Though not as popular today as Formula One or drift races, cross-country endurance races are the progenitor of modern motorsports. There is the infamous Carrera Panamericana, the Paris-Dakar, the Trans-Siberian Challenge, and even the Targa Florio. Yet, few can compare to the storied past of the Mille Miglia.
First held in 1927, the Mille Miglia, Italian for "thousand miles," spanned a distance of 1,618 kilometers or just over 1,005 miles. Participation was restricted to unmodified production cars, with the entry fee set at a nominal one lira. The route would take drivers from Brescia to Rome and back, in a course that resembled the figure eight.
It was the brainchild of the young count Aymo Maggi and Franco Mazzotti, organized in response to the Italian Grand Prix being moved from their hometown of Brescia to Monza.
Like the Targa Florio and Carrera Panamericana races, Mille Miglia made celebrities out of the drivers and winning sports cars from makers like Alfa Romeo, BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, and Porsche.
Alfa Romeo had dominated the races with a few upsets in between by Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Ferrari would have its own streak from 1948 to 1953. Enticing some of the world's best and most exotic vehicles, the race brought out an estimated five million spectators. The event ran from 1927 to 1957, 13 years before the Second World War and 11 after 1947.
Not surprisingly, the event attracted some of the world's greatest drivers like Giuseppe Campari, Tazio Nuvolari, Clemente Biondetti, and even Formula One drivers like Alberto Ascari and Sir Stirling Moss.
But the race was stopped in 1957 after two fatal crashes killed a driver and navigator and nine spectators. It was revived in 1977 as a race for classic and vintage cars. Participation then was limited to cars produced no later than 1957, which had attended (or were registered to) the original race. More recently, the organizer, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Automobile Club di Brescia, has opened up participation to include car models "having Mille Miglia characteristics but which, for various reasons, didn't compete in the official race years." But these were not as official competitors in the race.
Nevertheless, much of the appeal of joining the Mille Miglia has to be the experience of being within revving distance of some of the world's most exotic and desired automobiles, regardless of whether one ranked or even finished the race. Some of the cars taking part have even come from the museums of marques like Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, BMW, Jaguar, and Porsche. This capacity to draw the world's rarest has given the Mille Miglia the title of the world's most admired "traveling museum."
Besides the vehicles themselves, fans flock to Mille Miglia hoping to catch celebrity drivers like Jackie Stewart, David Coulthard, Mika Hakkinen, Bruno Senna, Martin Brundle, Juan Manuel Fangio II, Jeremy Irons, and Rowan Atkinson.
The Chopard connection
Passionate about vintage cars, Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard, has been playing an active part in the race since 1988. It was the year Chopard became the main sponsor and official timekeeper of the event. Scheufele is himself a collector of historical cars and a competitor in classic car rallies; he takes part in the Mille Miglia every year.
"Lovers of fine automobiles are said to have a weakness for precious timekeepers and vice versa," he said.
"In both domains, extreme precision and sporting elegance play an important role." In 2000, to commemorate 13 consecutive years of supporting Mille Miglia, Chopard dedicated a special line of watches to the legendary motor race. The line exists to this day with simple date displays to complex chronograph movements and straps patterned after bias ply tire tread patterns.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 17 2014.