In Italy of 1957, during the golden age of danger and dare; Formula One racing car drivers began to emerge from around the world to compete with the charismatic Italian racers and car designers. The world of fast racing cars was a small bubble of freedom in the developing world where regulation was held at bay.
Young men emerged, who were dashing, daring. Many were eager to skim the edge of death, then live to tell the consequences. After the race they would talk to each other of such daring undertakings. Perhaps they were coming forth in search of adulation and prestige. This came with winning. They had a dire need for speed and to live on the edge for a few brief moments and then come down from the high adrenalin buzz, in each other’s company. Often they liked to discuss their deeds and desires in bars and restaurants. They spent racing seasons doing this from one racing event to another and each driver was moulded in a different way, with different views to come to grips with the constant danger they faced. Many lived fast and died young. It was part of the compelling aspect of danger that gripped some.
We all know how dangerous Formula One Racing has been and still is, but in the decades of 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, so many racers were getting killed in the pursuit of high speed glory.
Still, young men came forward to dice with high speed vehicles, constructed by the world’s top designers. Among the best of these designers in the 1950s was Enzo Ferrari. He wanted to make better and faster cars all of the time and needed such men to be daring enough to push his dream machines to the limit.
Among such drivers was one old veteran who had never won a major race, but had taken part in many. His name was Piero Taruffi and he was 51 years of age in 1957 and he had a wife and family. The great Italian Formula One race of the Mille Miglia was coming around for its annual staging, and Piero Taruffi wanted to emerge from semi-retirement to dance once more with the Mille Migila, the prestigious Italian race. He had attempted to win the race twelve times before, but to no avail. There had always been more determined and better contestants. In 1957 there was a new breed of young men who were hungry for victory. Piero had often said to his wife he would retire if he could win the Mille Miglia endurance race that started in Brescia and went on for a thousand KM in a circle of roads around central Italy to finish back at Brescia, where it started. His wife must have been under strain and worry because like all racers Piero always seemed to need to achieve a goal that was just out of reach. At 51, he had lived longer than many. The law of averages was against him.
Among the youngsters entering the 1957 Mille Miglia were many great up and coming names, like Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Mike Hawthorn and others who were big names of the time.
In a small Italian restaurant there was a gathering of such awe inspiring names before the final dash toward Brescia and the finish line. They were young Ferrari team mates enjoying one another’s company. A group of young dare devils who would not live to be old. One was about to die, while the other two would see a few more races before coming to an untimely end.
One was Alfonso de Portago – London born Spaniard of 28. He sat with Wolfgang Von Trips – a young German from Cologne who had overcome illness of polio to attain such fitness to drive a Formula One Ferrari. Then there was Peter Collins – a fine looking young fair haired Englishman who was also in the Ferrari team. With these three young racers was an actress called Linda Christian – a beautiful looking lady from Mexico who had been married to Tyrone Power. She was engaged to be married to Alfonso de Portago, the Spanish driver. All three of these great drivers would fall victim to the Formula One circuit and pay for their love of racing with their lives. However this was to be the last time Portago would indulge in such camaraderie with his good team mates Wolfgang and Peter. As said before, they would live for a few more years and races yet. It would also be the last time Alfonso and his fiancé Linda would see each other. This little moment in eternity for a group of searchers and chancers.
These drivers went into the last part of the contest with many others equally determined to win the endurance race. It was within the last 30 mile stretch that Wolfgang Von Trips and the old veteran Silver Fox (Piero Taruffi) got into a duel with one another. Each driver pushing his Ferrari for a little extra, wondering if there was a little more to the dream machine’s limit.
A few minutes behind was the Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago. Wolfgang and Piero had each thundered through the tiny village of Guidizzolo where spectators from the little dwellings had gathered along the roadway to watch the fast racing cars zoom past on the final run toward the finishing line at Brescia, some thirty miles beyond. They happily cheered, while Wolfgang and Piero zoomed through the humble little place. Each man was lost in their duel of speed, no doubt leaving the small village receding behind. Oblivious of the diabolical fame about to be bestowed upon the little Italian habitations. The two competing racer’s thoughts were upon the contest as pulsing pistons thrashed up and down willing the engines to motor the fine Ferrari vehicles towards the glory of the approaching finishing line that was over a few more hills and not so far away.
The village spectators waited for other racing cars to come charging passed. All were cheering and waving excitedly in eager anticipation. They saw the fast approaching car of Alfonso de Portago speeding down towards their little village at around 130 miles per hour. Many may have gasped in awesome dread expecting his vehicle to roar by.
Suddenly Alfonso’s speeding vehicle lost control and skidded into a huge telegraph pole. Alfonso was decapitated as the wrecked car lifted into the air and smashed into the spectators. Nine of the villagers were killed including five children. Plus others were injured too. The carnage and death was horrendous as shell shocked spectators began to view the race, amid destruction, in a less enthusiastic light. Their loved ones were hideously left dead and dying before their very eyes.
Up ahead, Wolfgang Von Trips and Piero Taruffi were unaware of the disaster behind them as they sped away from the village towards Brecsia. Neck and neck the old veteran pitted himself against the dashing young German driver Wolfgang Von Trips.
What went through Piero’s mind must have been difficult to comprehend. This one elusive prize that he had coveted winning and this was his final chance. They were upon the final run, still neck and neck. Piero’s car was beginning to cause problems as he was nearing the line with the gallant German still at his side. He is believed to have looked sideways to Wolfgang who was looking back at him. It is not known for sure what transpired between the young German racer and the under achieving Italian veteran, but Wolfgang decided to ease off slightly and throw the race in order that the old veteran should have his day of glory at the Mille Miglia. The Silver Fox crossed the line in first place with the noble young Wolfgang coming second.
Piero’s dream came true and Wolfgang congratulated the veteran racer upon getting out of his car amid the crowd of applauding people. The celebrations would soon be marred by the terrible news of what had happened back at the village of Guidizzolo.
The Bishop of Mantua would launch protests that went to the core of government in Italy. The Mille Miglia had been staged from 1927 until this final race of 1957. It would not be staged anymore because of the danger. It would only re-open in 1977 as a vintage show race. Piero Taruffi was the last Formula One driver to win the prestigious and dangerous race.