Tazio Nuvolari a legend in his own lifetime, was known as Il Montavano Volante, the Flying Mantuan. He epitomized courage and daring and for 30 years he amazed the racing world with his exploits on both two and four wheels. He was born November 18, 1892, in Casteldrio near Mantua. His uncle Giuseppe was a Bianchi dealer and introduced his nephew to motor sports. After serving in the Italian Army as a driver he started racing motorcycles seriously when he was 28. He raced Nortons, Saroleas, Garellis, Fongris and Indians.
His riding was noticed by the powerful Bianchi team and he became a member and eventually Italian champion. At the Monza Grand Prix for motorcycles he crashed during practice. This resulted in two broken legs. After doctors put plaster casts on both legs he was told that it would be at least one month before he could walk again let alone race motorcycles. The next day he started the race having himself tied to his bike. He required his mechanics to hold him upright at the start of the race and to catch him at the end. The legend of Tazio Nuvolari began that day when he won the race. Nuvolari began racing cars in 1924 at the age of 32 while still competing in motorcycles. In 1927 he started his own team, buying a pair of Bugatti 35Bs which he shared with his partner Achille Varzi who was also a successful motorcycle racer. This partnership would later turn into an intense rivalry. Nuvolari began to win races at the expense of Varzi who left the team. Varzi, the son of a wealthy merchant could afford better equipment and bought an Alfa P2. With this car he had the better of Nuvolari. He signed on with Alfa Romeo in 1929 and was a teammate of his rival Varzi once again. The Mille Miglia of 1930 would go down in history when Nuvolari caught an unsuspecting Varzi while driving in the night sans headlights. Three kilometers from the finish he suddenly pulled along side, smiling at his startled teammate he flicked on his headlights and powered on to victory.
“In 1935 Nuvolari won the Brno Grand Prix in Czechoslovakia driving on three wheels.” Enzo Ferrari
For the Targa Florio of 1932 he requested of Enzo Ferrari a mechanic who weighed as little or less than he. Nuvolari took the young and inexperienced mechanic that Ferrari had given him and told him that he would warn him when they approached a particularly difficult corner so as not to unduly frighten the young man. As they approached a corner, Nuvolari would shout for the mechanic to take cover under the dashboard. After the race and another victory for Nuvolari, Ferrari asked the mechanic how he had made out. “Nuvolari started shouting at the first bend and finished at the last one,” the boy answered. “I was down at the bottom of the car all the time.”
In 1933 he scored many victories but became estranged from the team manager Enzo Ferrari and left for Maserati. 1933 also saw him travel to Northern Ireland for the Tourist Trophy Race and a drive in a supercharged MG K3 Magnette. After totally dominating the race someone asked him if he liked the MG’s brakes. Nuvolari replied he couldn’t really tell, he hadn’t used them that much.
His last Mille Miglia, in 1948, was a defining moment in his illustrious career. Driving as if possessed, his car taking a terrible beating, speeding along, the bonnet somehow became unfastened, and a gust of wind blew it over Nuvolari‘s head and down the mountainside. “That’s better,” shouted Tazio to his terrified mechanic, “The engine will cool more easily.” Crossing the Futa ands Raticosa passes his seat had started to come adrift. Nuvolari could feel himself sliding which brought along a feeling of sea-sickness. Tossing the seat out he used a bag of lemons and oranges as a cushion. With his car literally falling apart under his super human effort the team advised him to quit the race at Bologna fore it was folly to continue under such circumstances and if anyone, Nuvolari had nothing to prove. Nuvolari answered with a derisive gesture, putting his foot down hard and shot away along the Via Emilia. At Modena Enzo Ferrari tried to beg has old friend to retire with dignity and could only weep as he realized that the remains of the car could not possibly hold out. Disaster disaster finally struck on the next leg and all three leading cars were out of the race including Nuvolari who damaged his rear suspension at Leghorn when his brakes failed.
“Whenever I think of him today, I feel myself smiling. He was so full of life, almost bursting. We were astounded by him as a driver and loved him as a man.” René Dreyfus
In 1935 he was induced to return to Alfa Romeo and scored one of his greatest victories at the Nurburgring. Driving an obsolete Alfa against the might of the German nation. He drove at the ragged edge and sometimes over it. His relentless pursuit caused the lead Mercedes to retire with a blown tire and he cruised to victory in front of a large gathering of Nazi party officials. In 1936 he had a serious accident during practice for the Tripoli GP but escaped from the hospital and took a taxi to the race where he finished seventh in a spare car. After the death of Bernd Rosemeyer in 1938, Auto Union was desperate for a driver who could master their mid-engine racecar. At the insistence of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche they turned to an Italian, Nuvolari who would go on to win the British Grand Prix at Donington.
Only World War II could stop Nuvolari but after the fighting stopped he returned to racing at the age of 53. In 1946 he raced at the Grand Prix of Marseilles doing the fastest lap before his engine let him down. In another minor race he had the steering wheel come off his car yet managed to return to the pits holding the wheel in one hand and the steering column with the other.
He continued to win but age and sickness from acute asthma, the result of years of inhaling exhaust fumes would finally take their toll.
Stopping at Villa Ospizio Nuvolari either went or was carried to a nearby church we he asked the local priest if he could rest while his mechanic phoned through that the great Nuvolari had retired and ordered a touring car to take him home. After the retirement, Ferrari wrote later, he tried to console his driver. “I said to him, cheer up Tazio, the race will be yours next year”. He replied: “Ferrari, at our age there aren’t many more days like this; remember it and try to enjoy it to the full, if you can”.
It was said that he wanted to die in the sport that he loved so much but in this wish he was denied. On August 11th, 1953, 9 months after suffering a paralyzing stroke he was dead. As was his wish he was buried in his uniform – the yellow jersey and blue trousers. More than 50,000 people attended his funeral. Enzo Ferrari arriving in Mantua stopped at a plumber’s shop to ask for directions. Seeing the Modena license plates and unaware of the identity of the driver, the workman murmured, “Thank you for coming. A man like that won’t be born again.”
“He talked to his cars, and they answered! It was incredible. He would jump from side to side, put his whole body into the effort. It seemed to me sometimes that he was himself physically lifting the car – over a curb, for example, to take a corner faster. We’d ask ourselves often, how he can drive that way? That’s not right. But then he’d win …”