We stood by the cars and waited. Music drifting across in snatches from the grandstands was interrupted by the occasional roar of an engine, and on the terrace of the timekeeper’s hut the lottery numbers were drawn. I listened for a moment; I would have liked to know who had drawn my number. But down here not a word could be heard; the commentator’s voice sounded like the barking of dogs.
We were waiting for Marshal Balbo. I was in the third row next to Varzi. At last the Governor arrived, preceded by twelve men on motorcycles; he was riding in a large open touring car. The Giovinezza (the Italian national anthem) sounded, the people in the stands rose and the soldiers on the grass strip before the stands stood at attention. Balbo stopped right in front of the drivers. Walking through their rows, he exchanged a word with them all. Addressing me in German, he asked, “Are you quite fit again?”
“That’s good then. In bocca allupo!” [Good Luck]
He walked on, a slim man of middle height with copper-colored hair and beard. We climbed into our cars. The large clock over the pits showed 2:57 P.M.
One minute to three. Marshall Balbo gives a quick order to one of the soldiers standing on the wall. The soldier runs to execute it.
The engines are started, the mechanics run to the side of the circuit, which is now clear.
The marshal raises his flag.
I no longer look at him but at the signal lights on the timekeeper’s hut. Perhaps that is the quickest start technique, I say to myself. When the green light comes on, I am off. That is all I think about.
There’s the light.
I am in gear and off, past the others, in the lead.
Full throttle into the straight. Every action is almost mechanical from sheer practice. I know the circuit well enough to drive on it in my sleep. There, the white tower, the stands and the pits! I pass them; there is no signal.
First lap, second lap. Past the pits again, now they signal:
So the two Italians are behind me. It’ll be a tough battle if they start pressing. I must be faster still. Fourth lap: CAR, VAR, NUV. So Varzi, the man from Milan, has overtaken Nuvolari, the Flying Mantuan. He’s hot on my heels, a dangerous opponent and driving the Auto Union.
Sixth lap: The white tower is in sight and the enormous grandstand. Suddenly my left front tire becomes long and thin, something whistles past me. I’ve thrown a tread again.
Cut off, brake, and stop at the pits. A white car flashes past…Varzi. A swallow of water, a damp cloth on my head. Two cars pass, Stuck and Fagioli.
The last blows with the copper hammer on the front wheel. Press on, 20 seconds lost. Thank God only 20 second. Stuck and Fagioli are not far ahead. I drive into the dust cloud they have stirred up on the bend.
Start of the eighth lap, the pits show:
So I have made up seven of the 20 seconds. Varzi will also have to stop sometime.
Eighth lap: the long straight along the sea. A shock through the ear. I cannot see it but the tread is off one of the rear wheels. I can still control the car but I must reduce speed. A white car rushes by – Stuck or Fagioli, I do not know which.
Only now am I beginning to realize how hot it is. My overalls are sticking to me and my lips are dry and cracking. Must stop at the pits. Neubauer bellows like a bull and gesticulates wildly. I cannot hear what it is all about.
They change all four wheels and put in fresh fuel. It takes one minute and ten seconds. Eight cars whiz by in the meantime. I have dropped back to tenth place. I feel everything vibrating within me. A mechanic yells into my ear that others are also bound to have tire troubles. Neubauer stands there and frowns at his watches.
One minute ten seconds. As I leave the pits a whit car passes me to enter the bend – Varzi in the Auto Union. He has now lapped me and leads the field. His lead is almost unassailable; things are really hopeless. If I continue it is only for the sake of works prestige. I get on the tail of Varzi and catch him up. But what’s the good of it?
The heat is awful. My head drums, my tongue feels like dried leather. Thirst…thirst…and all hope is gone.
I did not think it would be like this! I really thought that this time fate would give me a clear reply. And now I have to drop back because of this stupid tire trouble. The leg is alright. It is even good, only sometimes there is a little pain in the pelvic region. But it is hardly worth bothering about, the thirst is much worse.
I press on, no longer knowing what my position is. I am somewhere in the field. Silence from the pits, no more signals, they have given me up.
Twelfth lap: Varzi stops at his pit. Probably tire trouble. Good. Auto Union drivers should also realize what it is like to lose the lead. I see our pit signal. Fagioli leads with 36 seconds in hand. At least one of our team is out in front.
I round the long bend again. There is a car upside-down in the dry scrub by the circuit. A hundred yards on two first-aid men carry someone on a stretcher…Who is it?…Dead…Hurt?…I’m already past.
Sixteenth lap: Again that hollow shock; I know the feeling without having to look – one rear tire gone. There is an emergency depot along the sea-front straight; I must stop there. They have seen me from afar, and jump to it. A drink…a drink. Greedily I gulp the lukewarm water down.
I ask, “Who is down there in the scrub?”
The mechanic shrugs his shoulders, he does not know. Close by me the cars shoot past – white, red, sometimes singly, sometimes battling close together. The depot works quickly. Hardly a minute and I am off again.
One minute! It means I am almost four minutes behind the leader. Never mind, I must press on. At the 8-kilometer stone close by the circuit a white car in flames. Must be a German one.
Twentieth lap: A signal from the pits again, thank the Lord!
So I am fourth. I have caught up 1 min. 24 sec. in under five laps! Very good, there is still hope, a chance again. But now extract all there is from the car. I am now so fast that the little Alfas seem to be standing still as I overtake. I must be doing about 170 mph.
On the twenty-fifth lap there is another signal from the pits. I am in second place, 1 min. 32 sec. behind Varzi. I have again made up 1 min. 4 sec. in the last five laps.
Should I drive faster still? No, keep calm and think carefully. The tires must be saved. I must not strain them as much as in the beginning. If I have to stop again with tire trouble I probably will not have enough time to make it up. Forty laps is the race distance.
After the twenty-seventh lap I stop at the pits again and change all four wheels for the last time. I want to make this set last till the end. Neubauer himself puts a cold towel on my head. “Good, very good, Rudi,” he says.
“Whose car burned?”
The tire change is very quick this time. I am away in less than a minute. No one has passed in the meantime. The distance between Varzi and me has increased to 1.45. With new tires I increase the speed again. I increase it so much that Neubauer begins to wave me down from the pits.
On the thirtieth lap Varzi’s lead has shrunk to 42 seconds. Keep distance, don’t go so fast. This time the tires must last. I see a red car approach in my mirror: It is Nuvolari.
A snap decision. I will let him pass. He cannot endanger me with his Alfa. Anyway, he and Varzi have been embittered rivals in many past contests and they will battle once more, which will exhaust Varzi’s reserves.
Nuvolari rushes past in the bend and now begins the anticipated wild chase in front. For two laps they roar along, either side by side or one after the other. Time again the little wiry Mantuan tries to overtake Varzi, only to drop back again.
Then Nuvolari is out with tire trouble and disappears in the thick of the melee. The pits signal again:
But the distance has increased to one minute. Thirty-fifth lap: Have my calculations misfired? Is that man running on iron tires? No, he is stopping at the pits. He is off again before I have caught him up, but the gap is now only 14 seconds.
Only five more laps. I can see Varzi’s machine clearly in front of me. I know that I must catch him, that I will catch him. Now I begin to increase speed no matter what the consequences. The white Auto Union is barely a hundred yards in front.
Thirty-eighth lap: I’ve got him and pass on the bend. But victory is not yet mine. He remains so close behind me that I keep seeing him in my mirror. I simply cannot shake him off.
He is still on my heels. The pit signal says:
But the man behind me keeps up this speed; the white car is very close. Thirty-ninth lap: The pit signal shows:
without a time indication; therefore the distance between us is still very small.
Fortieth and last lap: As we roar past the stands I see the people jump up and gesticulate.
The long bend after the stands…the long straight by the sea…Suddenly he drops back, the white car disappears from my mirror.
There is the tower, the stands, the finishing line, on go the brakes. But I am traveling too fast and have to go round once more, until I can stop at the pits.
I sit there numbly for a moment. The engine is silent and suddenly everything is quite around me. I push my goggles up and look toward the stands. The spectators sit there almost unmoving and look out on the circuit. A few people have jumped up and waved to me. The others wait for Varzi.
Then Neubauer rushes up, and the mechanics, my faithful Walz among them. “The big man” is quite beside himself. He pulls me from the car, kisses me in both cheeks; two mechanics hoist me on their shoulders. They carry me that way to the pits. I shake many hands. I am still quite numb.
Suddenly it comes over me – I have won, thank the Lord, I have won! It is an indescribable feeling which cannot be compared to anything else.
The sun is out, the people and everything are bright and friendly, and I have achieved something again. Yes, that best of all – I have arrived once more and can do battle like all the others.
There will be cheerful and sad days, victory and defeat, strong and weak opponents. There will be anger and disappointment or happiness and gaiety. But best of all, the shadows have been dispersed and I am part of the scene again.