As we pull into the center of Rimini, Italy, our 1955 Porsche 356 Speedster whips into the oncoming lane around about 20 cars stopped at a red light, and smoothly settles into the intersection in front of them. A 1954 Mercedes 300 SL (that I'd later find out had been plucked from Cuba in a story worthy of its own novel) follows suit and I see the man in the driver's seat next to me nod to the neighboring car and say, "Go?" The driver of the Gullwing nods back.
The light turns green, and both cars peel out, racing at 90+ km/h toward the Arch of Augustus in the old city wall as dusk falls. I look at my road book and call out the upcoming right turn in a quarter kilometer. My driver takes a very aggressive inside line, tires squealing, and once we hit the tight one-lane road, we've won our little drag race. As we pull up to a stage, surrounded by well over a thousand people who have stayed out late in the evening to see the arriving parade of Mille Miglia cars, the Mercedes pulls up next to us again. The driver asks, "What engine is in that?"
"Two liter," says my driver, sharing the secret that the engine, with its original block, had been upgraded past 1955 specs. The driver of the 300 SL responds: "That's a lot of power."
"Not for me," my driver says. It's an understatement.
For four out of five days of the 2023 Mille Miglia, I played co-pilot to one of the best drivers on the planet, the Porsche team driver and Chopard brand ambassador Romain Dumas. Fresh off his umpteenth time piloting at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – this time for New York-based Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus in their 3.5-liter V8 90° twin-turbo-powered hypercar – Dumas drove home to Geneva on no sleep before jumping on a train to Brescia. With only one night's rest, Dumas took me on the ride of a lifetime through the cities and countryside of Italy for what's been called "the most beautiful race in the world."
The Mille Miglia is more than just a race. It's a cultural event not only for the motorsports community but also for Italians along the 1,000-mile route from Brescia to Rome and back. Originally run 24 times from 1927 to 1957, the race was fraught with danger as drivers went flat-out across the landscape. The record time, set in 1955 by British racer Stirling Moss (a Mercedes factory driver) and Denis Jenkinson (a journalist), was 10 hours, seven minutes, and 48 seconds, at an average speed of 99 mph, a number we didn't reach once in our little Porsche. Back then, deaths weren't uncommon, and a major tragic accident led to the race's cancellation in 1957 before it was reestablished as a "regularity" race in 1977. Chopard joined as the main sponsor in 1988. The brand's Co-President, Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, is a massive car enthusiast, and Chopard has, through the years, released a tremendous number of Mille Miglia-themed watches, including race editions given to the pilot of the car each year (and yes, I promise I'll get to the watches).
For many drivers, the Mille Miglia is still a chance to step back in time and drive flat-out with little consequence while enjoying the beautiful Italian landscape and bringing joy to the thousands of onlookers. And who can blame them? Everyone from young children to old nonnas (Italian colloquialism – and term of endearment – for grandma) cheer you on to go faster and faster through the tight streets of their tiny towns. It almost feels essential to wave back to everyone on the roadside, as if they came out there just for you. Other locals volunteer (even unofficially) to stand at the corners and point out the confusing turns of the landscape that you might miss in the thick and detailed road book that describes the route. They're helpful, for sure, but they also get a chance to feel like they're a part of the race.
All cars competing in the Mille Miglia have to be the same year, make, and model as those that ran in the original 24 races. But unlike a Concours d' Elegance, where rare cars sit quietly to be observed and appreciated, the cars here live their lives fully, often at the edge of a breakdown, regardless of frequent multi-million dollar values. A number of these cars actually competed in those original races and wore those years as badges of honor.
Unlike most races, this one is run on the open road. Drivers weave in and out of traffic, passing commuters or locals who, for the most part, smile, and wave. Flashing lights and whirring sirens of a police motorcycle behind came to feel like a blessing, a sign that the streets and traffic circles would be cleared for you so you can drive with near reckless abandon. Dumas told me the best lane to use (when you can, safely) is the "third lane" of the road – the one directly over the center line.
Last year James Stacey beautifully captured the atmosphere of the 2022 Mille Miglia and his ride to the starting line in a Fiat MilleCento 1100/103 TV Berlina, which unfortunately broke down along the way – an issue I'd come to commiserate with. I decided instead to focus on the drive itself and the experience along the way, with photos mostly shot from the passenger seat. Few, if any, journalist/factory-team driver pairs have "competed" in the entirety of the race since Moss and Jenkinson, so I knew it would be special. But I was nervous about spending five days – grueling days, I had been told – in a car with a stranger, let alone one far more adept in motorsports than I. How would we get along? How could I prove my worth? How would I, at 6'7", fit into such a small car and survive the 15-hour days? Little has been written describing the experience in-depth, so I didn't know what to expect or what would be expected of me.
Luckily enough, I was in good company. When Karl-Frederich Scheufele met legendary driver and six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx at Germany's Nürburgring racetrack back in 1988, it seemed like fate. Ickx "had a problem" with his wife's jewelry that Scheufele promised to fix, and when Ickx came to pick it up later, Scheufele asked him if he wanted to do the Mille Miglia in the very same 300 SL they were in this year. The two had not spoken in the interim, nor would they really speak until Ickx showed up in Italy and then surprised Scheufele by telling him that Scheufele would be driving.
The two got along just fine, they told me, and by the time they arrived in Rome, Ickx was sound asleep in the passenger seat. "I like to watch the scenery and relax," Ickx told me. After a lifetime of driving, who can blame him?
Romain Dumas made the time nearly as easy for me. He is admittedly not a watch "nerd" in the same way I couldn't tell you much about an engine, but somehow me showing him watch movements and him talking to me about engines allowed us to find common ground. We would skip most of the "regulation" tests, content with watching the landscape and trying to get to the finish each night as fast as we could to maximize what little sleep we could get. And while he wasn't "racing," there were times when we went from cruising comfortably to Dumas proving his skill in a car, taking any gap he could (most of which I wouldn't trust anyone else to navigate), silently reminding me of how talented he truly is. Meanwhile, I had the responsibility of minding the road book (an invention that came out of the record-breaking 1955 race and a secret to that team's success).
But Dumas seemed to know exactly when I was distracted by posting on Instagram or photographing the landscape. "What's next, chef?" he'd ask me, just to get me back on track, watching our road book. But even amidst our four breakdowns (one replaced clutch, one finicky carburetor that left our engine dying on any incline, and well... two times we forgot to refuel and had to "surf" our car downhill to a nearby gas station), torrential downpours, and the oppressive heat, Dumas kept our spirits high. He loved to do impressions of American phrases ("check this out!" he'd say in a nasally American accent). Often the Italian emcees at the stops would read our car number off their list and suddenly realize they were in the presence of a Le Mans champion. One commentator was so excited his voice got faster and faster until he was just shouting "ROMAINDUMASROMAINDUMAS!" Eventually, Dumas was shouting it too, miles later on the open road, still amused.
Then there's the watch. Every driver gets a Mille Miglia chronograph from Chopard as a part of their entry. It's a fantastic way to commemorate your time on the road. This year's watch follows the size of last year's: A 44mm-cased "Italian Limited Edition" Mille Miglia GTS Chronograph, this time with a cream dial and green and red accents. Co-pilots are given a discounted rate to purchase the watch, but I heard from some co-pilots that these watches sold out fast. I believe 40 watches were put aside for Italian retailers, and 60 were offered to co-pilots, with the 400 pilots rounding the total production out to 500 watches. Some of the proceeds from the watch will be donated to victims of the recent Emilia-Romagna flood disaster, which devastated much of the region.
There are too many stories to recount from the five-day trip – breaking down on the side of the road only to find another driver's phone and somehow miraculously reuniting it with its owner at lunch was one odd highlight. There were the Hodinkee readers from Germany, who were tracking our car on the Mille Miglia website, that I ran into on the side of the road. One of the best moments was running into Roger Smith (yes, that Roger Smith), fresh off the recent record-setting sale of his second-ever watch at Phillips, sitting in the co-pilot's seat of a 1932 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 GS Spider Zagato on his second Mille Miglia. In fact, the first time I saw him, he was peeling out of the Piazza De Campo in Siena.
Yet here we are, with well over 100 photos from five days. It might be a slog for some, I know, but it's an experience unlike any other and one that few people will ever get to have. My job, as I see it, was to bring that experience (the good and the bad) to those of you who might not be fortunate enough to do it yourself. For others, maybe this story will inspire a you to put life on hold for a week and, if you're lucky, take to the roads of Italy.
As they say in Italy, andiamo!
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