KNUTSON: Stirling Moss & The Mille Miglia

Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — It is May 1, 1955, and Stirling Moss and navigator Denis Jenkinson are in a Mercedes 300 SLR and on their way to winning the Mille Miglia, the epic 1,000-mile race on roads around Italy.

Jenkinson later wrote a report for England’s Motor Sport magazine. Here is an excerpt from when they were going 170 mph.

“On one straight lined with trees, we had marked down a hump in the road as being flat out only if the road was dry. It was, so I gave the appropriate signal and with 7,500 rpm in fifth gear on the tachometer we took off, for we had made an error in our estimation of the severity of the hump. For a measurable amount of time, the vibro-massage that you get sitting in a 300 SLR at that speed suddenly ceased, and there was time for us to look at each other with raised eyebrows before we landed again. Even had we been in the air for only one second, we should have traveled some 200 feet through the air.”

Like race fans around the world, I was sad to hear the news that the legendary Moss died on April 12. But the flipside is that he survived the treacherous years of racing during the 1950s and 1960s and lived until age 90. Moss won an astounding 212 out of 529 races he entered across a broad spectrum of motorsports.

Asked to name the race of his life, Moss nominated the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix when he won driving an outdated Lotus Climax and fended off the faster Ferraris driven by Americans Richie Ginther and Phil Hill.

Another one of his many outstanding victories is, of course, the 1955 Mille Miglia when he and Jenkinson averaged 98 mph over nearly 1,000 miles on Italian roads — through towns, over mountains and across plains. Their car carried the No. 722, indicating they had started at 7:22 a.m.

I was a lad when, in a book in the school library, I first came across a report on that race. It was written by somebody called DSJ. I later learned it was Jenkinson when I started to subscribe to Motor Sport magazine. DSJ, or Jenks as he was called, led a fairytale life of driving around Europe in his Porsche 356 and later in Jaguar E types, to report on F-1 and other major racing events.

It was Jenks who inspired me to become an F-1 journalist and to spend more than 30 years covering F-1 for SPEED SPORT.  He was still on the F-1 beat when I got to know him. I told him it was because of him that I was in the paddock of the tracks and involved in motorsports, noting it had all started when I was a schoolboy and read his report on the 1955 Mille Miglia.

“A number of people have told me that,” he said.

Many of you have read Jenks’ report of the 1955 Mille Miglia. If you have not, or have not done so for a while, it is well worth looking it up on the internet.

Here is another excerpt:

“The car was really going well now and on the straights to Verona we were getting 7,500 in top gear, a speed of 274 kph or as close to 170 mph as one could wish to travel. On some of these long straights our navigation system was paying handsomely, for we could keep at 170 mph over blind brows, even when overtaking slower cars.”

A while back, at a Mercedes media day, I got to see (and hear) the “722” Mercedes being driven around a test track in Stuttgart on one of its rare forays outside of the museum. Later, I got the marvelous opportunity to sit in the actual driving seat. Both seats, which had been custom made for Moss and Jenks, had an incongruous green plaid covering.

Like all the front-engine cars of that era, including the F-1 machines, the driver sat on top of the driveshaft tunnel, with the clutch pedal on one side and the brake and accelerator pedals on the other. It felt strange to me, but as I say it was the norm back then. And it certainly didn’t slow Moss.

I met Moss several times over the years. The first time I told him that one of the reasons I was involved in motorsports was because I read the race report of the 1955 Mille Miglia.

While Moss didn’t say the exact same thing as Jenks, his response was the same — a number of lads have told me that.