Formula One: Speeds Rose, Worlds Collided in Historic Indy-F1 Series at Monza

8 September 1999

Posted By Terry Callahan
Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway
INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 8, 1999 -- So steep is the Monza banking that climbing it -- even in ideal circumstances -- is a near impossibility, but if there is enough incentive it can be done, as Jimmy Bryan proved.

While practicing for the 1957 Monza 500, in his Dean Van Lines Special, Bryan, the greatest Indianapolis-style driver of the late 1950s, had 10 $10 bills blow out of the top pocket of his overalls. A hundred bucks was a hundred bucks, so he parked the roadster at the foot of the banking and began to climb. Retrieved virtually all his cash, too.

A couple of days later, Bryan was still better off, for he won the inaugural Monza 500, and pocketed a little more than $34,000. The whole thing had started in the fall of 1956 when Giuseppe Bacciagaluppi, the president of the Automobile Club of Milan, invited Duane Carter, the competitions director of the United States Auto Club, to Monza.

At vast expense, a banked track had been built, and this was incorporated into the existing road circuit for the Italian Grand Prix in 1955. Now, a year on, the seeds of an idea were in Bacciagaluppi's mind, and after Carter had witnessed the 1956 race, he was sounded out on the possibility of a match race: the best of America against the cream of Europe.

The notion appealed to Carter, and thus plans were laid for a "Trophy of Two Worlds," to be run the following June using the banked track only. In April 1957, Pat O'Connor, a USAC superstar of the day, came to Monza for tire testing with Firestone's test car. It was a conventional roadster, but fitted with a 5.5-litre V8 Chrysler engine instead of the traditional four-cylinder Offenhauser. There were no tire problems whatever, and, O'Connor ran 226 miles at an average of 163.4 mph, putting in a best lap faster than 170.

The following month, O'Connor took the Indianapolis 500 pole at just short of 144 mph. By any standards, Monza was going to be one fast race. Once Indy was done, 10 of the front-engine roadsters were transported from New York to Genoa on the good ship Independence and thence to Monza in a fleet of trucks supplied by Alfa Romeo.

As for the drivers and mechanics, well, they traveled later, and in rather less style. The flight, from New York, was undertaken in an old DC-3 charter plane (with canvas seats!), and, en route to Milan, stopped to refuel in Newfoundland, Gander and Shannon. When they alighted at their final destination, sustained only by elderly sandwiches and lukewarm coffee, they had been aboard for 26 hours.

Still, once in Italy, they were treated like gods, for no country on earth holds race drivers in greater reverence. But if that delighted them, they were dismayed to find they would effectively be racing against themselves. The European "challenge" had petered out.

There were two problems. First, there were no existing cars capable of taking on the Indy cars on this ultra-fast banked oval track, and Formula 1 drivers pointed out, reasonably enough, that a roadster wouldn't have been too wonderful at somewhere like the Nurburgring; second, the Europeans were concerned about the likely speeds.

Having already experienced the banking in two Italian Grands Prix, the Grand Prix drivers were not enamoured of it. For one thing, they had found that suspension travel was completely used up as their cars were pressed down into the track; for another, the surface of the banking, although new, was bumpy in the extreme.

Thus, they decided to boycott the event, and the only cars to take on the Indy brigade were three D-Type Jaguars, entered by Ecurie Ecosse, a private Scottish team. A couple of these cars had finished 1-2 in the Le Mans 24 Hours the previous weekend, and were brought from there straight to Monza. Quite obviously, on speed they were not going to be able to compete with the roadsters, but still their presence was warmly appreciated.

Bryan apart, the major American stars at Monza were O'Connor, Eddie Sachs, Troy Ruttman, Johnnie Parsons, Bob Veith and Tony Bettenhausen, and once they started practicing seriously for the race, spectators witnessed a level of raw speed quite unknown at the time. Bettenhausen, at the wheel of the fearsome supercharged Novi, ultimately took the pole with a lap of 177mph.

He did not, though, lead the opening lap of the race. Although it was a rolling start, the American cars, with their two-speed gearboxes, were slow off the mark. Englishman Jack Fairman -- at the very back of the grid -- used his Jaguar's four-speed 'box to great effect, slicing through the pack, and coming by the pits for the first time with a lead of 300 yards! It didn't last long, of course, and Fairman knew that, but there was prize money for the first lap leader, and that was in the bank. By lap two, he had been swallowed up by the USAC contingent, and was back in his rightful place.

Thanks to the absence of the European stars, the crowd that day was disappointingly small, at around 20,000, but those present were entranced by wheel-to-wheel racing such as they had never seen before. In furnace conditions, Bryan -- who chewed cigars throughout the afternoon -- won two of the three 63-lap heats, and placed second to Ruttman in the third, thereby ensuring overall victory, at the astonishing average speed of 160.1 mph. A month earlier, Sam Hanks' winning average at Indianapolis had been 135.6.

There had been lessons from this first Monza 500, one of which was the banking gave the cars a fearful beating. Between each heat, there had been a one-hour break, and in these the Indy mechanics worked feverishly, welding up shock absorber mounting-points and split fuel tanks. By the end of the race, only three roadsters were still running; at the 1958 race, the mechanics said, they would know what to expect.

The second Monza 500 was altogether different, for now there was sizeable European contingent, with specially built cars from Ferrari and Maserati, and drivers such as Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Luigi Musso and Phil Hill. The greatest of them all, Juan Manuel Fangio, was down to drive the Dean Van Lines roadster, and he qualified the car third, disconcerting mechanic Clint Brawner by flatly refusing to wear a safety belt!

Again it was blazing hot, and this time the spectators turned out in force, not least because Musso, as brave as any man who ever raced a car, had put the 4.1-litre V12 Ferrari on the pole, at over 174 mph.

Italian hero Musso led the early laps, too, fighting hard with the likes of Jim Rathmann (Zink Leader Card Special), Bryan (Belond A.P.. Special) and Ruttman (Agajanian Special), but the primitive Ferrari gave him a dreadful time on the banking, and ultimately, completely exhausted, he handed the car over to Hawthorn -- who had no taste for his kind of racing, and swiftly passed it on to Hill.

Hill, America's first World Champion, remembers the day well. "I was in an odd situation, because I was from the United States, yet part of the 'European' squad," Hill said. "It was pretty much a 'them and us' deal -- but mainly 'them,' because there weren't enough of 'us!'

"I quite enjoyed driving the race. Compared with somewhere like Spa, it seemed easy as anything -- you just tore around, and the car did it its own thing. The only thing that was bad was the heat, and the terrible bouncing around that you got on the banking.

"Once Musso had worn himself out, it finally boiled down to where Hawthorn and I were doing all the driving. When I started to sort of like it, Hawthorn would come up and say, 'Why don't you do another stint?' The Italian press thought we were fighting over who should drive -- in fact, he was leaning down into the cockpit, tightening my safety belt even more! "It was good for the Indy guys that the race was in three heats, because their cars wouldn't last any longer. They were welding them up like crazy between the heats! The European cars couldn't keep up, but they held together OK. We were third overall in the end, and I was pretty pleased with that."

No one had any answer for Rathmann, however, who won every heat, set an overall average of 166.72 mph, and collected close to $40,000. Bryan placed second, followed by the Ferrari, then Ray Crawford and Jimmy Reece. Moss, at the wheel of a Maserati sponsored by the Eldorado ice cream company, ran well in the first two heats but then had a huge accident in the third when his car's steering broke on the banking.

"Suddenly my arms just crossed," Stirling remembered. "I hit the guardrail, knocking two or three of the posts down, and bending the barrier back -- I was sure I was going to be killed. I remember not realizing I hadn't gone over the top until the car completely stopped."

At the time of the accident, Moss was fighting with an American rookie, who had taken over the Sclavi and Amos Special from French veteran Maurice Trintignant. His name? A.J. Foyt.

This second "Monzanapolis" race was adjudged a great success, and as the 10 Indy drivers flew back to New York, they expected to be back in 1959 for an even more competitive race. Sadly, though, the Automobile Club of Milan had lost money again, and the saga of the Monza 500 was at an end.

Not for 20 years, when a pair of USAC races was run at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, would the Indy cars come to Europe again.

Editors Note: For hundreds of hot racing photos and racing art, be sure to visit The Racing ImageGalleries and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.

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