He was called the sport’s first racing super star when in 1925 he retired from frontline racing after two and one half decades. During that time he won all the great races of the day including the Targa Florio, the Kaiserpreise and the French Grand Prix, the initial trio all at the wheel of a Fiat. He won the latter twice with a war and an unprecedented 15 years separating victories.
The prototypical cagey driver, Nazzaro would often hang back at the beginning of a race, waiting for the leaders to fail and then would pounce into the lead, sometimes making the fastest lap in the process. A thinking man’s driver but one with the speed to go wheel to wheel as circumstances warranted. The popular star of numerous Italian races early in the early decades of the century, his fans included a young Enzo Ferrari. His fame grew internationally with a brilliant second place for Fiat in the Gordon Bennett Cup of 1905, a relative unknown he was given only 20 to 1 odds of winning the race by local bet makers compared to the 10 to 1 odds given his teammate Lancia. Underestimating the young Italian would soon cease and be replaced by the cry “where is Nazzaro”, as he invariably came through the pack to be among the leaders at the end.
Born on the 4th of December in 1881 at Turin, Italy, Nazzaro was a teenager when he started work at the workshop of the Ceriano brothers (Fiat founders) and before he was twenty he began competing for the new Fiat racing team. In 1900 he entered his first race the Vicenza-Padua where he would finish in the top four driving a red Fiat. 1901 saw his first victory in a major race at the Giro d’Italia in a 6HP Fiat. Nazzaro’s personality matched his driving, gentlemanly of nature and immaculate in dress, his skill as a driver, mechanic and diplomat earned him the position of ‘works’ Fiat driver alongside his flashier teammate Vincenzo Lancia in 1905. His personal skills served him well where upon occasion he served as the personal chauffeur of Count Vincenzo Florio. While in the Count’s service he took part in various Italian events including scoring a 5th place in the inaugural Coppa Florio, a race he would later go on to win in 1908 and 1914.
1907 was Nazzaro’s greatest year winning what was then the three most important races in the world; the Targa Florio, the Kaiserpreis in Germany and the second French Grand Prix, taking the lead from Arthur Duray on the second to the last lap when Duray was forced to retire. On the 6th of June 1908, Nazzaro was involved in a match race with a Napier, the pride of Britain at Brooklands. The race over 10 laps saw the Napier in the early lead before it was forced to retire. Controversially Nazzaro driving the 18 liter chain-driven Grand Prix Fiat was awarded the 120 mph Brooklands’ lap record, the first driver in the world to do so. The controversy involved whether that “magic” lap ever actually took place. The Fiat public relations department was undeterred by any such technicality.
The legendary car however would continue to compete in various races and speed events and would be dubbed Mephistopheles by press observers for its diabolical nature. A spectacular engine failure also at Brooklands but this time with the car driven by Englishman John Duff may have had some influence on its name. One of the Fiat’s cylinder blocks exploded, separated itself from the rest of the engine, and departed skywards, taking the bonnet and several other supplementary components with it. Ernest Eldridge purchased what was left and he promptly proceeded to install a 21.706 litre six-cylinder Fiat airship engine. Eldridge was obliged to lengthen Mephistopheles to accommodate it. Rumor has it that elements of a London bus chassis were used in the conversion.
Felice Nazzaro, like Lancia had a firm foundation in the internals of their racing cars and like many other successful drivers of the period who had come up from the factory floor, wanted to capitalize on his fame and try his hand at producing cars. The First World War was looming and Fiat had begun to withdraw from racing, so in 1911, together with Maurizio Fabry, Pilade Massuero and Arnaldo Zoller he founded ‘Nazzaro & C. Fabbrica di Automobili’ in Turin. Initially his name was enough to ensure sales of the first model, the Tipo 2 powered by a 4.4 litre four cylinder side valve engine, which emerged in 1912. His race team, although generally beset with mechanical failures, had some notable success in motor sport. In 1913 he won the Targa Florio for the second time, driving a Nazzaro Tipo 2, putting no less than 3 hours between him and the runner-up! A couple of years later an improved model, the Nazzaro Tipo 3 was released. The company organization, however, was weak and along with the ravages of the war, the company ceased to exist after 1923 but by then Nazzaro had turned his attention back to Fiat.
Fiat, who due to the war had all but stopped racing in 1912, had returned in 1921 and Nazzaro had joined the team again. His team mate was Pietro Bordino, who had served as his riding mechanic and who was now regarded as the world’s fastest driver.
But it was Nazzaro, now 42 years old and 9 years from the last time that he had raced in an important long-distance event, who won the 500 mile 60 lap 1922 French Grand Prix at the fast 8.3 mile Strasbourg circuit, driving the Fiat 804/404 2 litre six-cylinder racer. He had been at the wheel for 6 hrs 17 mins 17 secs and had averaged 79.2 mph for the 500 miles. He had also taken the fastest lap at 87.75mph. Only 4 of the 18 starters made it to the finish. The second place Bugatti would not cross the finish line for nearly an hour.
After the win, Nazzaro in his moment of triumph was struck down by the the news that another Fiat, driven by his nephew, Biagio Nazzaro, broke a back axle shaft, lost a wheel and overturned with fatal results. It was found after the race that Nazzaro’s axle was also cracked.
Later in the year he finished second to the young Bordino in the Italian Grand Prix and finished second again in the 1923 European GP in Italy, his last significant race result. Nazzaro, brought low by the death of his young wife in a car accident would step aside for the younger Bordino at the end of 1923 realizing that the hunger which drove the risks the younger man was willing to take were not his own.
At the end of 1924 Fiat closed down their race team and Nazzaro was appointed head of the Fiat competitions department for existing cars in 1925 and continued until Fiat, after Bordino’s spectacular one race comeback and GP win at Monza in 1927, finally withdrew from racing in 1929. On the 21st of March 1940 Felice Nazzaro died in his home town after a prolonged illness, he was only 59 years old.