As with almost anything these days with a modicum of tradition and history, what was once an event has become a brand. Such is the case with Italy’s storied Mille Miglia (say, MEE-lay MEE-lee-uh), a 1,000-mile loop around Italy that from 1927 to 1957 was a preeminent four-wheeled road race that helped make the names of drivers such as Tazio Nuvolari and Stirling Moss.
Since 1977, the Mille Miglia has lived on as an historic rally that attracts some 350 entrants annually, all driving cars made between those racing years. But this week, the race makes its overseas debut as the Mille Miglia North America Tribute, which will see some 50 cars roar across California, from Santa Barbara to San Francisco and back, over three days. Which begs the question: you can take the race out of Italy, but can you keep the Italy in the race?
“The (U.S. Tribute) tour will be enriched by an itinerant exhibition telling the story of the Freccia Rossa (Red Arrow, long the race’s recognizable logo), of Brescia (the Mille Miglia’s start and end point), and its territory,” says Sandro Binelli, president of the MAC Group, which organizes the Mille Miglia and looks after its branding. “Tributes must expand the prestige of the Mille Miglia brand and spread its story.”
Put another way, much like Apple wants consumers to associate all smartphones with the iPhone, MAC Group want Americans in search of well organized and ultra-luxury historic rallies to think Mille Miglia. That’s no small task considering the U.S. already is home to a number of well-attended and thought-of rallies, including the Colorado Grand, the Copperstate 1000 and the California Mille. Binelli has nothing bad to say about such competitors, because he believes they’re in a different category altogether.
“Having to face competition from existing rallies has never been an issue for us,” he says, adding that he hopes to expand the Mille Miglia to the United Arab Emirates soon. “All our international Tribute events will be organized following elevated standards of quality consistent with the image and fame of the Mille Miglia.”
In other words, if you’re fine crashing out at a Motel 8 between rally days, this baby isn’t for you. The Italian Mille Miglia is nothing if not exclusive. For starters, it’s not enough simply to own a car made between 1927 and 1957, you only have a prayer of landing an entry — and paying close to five-figures for the privilege — if your car was among the marques that raced in the event back in the day. And it’d be even better if your car had actually run the original race.
Once you’re in, the Mille Miglia is a fairly grueling rally (while cars are asked to obey traffic laws, speeds tend to increase since the local carabinieri often clear the way for you to floor it) mixed in with a regal tour of great Italian cities (it’s not uncommon for entrants to rumble into piazzas in the middle of the night only to be greeted by the entire town and a mayor handing over gifts). In no time, you start feeling like a visiting dignitary.
To try and match that aura, the Mille Miglia North America Tribute will feature California versions of such grand pit stops, including breaks at well-known wineries, spas, and golf courses en route. There are two packages, standard ($5,750 per car/couple for four-star food and lodging) and VIP ($8,000 for the five-star treatment).
As for why California: “Between the iconic nature of winding Highway 1 and the food and wine culture that really matches the one in Italy, it was a fairly easy decision,” says Jeremy Cable, vice president of motorsports and car shows for Stratus Media Group, which MAC appointed to oversee the U.S. version of the Mille Miglia.
Cable says other factors included keen interest from cable channel Velocity (“They liked the imagery they knew they’d be able to get,” he says) and “the lower population density compared to the East Coast or even Midwest.”
Clearly, this race will be more about show than go. And that’s just fine by Giordano Mozzi, who won last year’s Italian Mille Miglia in a 1933 Aston Martin Le Mans.
“I think this will allow us to really see and appreciate where we are traveling, which doesn’t happen so much Italy because the racing really is so intense,” says Mozzi, an Internet entrepreneur who started historic racing just four years ago. “What’s great about races like the Mille Miglia is the high level of collectible cars that are in the mix. Maybe in this (U.S.) race there will be time for drivers to really appreciate that.”
For Sylvia Oberti, a Bay Area resident who’s also a bona fide Mille Miglia legend (she’s run it 20 times and so far is the only woman to complete the race solo), running her red 1951 Siata along the roads of her native state with fellow enthusiasts is something she’s been eager to do for some time. The Mille Miglia heading stateside finally caused her to leap at the chance.
“Part of it for me is the celebration that is a historic rally, the camaraderie of it,” says Oberti, who, as she has done for many of the 156 international rallies she’s attended, races to raise awareness and funds for cancer research.
“But there’s another part of it,” she says. “I’ve done rallies in Argentina and England and France, and any place I go I learn so much about the people and the places we pass. So, with this new U.S. Mille Miglia, now it’s a chance for racers from other countries to experience our hospitality.”