Ever since the first automobiles took to old carriage routes, people have been lured to gruelling cross-country treks. Such drives eventually spawned long-distance competitions. Particularly from the 1920s through the ‘50s, with names like Targa Florio, Mille Miglia and Carrera Panamericana, these races pitted the most advanced cars and nerviest drivers against one another in high-speed races on public pavement.
Flat-out runs on public roads were fated to disaster, however. A horrific crash at the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race killed a driver and 83 spectators, and another crash during Italy’s Mille Miglia two years later resulted in the deaths of two competitors and nine spectators. With increases in both engine power and safety awareness, it was inevitable that long-distance road races like these would fade into history.
That hasn't stopped a sizable contingent of motorsport and classic car enthusiasts from working to rekindle the spirit, if not the speed, of those bygone days.
Rather than no-holds-barred, wheel-to-wheel racing, a more relaxed style of road rally has caught on, pitting drivers in time-speed-distance races where they are allotted a certain amount of time to get from one point to another during each of a number of stages. The format favours precision over outright speed, but when an event stretches 1,000 miles or more, the possibility that something can go wrong in a remote place always looms.
"I collect 1950s sports cars and like to drive them, so these historic events are just the right opportunity to use the cars in good company with other aficionados," says Fritz Kaiser, a former co-owner and chairman of the Swiss Red Bull Sauber Petronas Formula 1 team. He has driven everything from a 1957 Mercedes 300SL Roadster to a very rare 1947 Cisitalia 202 SC berlinetta Pinin Farina in races like the Rallye du Maroc and the current iteration of the Mille Miglia. He and his wife Birgit, who serves as navigator, even won the Morocco rally – another among resurrected classic races – in his 300SL in 2013. "We participate in these events to enjoy the adventure,” he says. “Of course there is some competitive spirit involved, too, but most of the time we feel we are among likeminded friends."
At many such events, orderly driving habits and a relaxed pace are the rule, although occasionally, a rivalry will flare up among a handful of drivers and a risky passing manoeuver might be attempted. That is not to say these are always friction-free joyrides.
"While most of the participants in these events do it for the pleasure of driving, there is a lot of competition," says Giustino de Sanctis, who has participated in a number of vintage rallies, including the Mille Miglia. "You basically never race another car, but rather try to be as accurate as possible during the time trial. This means that there is always a gentlemanly demeanour among the competitors."
But there is at least one vintage rally where things are more like they were decades ago. In the Carrera Panamericana, a 2,000-mile blast through Mexico, speeds can reach up to 150mph (241km/h) on some stages. The original races were held between 1950 and 1954. Fast and often deadly, they attracted Formula 1 stars such as Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio. The revival races, which started in 1988, began as amateur events, but have since become more competitive.
"Over the years, the race has become more professional," says Gerie Bledsoe, one of the event's organizers, and also a regular participant. Race marshals are positioned at critical points, and roads are closed to traffic during race stages. "Looking back over the past few years, most of the drivers who have won the overall championship have been ex-Formula 1 or World Rally Championship drivers," Bledsoe says.
With more purpose-built racing cars on the roster, people are investing significant sums in their bids. Bledsoe says that when he started doing the PanAm 15 years ago, he won his class driving a Chevrolet Nova that cost him less than $8,000 to prepare. He said the top cars in the event – typically old Studebakers equipped with powerful V8 race engines – cost $125,000 to $150,000 to build.
Érik Comas, a decorated former Formula 1 driver from France, won the PanAm in October 2014 at the helm of a 1953 Studebaker Commander outfitted with a 600-horsepower engine. He drives in other vintage car rallies around the world, although usually behind the wheel of a Lancia Stratos.
"Italian cars are my favourites, the ones from the 1970s in particular," he says. Even though a manufacturer's current reputation isn't at stake in vintage races, participants cannot help but form loyalties. "The brands are not fighting any more today, but the spirit is still there,” Comas says. “Enthusiasts are affiliated with one brand or another, [but] I personally will always do my best to beat the many Porsches involved in these events."
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