resulted from ingesting too much dust, fumes or both in the open cockpits of the time. Since none of his contemporaries lived long enough or drove as often, he was the only driver who suffered enough exposure to possibly cause such a problem.
After winning two motorcycle national championships in Italy, Nuvolari's hey day did not begin until the 1930's, when he was already past 40 years old. With recuperative capacities that were legendary in his prime, starting with his two-wheel career Nuvolari often competed with broken bones. He had plaster casts fashioned so he could maintain his riding position as a two-wheeler and later used a self-styled corset of tape while racing cars despite broken bones.
The cruelest irony of this incredibly strong man's life was the loss of both 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 race appearance in America, but the boy died soon after an ocean liner with Nuvolari on board steamed out of Genoa. At Roosevelt Field, while driving nearly five hours the diminutive Italian, who stood only 5-5, lost nine pounds en route to winning the gigantic Vanderbilt Cup in his son's honor.
Ten years later, Nuvolari's second son Alberto died of nephritis at age 18. That same year of 1946, he returned to the cockpit after a five-year hiatus for the War, sublimating his pain once again, taking the Albi Grand Prix in a Maserati 4CL. Scored at the age of 53 that would be his last over-all victory in a major grand prix.
He didn't stop competing in the major tests of the day. In 1948, Nuvolari drove one of Ferrari's new 2.0-liter sports cars in his last Mille Miglia, a race had had won twice. It was the shoddily constructed car that collapsed, not the driver.
Running at reduced speeds was not one of Nuvolari's habits. Another of the ironies of his career was the constant criticism from the Italian press for being a car "destroyer" despite the fact he won every race worth winning in his era. At Le Mans, he refuted the critics by winning aboard a supercharged Alfa in his first appearance in the French classic in 1933.
Ultimately, 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. Nuvolari 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, gallant and competitive man. When an Italian journalist once chided Nuvolari for taking so many risks in a racing car, he responded with a question of his own.
"You think you will die in bed?" he asked the journalist. His assailant replied in the affirmative. "If you are so afraid of death," said Nuvolari, "then why do you go to bed at night?"
*(Editor's note: this article was adapted from one that first appeared in On Track Magazine in December of 1999.)
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.