Some insisted that Tazio Nuvolari had made a pact with the devil. His of another realm performances behind the wheel of a speeding race car certainly bolstered that suspicion.
Achille Varzi, one of Nuvolari’s chief protagonists was convinced.
Especially after the 1930 Mile Miglia. Motoring to an easy win, Varzi had checked his rearview mirrors for hours, with the black of night revealing no pursuing headlights. Suddenly, out of the gloom, a car was upon on him.
Not wanting to reveal his presence, because his was an underpowered car, Nuvolari had stalked Varzi all night, hustling his car at high speed on twisting, treacherous, mountain roads with his headlights off. No way he could have done that and survived. Yet, there he was. He pulled along side, gave Varzi a wave, and sped onto victory.
At Monte Carlo in 1932 another car’s mechanical failure soaked an already difficult corner with oil. Now it was treacherous. The first five cars to arrive on the scene crashed. Nuvolari, immediately behind them, hardly lifting the throttle, fishtailed and slid his car through the carnage unharmed. He won the race.
When he ran Northern Ireland’s, demanding, hazardous, Tourist Trophy in 1933, he dominated in a supercharged MG K3 Magnette. When asked afterwards about the MG’s notoriously inadequate brakes, he retorted, “I couldn’t really tell. I didn’t use them that much.”
Nuvolari began his racing career on motorcycles. His uncle was a Bianchi dealer near Nuvolari’s home of Mantuan, Italy and introduced his nephew to the sport just before World War I.
After the war, Nuvolari took up the sport in earnest, twice winning the Italian National Championship. His exploits on two wheels were just as otherworldly as those on four.
He crashed during practice for the Monza Grand Prix for motorcycles, breaking both legs. Doctors told him it would be a month before he could walk, longer before he could ride again.
Arriving with his legs in casts on race day, he had his mechanics tie him to his motorcycle. They held it up until he got going, and were there to catch him at the end. He won.
If, indeed, he’d made a pact with the devil, the deal was sealed early on.
Nuvolari ventured into auto racing in 1925, and ran both cars and cycles until he claimed the 1930 Italian Motorcycle Championship in 1930. After that it was strictly four wheels.
He possessed a hereto-unseen driving style. He didn’t drive the car through the corners, he tossed it. Enzo Ferrari, among others, insisted that Nuvolari invented the four-wheel drift.
Whether that, also came from an agreement with Satan, or was a style he needed to help manhandle the ponderous cars of that era with his small stature, has not been fully determined yet today.
Regardless, it helped him win 72 of the 136 world-class races. Of those wins, his greatest victory was the 1935 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.
Hitler was just ascending to power, attracting international attention with his radical rhetoric about the idealistic Master Race. He dumped millions of Reich marcs into the German auto industry, with hopes of using racing as a propaganda tool.
Taking full advantage of those resources, Mercedes and Auto Union designed and built the most advanced, powerful race cars on the planet, and dominated Grand Prix racing.
Mercedes entered five cars for the German Grand Prix. Auto Union entered four. Patriotic emotions were at a fever pitch, as 300,000 fans jammed around the 14.1-mile long, 174-turn course, on a drizzly, foggy, July 28th.
This was the most important race on the European racing calendar, and the festive throng just knew that they would see a German car, probably with a German driver, beat the best the world had to offer.
Nuvolari was driving an obsolete, four-year-old Alfa Romero. One of four entered by Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Ferrari team. Starting positions were determined by a draw, and Nuvolari found himself on the front row next to Hans Stuck’s Auto Union, and a pack of German cars behind him.
The race was flagged off in a pouring rain, and, soon, Manfred Von Brauchitsch, whose uncle was a Field Marshall in the German army, established himself as the man to beat. The crowd was ecstatic.
Nuvolari had dropped back at the start, and by the ninth lap of 22-lap event, the leaders were 2 minutes ahead. Then he began his charge to the front.
He turned a lap under 11 minutes, the first ever at the Nurburgring. Calling on all his skill, daring, and who knows what other power, he chopped that deficit in half. Each lap he gobbled huge amounts of time off the lead.
In one lap he gained 17 seconds. The next lap, another 10 seconds. At the start of the final lap he was sill 30 seconds behind. But, in 10 miles, he incredibly gained another 20 seconds.
By now, Von Brauchitsch, aware of Nuvolari’s determined charge, had ruined his tires trying to hold him off. Suddenly Von Brauchitsch’s tire shredded and Nuvolari blew past him for the win.
The huge crowd was silenced. When the reality of what they’d just witnessed sank in, a huge moan went up. Nazi officials, who had already ordered the raising of a Swastika emblazoned flag in anticipation of celebrating a victorious German car and driver, froze in confusion.
Ranking officers, furious, left without a word. Hitler had taken a special interest in this race, and they had to explain the defeat to the Fuhrer.
So certain had race organizers been that that a German would be victorious, it took 30 them minutes to find a recording of the Italian National anthem to play for the winner’s presentation.
Before his death of a stroke in 1953, Tazio Nuvolari would go on to score many other victories. But, none were more important or memorable than the in-your-face win against the might of the German Reich, at the world’s most challenging race course.