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Mille Miglia: 1,000 miles of fear

By Tom McGowan, CNN
May 24, 2012 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
The Mille Miglia, or "Thousand Miles," is a grand tour from Brescia in northern Italy, down to the capital city of Rome, and back again. Today, it is a leisurely classic car event. But it has a far racier history... The Mille Miglia, or "Thousand Miles," is a grand tour from Brescia in northern Italy, down to the capital city of Rome, and back again. Today, it is a leisurely classic car event. But it has a far racier history...
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Mille Miglia magic
Road rage
Stirling effort
Triumphant return
Finn it to win it
A tragic end
A legacy in tatters
A sad farewell
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Mille Miglia was an Italian road race between 1927 and 1957
  • Stirling Moss clocked the fastest average speed for the 1,000-mile event in 1955
  • The race was dash from Brescia, in Northern Italy, to Rome and back again
  • A fatal crash ended the race in 1957, but it survives today as a touring event

(CNN) -- "It was the only race that frightened me, actually," motorsport legend Stirling Moss says of Italy's historic endurance rally -- the Mille Miglia.

"It certainly was one of the races throughout the year where I thought, 'Oh God,' because I didn't know where I was going."

Translated as the "Thousand Miles," the race was held on public roads. Competitors set off from Brescia and blazed a trail south to Rome, before turning around and returning to the northern city. The rally was a true test of speed, courage and navigation.

The Mille Miglia's origins date back to the early days of motorsport and the decision to move the 1922 Italian Grand Prix from Brescia to Monza, near Milan.

The switch proved unpopular in Brescia, and when an automobile club was formed in the city in 1927, they sought to put on a racing spectacle of their own.

Classic cars in a classic Italian race
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The rest, as they say, is history. For 30 years between 1927 and 1957, competitors -- including Moss and five-time Formula One world champion Juan Manuel Fangio -- pushed their vehicles to the limit in an attempt to reach the finish line.

It has since been resurrected as a serene, grand touring event, but in its racing years the prospect of driving at breakneck speeds down everyday roads was both a trial and a thrill for participants. Moss says it made for a nerve-shredding ride.

"Imagine going up a large incline towards a village and going at 185 mph without knowing which way the road goes," the 82-year-old told CNN ahead of this week's 2012 edition. "If there is a turn over the brow, you need to know about."

In 1955, ably assisted by co-pilot Denis Jackson, the British driver loosened Italy's stranglehold on the race, sealing one of only three Mille Miglia victories by a foreigner in record-breaking fashion.

Moss, one of the best drivers never to win the F1 world title, set an average speed record for the route, clocking a time of 10 hours seven minutes and 48 seconds. But when asked about one of the highlights of his 14-year racing career, Moss' response was surprising.

"I didn't know I'd won," he explained. "All I knew is that I was the leader at the stop before.

"I didn't know I'd won until my time had been split and I knew I couldn't be passed, so it was a terrible anticlimax. I was very much on tenterhooks waiting. It was anticlimactic but nonetheless very exhilarating."

But when compared to all the races staged throughout motorsport history, including the 66 F1 grands prix Moss started, what set the Mille Miglia apart?

It was the only race that frightened me, actually
Stirling Moss

"The whole of Italy turns out, it's absolutely staggering," he said. "All across the whole country, people come out and line the roads. It's amazing, more than five millions spectators. It's something that could happen nowhere else but Italy.

"The one thing you must remember is we were genuinely doing speeds of 185 mph, on ordinary roads. There were no autostrasses or dual carriageways. And the amount of cars you have to pass, hundreds of cars, it's pretty daunting."

Ultimately, it was the element of danger which proved the race's downfall. In addition to glorious victory, the Mille Miglia's legacy is also littered with fatal crashes.

The most infamous was in 1957 in the village of Guidizzolo, a tragedy which proved to be the final nail in the race's coffin.

Spanish driver Alfonso de Portago's Ferrari veered off the road and tore through a group of spectators, killing the driver, his co-pilot and nine bystanders, five of which were children.

The whole of Italy turns out, it's absolutely staggering
Stirling Moss

"A lot of the drivers -- you had hairdressers, you had chefs -- really weren't competent enough to drive at the speeds you had to drive at," recalls Moss.

"In the modern day, one could not take the death toll. As the years passed, people dying in motorsport like that became unacceptable."

The 2012 edition began on Thursday, with Moss in attendance to take part in the festivities.

Despite no longer being a rip-roaring, high-speed chase, the fabled tour still draws a big crowd.

"It's absolutely terrific," said Moss after this year's event had got underway. "The enthusiasm of the people here ... The Italians line the streets, pat you on the head, it's just great.

"People bring their own cars, if they're fast cars, and go around. It's something very special."

Reflecting on the Mille Miglia as it was 60 years ago, Moss believes it had a certain spark which modern day motorsport hasn't quite rekindled.

"When the race car was just an ordinary road car, a bit faster of course, that was terribly exciting," he said. "I'm sure it is today, but I'm not sure it would be quite as exciting as it was then."

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