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HORROR IN ITALY

May 20, 1957
May 20, 1957

Table of Contents
May 20, 1957

Horror In Italy
A Blunder Is Repaired
Spectacle
Events & Discoveries
The Wonderful World Of Sport
Alas, Poor Giants!
Baseball X-Ray
Sporting Look
Fish Story
Second Wind
Gussie Busch
Acknowledgments
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

HORROR IN ITALY

Marquis Alfonso de Portago dies in a holocaust which probably spells the end of the Mille Miglia, greatest of all the open-road auto races

A swarm of festive Italians bracketed the checkered finish line at Brescia, waiting. The scent of lime blossoms filled the air. Clusters of the white flowers whirled down from green foliage, to be flattened against scorching asphalt as car after car completed the tortuous thousand miles of open road of Italy's Mille Miglia.

This is an article from the May 20, 1957 issue Original Layout

The Italians were jubilant that their compatriot, 50-year-old Piero Taruffi had won the race, coming out of semiretirement at the 11th hour to fill out Enzo Ferrari's short-handed team. It was a triumph of unusual sweetness for the silver-haired Taruffi, the "old fox," who knew the Italian mountain roads better than any man but had raced in the Mille Miglia without success so many times before.

The crowd cheered Taruffi, who averaged 94.78 mph in his experimental 4.2-liter Ferrari, and the German, Count Wolfgang von Trips, who arrived in second place in a 3.8-liter Ferrari, and the Belgian, Olivier Gendebien, who was a brilliant third in a 3-liter Ferrari touring coupé. And they waited for the popular young driver, 28-year-old Alfonso de Portago, to complete a winning Ferrari foursome.

They liked his good looks, his shiny mop of curly black hair, his devil-may-care attitude about many sports. They called him uno simpaticone. They were with him. The loudspeakers said he had passed Mantua, passed Goito and was on the straight stretch between Goito and Guidizzolo. The people waited, and he did not appear.

De Portago had driven a hard race. He would not have driven at all, for it is a race much hated by most of the drivers, but young Cesare Perdisa gave up racing after the recent death of the Italian champion, Eugenio Castellotti, and De Portago, as a member of the Ferrari team, was asked to take Perdisa's 3.8 Ferrari. Reluctantly, with a premonition of disaster that he communicated to a few friends, he did. Even after Perdisa's withdrawal (to become a horseman), De Portago might have bypassed the race. The talented Luigi Musso might have taken the car, but he became sick.

Handicapped by lack of experience in the thousands of turns of Italy's narrow, sinuous roads, De Portago drove harder than most, attempting to win by sheer virtuosity. He had only 30 miles to go—a few minutes left to drive—when it happened. The narrow bridge of Goito was behind him, the tormenting twists of the Apennines forgotten, and the inviting tape of the road through the Po Valley lay before him.

The spectators who lined the road saw him coming—first a dot in the distance, looming larger every second. He must have been going 150 mph. Children tried to force themselves past the legs of their elders, up to the front of the crowd. There was a sudden report, followed by a hiss—a tire blowing out—and the dot that was De Portago, a red Ferrari by now, swerved violently. Its tail hit the bank at the left of the road. Then the car catapulted above the first line of onlookers, cut the telegraph wires above, and landed among the more timorous spectators who had stayed back for greater safety. Amid the shrieks of the injured and dying, De Portago died immediately, and with him his old friend, the 40-year-old American Edmund Nelson, who had come along for the ride.

A FRIEND NAMED NELSON

Nelson, a picaresque character like De Portago, had ridden with the Spaniard before—a victorious ride in last year's Tour de France for automobiles. De Portago first met him in 1945, when a bearded Nelson had come out of the Merchant Marine to take a job at Manhattan's Hotel Plaza. The young De Portago dressed in the latest Savile Row styles, sported a gold cigaret holder, smoked Oriental cigarets and spoke with a pronounced English accent. While living at the Plaza he became fast friends with the older Nelson. He copied Nelson's more casual dress, lost his Briticisms and even learned how to box from Nelson, who had been a light-heavyweight fighter. It was Nelson who taught the marquis how to bobsled.

Nine spectators were killed with Nelson and De Portago, 20 others injured. The deaths of a Dutch amateur driver, Josef Gottgens, who crashed a Triumph TR 3 into a wall at Florence, and a motorcycle policeman brought the toll to 13.

It was the worst composite disaster in the turbulent history of the Mille Miglia, the worst in racing since the Le Mans tragedy in 1955. It may well mean the end of the Mille Miglia as a road race. Only with great difficulty had the Mille Miglia organizers overcome a governmental objection to its being run this year after six persons died in last year's race. It is becoming increasingly evident that speeds are too high and roads too narrow for today's cars. Other accidents, besides De Portago's and that of Gottgens were only narrowly avoided. Said the world champion driver, Juan Manuel Fangio, after the race (in which he did not compete):

"I shall never run in the Mille Miglia in the future because it is a race that is really too dangerous. I have tried it five times, and I have always seen that the risk is too great."

Racing tends to survive its disasters, however, and the Mille Miglia must be recorded as a triumphant event for Enzo Ferrari's machines, in spite of the overshadowing tragedy. Eight of the first 10 places over-all were won by Ferraris, a new affirmation, if perhaps the last, of the Modena factory's postwar domination of the Mille Miglia. With three races for the 1957 world championship for manufacturers now run, Ferrari has gone ahead of its keenest rival, Maserati, two victories to one.

Ironically, Maserati was favored in the Mille Miglia. Two of its magnificent new 4.5-liter models, the fastest sports cars in the world today, were to be driven by Britain's great champion, Stirling Moss, and France's best driver, Jean Behra. On the day before the race Behra, who lost an ear in the 1955 Irish Tourist Trophy race and suffered a score of other injuries in his yet unsuccessful push to become a world champion, damaged one 4.5 irreparably in an accident while completing a painstaking training grind.

And high though the death toll was, it might have been much higher except for the bravery, skill and incredible reflexes of Moss. Having started last, an excellent position in which to judge the speeds he must average, Moss got no farther than the first bend outside Brescia. Coming into the curve he felt the brake pedal of his 400-hp mount give way beneath his foot. In the split second before the Maserati could hurtle, brakeless, out of control, Moss coolly jammed the shift lever into low gear, bringing the compression of his eight cylinders against the speed of the car. He stopped before the car reached the spectators who lined the Rezzato cemetery—its walls white and cypress trees dark against the brightening dawn.

When Moss went out, the race changed its nature. It was henceforth Ferrari's domain. Three different cars took the lead at various points but they were all three Ferraris. At Ravenna, the first check point, the five cars first to arrive were all Ferraris—first Wolfgang von Trips, second Peter Collins, third Taruffi, fourth De Portago—only one minute and 35 seconds behind Taruffi—and Olivier Gendebien.

But Collins was determined to beat Moss's 1955 record of 98 mph and, pushing hard along the flat straight Adriatic stretch, he was first to reach Pescara, with Taruffi—who always made a specialty of pushing on the straight Pescara run—less than a minute behind him. Von Trips had dropped back into third place and De Portago still held his fourth place in front of Gendebien among the five Ferraris in the lead.

Climbing up the Apennines across to Aquila and Rome, Collins masterfully, relentlessly pushed his advantage, while all others dropped back.

At the Rome check point, the blond Briton led the field by almost six minutes. Taruffi was still followed by Von Trips, and De Portago held grimly on to his fourth place. At that point, Collins was only nine seconds behind Moss's 1955 record.

Then, after 550 miles of running, came the hairpin bend northward—the bend which joins the Flaminian and the Cassian ways. Collins took it perfectly—right in the center of the road—in a smooth arc with no wheel screech. Taruffi, in his customary black overalls and silver helmet, swung wide before the bend and, calmly with upraised head, took the road that led him north to victory. But De Portago's lack of knowledge of the route was very apparent when he took the bend too fast, seemed suddenly surprised to find it was a hairpin and, with the car straining outward, only just managed to complete the turn northward toward the place where he was about to die. De Portago had actually never been round the entire Mille Miglia course, though he had twice attempted to do so with Nelson. The first time, De Portago's car had caught fire at Ferrara, and the second time out he had run into a milestone almost at the start of the course.

It is a tribute to his skill and daring that he kept to fourth place the whole way, despite this very grave handicap.

He was still in fourth place at the Florence check point. At Florence, Collins had beaten Moss's 1955 record by four minutes and had left Taruffi nine minutes behind him. The five Ferraris were still leading in the same order.

Up the steep twisty Futa and Raticosa passes, between Florence and Bologna, the pace began to tell, not on Collins but on his car's transmission. Taruffi was also having trouble with his transmission and with his springing. At Bologna he intended to give up, as he had done in the 12 Mille Miglias he had attempted before. But this time, in his 13th try, when he heard that his rival, Peter Collins, was in the same bad trouble, he decided to go on. He said:

"I had intended to give up because the car didn't seem very safe to me, in its crippled condition. But I had promised my wife that I would give up racing if I won a Mille Miglia. So I took a chance." Taruffi's faith in himself became justified when at Parma, Collins—as unlucky in his way as his countryman Moss—had to retire with a broken half-axle.

Taruffi continued on his way—not pressing too hard—careful to avoid gearshifts that would add to strain on his damaged transmission. Von Trips behind him was almost wheel to wheel, but the old fox was never one to be ruffled. Von Trips had started from Brescia three minutes ahead of him, so, as long as Von Trips kept wheel to wheel, Taruffi had a three-minutes lead.

But the two cars, racing in to the jammed finish line, side by side, made a grand ending to what, in all probability, will be the last of all Mille Miglias. (Gendebien—in third place—had arrived earlier.) Reports were circulating even then that the dashing De Portago had interrupted his rush toward Brescia, near Rome, upon seeing his frequent companion of late, the movie actress Linda Christian. He had stopped his car, it was said, waited for the actress to sprint to him, then had lifted her up and kissed her before roaring onward. It was with exhilaration that the last crowd on the finish line of the last Mille Miglia and of Taruffi's last race, waited eagerly for De Portago. But "Il Simpaticone," the fourth man, had been stopped by death at Guidizzolo.

View this article in the original magazine

can stay alive and in one piece for the first couple of years this is half the battle.

•The mere fact that we race requires no courage on our part.... We get terrified.... I think what frightens me most is that when I have actually lost control of the car there is absolutely nothing I can do except sit still, frozen with fear, and wait for events to take their natural course.

•Racing is a vice, and as such extremely hard to give up. All drivers swear that they will stop at such and such an age, but very few of them are able to do so.

•It is the uncertainty of the future that attracts the adventurer most. Few professions...have less security and more uncertainty about the future than motor racing. One can be on top one second, but all it requires is a very small error and one is very embarrassingly dead the next.

This prophetic and dramatic testimony came from the pen of 28-year-old Don Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, the 17th Marquis de Portago (shown above), and first appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED last week just four days before his tragic death at Guidizzolo.

"Fon" de Portago seemed to have been carefully bred for glamour. From his father, who had been a movie actor, a great athlete and sportsman, a fabulous gambler and a fearless warrior for Franco during the Spanish Civil War, he inherited a cloak of romance dating back to the 16th century. One of his earliest ancestors had walked all the way from Florida to Mexico City as part of a Spanish treasure-hunting expedition in 1528.

From Fon's mother came the kind of American dollars needed to finance his restless life. She is the former Olga Leighton, a British girl who first married a Chicago financier named Mackey and through him accumulated a fortune from Household Finance Corporation.

Young Fon grew up in the elegant idleness of international society. His schooling—mostly by tutors except for a month at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey in 1944—was casual. He was a foppishly dressed youth of 16 living at Manhattan's Plaza Hotel with his mother when he first burst into café society. By 1947 he had attracted headlines flying an airplane under a bridge in London to win a $500 bet. Soon he was a familiar figure on the steeplechase courses and polo fields of Europe. He was an accomplished bobsledder, swimmer and jai alai player—a superb athlete.

Logically enough, auto racing became Fon's greatest passion. He started with midget cars in France, quickly graduated to a 2-liter Maserati, which he first raced at Le Mans in 1954. He drove with far more verve than finesse, had far more than his share of accidents, and his wrinkled cars were his racing trademark. Yet he won his share of races, including the 1956 Tour de France for automobiles.

Surviving Fon de Portago are his pretty blonde wife, the former fashion model Carol McDaniel, and their two children—Andrea, 6, and Antonio, 3. Fon first met Carol in a nightclub and within two hours he told her he intended to marry her. When Fon made up his mind to do something he did it with a flourish. That is the way everyone remembers him.

THE TOP 10

DRIVER

CAR

TIME

1. Taruffi

4.2 Ferrari

10:27:47

2. Von Trips

3.8 Ferrari

10:30:48

3. Gendebien

3.0 Ferrari GT

10:35:53

4. Scarlatti

3.0 Maserati

11:00:58

5. Maglioli

1.5 Porsche

11:14:07

6. Lugio

3.0 Ferrari GT

11:26:59

7. Hippocrates (pseud.)

3.0 Ferrari GT

11:30:55

8. Munaron

2.0 Ferrari

11:32:04

9. Buticchi

3.0 Ferrari GT

11:44:27

10. Koechkler

2.0 Ferrari

11:49:04