Some claimed Tazio Nuvolari made a pact with the devil that endowed him with his eerie talent in a race car.
Italian racing ace Achille Varzi, for years Nuvolari’s foremost rival, believed so. The 1930 Mille Miglia reinforced his belief.
Varzi seemed on his way to an easy win as he regularly monitored his rearview mirror for headlights. Nothing. Then, unexpectedly, out of the gloom, an engine roared.
It was Nuvolari.
Over impossibly treacherous, twisting mountain roads, Nuvolari had charged all night with his headlights off, concealing his presence. He pulled alongside, gave Varzi a wave and sped to victory.
During the 1932 Monaco Grand Prix, a car’s blown engine soaked an infamously challenging corner with oil. The first five cars on the scene crashed. Nuvolari barged in, blipped the throttle once and fishtailed through the carnage unharmed to win the race.
He ran Northern Ireland’s demanding Tourist Trophy in 1933 and dominated the race in his MG. Asked afterward about the MG’s notoriously inadequate brakes, Nuvolari shrugged and said, “No problem. I didn’t use them that much.”
Nuvolari was just as otherworldly on two wheels. His first racing experience came on motorcycles after being introduced to them by his uncle, a Bianchi dealer in Italy.
World War I interrupted Nuvolari’s budding career, but after the conflict he won consistently, twice riding to the Italian national championship.
He once crashed during practice for the Monza Grand Prix, breaking both legs. Doctors told him it would be a month before he could walk and longer before he could ride.
Arriving with his legs in casts on race morning, he insisted his mechanics tie him to his motorcycle. He won the race.
Nuvolari switched solely to four wheels in 1931. He brought with him a hereto unseen style. He didn’t drive the car through the corners, he hurled it. Enzo Ferrari, another believer in Nuvolari’s deal-with-the-devil myth, insisted he invented the four-wheel drift.
Of his numerous seemingly supernatural accomplishments, his most momentous was at the Nurburgring for the 1935 German Grand Prix.
Adolph Hitler was in power and dumped millions of Reichsmarks into the German auto industry, which was using racing as a propaganda tool.
Benefiting from those resources, Mercedes and Auto Union designed and built the most advanced, powerful race cars on the planet.
Mercedes entered five cars for the race and Auto Union had four. Nationalistic emotions ran at a fevered pitch as 300,000 jammed the 14.1-mile, 174-turn course on a foggy day.
It was the most important race on the European racing calendar and the festive throng hungered to see a German car beat the best the world had to offer.
Nuvolari was in an obsolete, four-year-old Alfa Romero, entered by Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Ferrari team. The grand prix started in the rain and Manfred von Brauchitsch, whose uncle was a field marshal in the German army, dominated in his Mercedes W25B.
The crowd was ecstatic.
By the ninth lap of the 22-lap event, Nuvolari lagged two minutes behind. Then, suddenly, as if possessed, he lapped faster and faster. He turned the first 11-minute lap at the Nurburgring while chasing down the leader.
On the final circuit, he was 30 seconds behind. With a half lap left, Nuvolari pulled within 23 seconds. Another two miles and the lead was 10 seconds.
As they raced toward the finish line, Nuvolari could see Von Brauchitsch 200 yards ahead. Von Brauchitsch shredded a rear tire and Nuvolari won the race.
Silence fell over the giant crowd, followed by a mournful moan. Nazi officials, already raising the swastika emblazoned Nazi flag to honor the victorious German car and driver, stood stunned. Others left the track immediately, faced with the task of reporting to Hitler, who’d taken an active interest in the race.
Race organizers had been so convinced a German would be victorious it took them 30 minutes to dig out a recording of the Italian national anthem for the winner’s presentation.
Nuvolari died in 1953. His gravesite inscription reads, “You will race even faster along the roads of heaven.”
If Nuvolari had a pact with the devil, he no doubt found a way to haggle his way out of it.