Part 2 of the Excerpt from Steering with your Knees by Anatoly Arutunoff
Read Part 1
By Toly Arutunoff
We overnighted in Rome at the midpoint of the event, and my timing was such that while Karen was smart enough to grab a Coke and head straight for bed, I hit the lobby at the exact time another dining room was opened up to accept the overflow of competitors from the main room. Chicken, veal, pasta, pasta, antipasto, wine, beer — it was all there, fresh, and as much as you could choke down if you weren’t too tired to swallow.
At some point in my automotive-metabolistic-physio-psychological makeup, two waterglasses of wine are better than benzedrine, and a copacetic table full of conversation jabbered on until we really HAD to get to bed. Some of my chow companions were a cheerful, often unintelligible Scot and the driver of his just sold/purchased Maserati, an intense, humorless (due to fatigue) wealthy gentleman several magnitudes more anal-retentive than Richard Dreyfus’ character in “What About Bob.” On one upshift of the marvelously delicate two-liter’s gearbox, said the Scot, the purchaser not only jerked the shift lever out of the tranny, but it flew out of his hand and ricocheted around the cabin. For the rest of the Mille several of us played a losing game called “Make Him Laugh.” Heck, we couldn’t even make him smile, but we eventually found out how happy he was that his wife flew over and surprised him and so we all agreed that he really was a good guy where it counted. After all, competition can do things to a person.
After the usual three hours of sleep it was up and away in the beautiful Roman morning sunshine. Actually the hotel we were in was a few miles from the heart of Rome (later Milles went through not only downtown but the Vatican as well) so the ambiance could almost be that of the suburbs of Cincinnati except for the coffee and the exuberance. One place Italy definitely trails America is the orange stuff they give you for breakfast, at least on rallies. It’s like what one of the first prototypes of Tang must’ve tasted like. Hotels often have blood orange juice, however, and blood is exactly what it looks like. I swig down enough of the orange thing to insure that I’ll later execute a historic tradition dating from the Mille’s earliest days, namely stopping and peeing by the side of the road. Stirling Moss always said he simply couldn’t do such a thing, but do you think he held it all ten hours of his Mille? I guess the fuel stops gave him an opportunity.
The car was running like a champ, and it made the whole event feel quite different from the previous one and a half MMs in the wee Cooper. That was a tiny machine with a vengeance, and with its lowness and right hand drive, every time we passed a truck I got an earful of diesel soot. It did make a pretty good earplug eventually, though. But the Cunningham, way at the back, made it very much like a nice drive through Italy. But by the time we got to wherever, the crowds were smaller and hoarser. The little-old-lady-per-kilometer ratio never changed much, though. We didn’t get quite as many souvenirs from the towns as before, but et me assure you that this was more than compensated for by the goodies we got at the start: A Mercedes-Benz sweater just for the drivers, a pair of rainproof MM jackets just made for this event, with their serial number matching your car’s start number, a poster, two dufflebags carrying event and sponsor logos, and finally the Chopard wrist chronograph which sells for more than the rally’s entry fee, again with your number engraved on the back. Bottles of wine and a couple liters of oil too, of course. At my earlier Mille we got a monstrously beautiful split-hand chronograph to be worn around the neck — a big thing. That year they only made one more than the number of entrants, never anticipating a demand for really classy MM souvenirs. Needless to say there’re a dozen or so different models of each year’s chronograph for sale these days. Our biggie is too nice to take anywhere and actually use, but it sure looks good on my bedroom dresser.
The second full and final day of the Mille can lull one into the traditional false sense of security — it’s a nice drive, and people stop for coffee and such because, after all, your average speed in under 30mph and the roads are not particularly twisty. As you leave Rome, up in the hills you’ll pass a monk blessing you with the traditional beatific smile. Nobody knows who he is or what order he belongs to; some people think it’s a guy just pulling a sweet prank every year.
Then it happened: right in the middle of the magnificent square in the heart of Siena the engine sounded really bad. Black smoke came out the left tailpipe. It was a stuck float in one of the four tractor carburetors that Mr. Cunningham chose to use. By the time this had sunk in, we’d zoomed across the square and come to a stop in the, as usual, narrow little street leading toward the countryside. The shop whose door I had to block by pulling as far up onto the curb as I could was closed for lunch. We were immediately surrounded by the standard crowd of helpful kibitzers speaking the standard unintelligible local dialect — not that my Italian’s good at all. Some German veterinarians in an Austin-Healey (make of that what you will) stopped and asked if we needed help, but by then I was reassembling things and we were soon on our way to much applause and handshaking among the bystanders. Maybe they had some bets down on whether I could fix it or something.
I gotta tell you about those Germans: There was supposed to be a checkpoint in a small town a couple hours before Rome, but the narrow street got clogged with crowds and cars, and when we got there — on time, mind you — we were told to just proceed. It must’ve been a real mess, as the street was even clogged just with us folks being told to keep on going. But the Germans! They were told in the routebook that they had to have it stamped in that very town, and by Heinrich that’s what they intended to do. They found a policeman who found the mayor who found the head of the local auto club who got his key, reopened his office, found his little stamp, and stamped the Jerries’ routebook. I guess if you ever have a sick pet in Germany those’d be the guys to see.
Another touch of local color: We were having coffee at a hilltop cafe, just into that over-relaxation that led to a gonads-out charge through the hills that suddenly appeared between us and Brescia after another longish stop in line at a gas station; we’d coasted down some hills since we were really low on fuel and the gauge quits registering at a quarter tank. So I see this cute little machine with eight wristwatches of various clever designs, apparently available for a hundred-lira piece, or about seven cents. My preliminary gropings determine that the selection is left up the machine, a fact reinforced by the tiny instructions at the base, written in Italian tenses and cases and declensions I can only guess at. So I puts in my money and I turns the knob and a little white bead comes out. I go back to the instructions and deduce that this charming device is a gambling machine! All the men in the bar snickered to themselves in Italian and I slunk out. Dumb foreigner!
The last section into south Brescia is a long flat stretch, and we finally pulled up at the finish and plugged in our Blues Brothers cassette, which every teenager in the vicinity immediately recognized. “Blooz Broadairs!” they yelled as they clustered around us. Wish we had a bigger amp.
We went back to our hotel and down to a late dinner, where there didn’t seem to be anything like the crowd from years past, but then again we were one of the last finishers. (Now here’s where these two-decade-old notes really show up my lack of prognoscatorial ability) (Get this!) Maybe staging the Mille yearly is a bit too much — the first few events were biannual and that kept the enthusiasm up. But it was wonderful for two days to be surrounded by such interesting and bizarre people and cars. The Italian entrants simply fit right in — it’s their country, after all. The French sorta kept to themselves and exuded airs of charming superiority, with possible rueful thoughts of “We had the Paris-Madrid way before the Mille and blew it.” The Americans acted like Americans, although I have to gripe and say we finished SECOND of the American entrants. The highest finishers from each country (back then) get a big bronze statue on a marble base in a satin-lined presentation case, and we were beaten out by a pleasant couple with a German name, driving a 300SL, speaking German, who have a home in Scottsdale or Miami or possibly both but who as far as I am concerned are not Americans. If they show me their naturalization papers I will profusely apologize. I thought next time I’d have my aunt in Tbilisi send in our entry and then we could be the first Georgian team and get a nice trophy too.
Well, the event is great to watch, and magnificent to participate in It’s a lot like one of those dreams you have, where everything is transcendentally wonderful and yet you have that little nagging feeling that it’s going to be over soon. I’ve heard some folks say that after you’ve dunnit a couple time it loses its charm. It couldn’t be any less charming than just driving around Italy, and I’d do that every chance I get!