Going through the archives at the Time website, I came across the obituary for Tazio Nuvolari, the greatest of the pre-war Grand Prix drivers and someone who was idolised by none other than Enzo Ferrari.
“The Last Race
Monday, Aug. 24, 1953
Most men shrink from death. Tazio Nuvolari spent most of his life racing toward it. Born in the little village of Castel d’Ario, in the province of Mantua, he first challenged death at 13, jumping off his parents’ roof with an umbrella for a parachute. Tazio got off with a few bruises.
At 20, he patched up an old Bleriot airplane, which had crashed near his village, and took off from the same roof. Crashing in flames atop a nearby haystack, he counted only a few broken bones. His lust for speed swiftly led him to motorcycles and racing cars. He was happiest when he could feel wheels whirling beneath him, their treads screaming along some treacherous road.
Cheers for a Virtuoso.
Death rode often with Nuvolari in World War I, when he drove a Red Cross ambulance. In 1924 he won his first auto race, and a legend began to grow. At first, crowds came to witness the early end of the tiny (5 ft. 4 in., 130 Ibs.) “Flying Madman.” When they found that he was virtually indestructible, they cheered for a virtuoso of the wheel. Nuvolari steered his string of Bugattis, Alfa-Romeos, Cisitalias and Ferraris with profanity, main force and incredible finesse. No stylist, he seldom took a curve the same way twice, yet he could slide through a sharp turn at 150 m.p.h., all the while holding his front wheels a fixed few inches from the fence.
Of 136 major auto races, Nuvolari won 72, could blame most of his defeats on car failure. He took every big European race at least once—the Grand Prix, Le Mans, the Mille Miglia. Superstitious, he liked always to have a hunchback friend nearby when he raced, for good luck. He always wore the same yellow sweater, blue pants and tricolored scarf. Italians said of Nuvolari, as they had long before said of their spellbinding violinist, Paganini. that he had “a pact with the devil.” This belief was strongly supported by Nuvolari’s chief European rival, Achille Varzi. In the 1930 Mille Miglia, Varzi was coasting along the homestretch at night, confident that he was far in the lead. For miles, he had noticed no headlights behind him. Suddenly, out of the blackness, a car emerged, shot past him, finished first. For hours, Nuvolari had trailed Varzi over tortuous roads with his headlights off.
Nuvolari’s unearthly skill sometimes surpassed other drivers’ understanding, though they acknowledged him as the greatest racer of all. At Monte Carlo’s 1935 Grand Prix, heavy rains swept the racing route. A car’s oil line broke in the middle of an already slippery S curve. The five cars following piled up and littered the road like tank barriers. Next came Nuvolari. In a few seconds, at high speed, he power-slid and threaded his way across the slick and between the crashed cars with only millimeters to spare, without touching one.
Out to the Country.
In 1936, Nuvolari went to America and casually won the Vanderbilt Cup race, beating the U.S.’s Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose, later three-time Indianapolis champions. But time, which Tazio had always flouted, was catching up with him. After World War II, which he spent in Mantua laid low by tuberculosis, he attempted a comeback. Trying for his third Mille Miglia victory in 1948. he was a lonely, ill man. He kept the lead, despite the progressive loss of his Ferrari’s bumpers, hood, mudguards and seat cushions. With little more left than its wheels and motor, the tortured car gave up. Nuvolari lost, but not because he “went out to the country” (an ironic term for going off the road).
Once he had said: “Without a motor under my feet, it’s hard to face death.” Last year he had a stroke that partly paralyzed him. Last week, after another stroke, Tazio Nuvolari, 61, finally met death, but not the way he had always wanted it. He died in bed.
In his mile-long funeral procession at Mantua, Nuvolari’s bier rested on a flag-draped car chassis, pushed by some of modern racing’s greatest names—Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi, Juan Fangio. They buried II Maestro’s scarred body, its bones marred by countless fractures, in his gay racing togs, his favorite detachable steering wheel at his side.”
As a side note it is interesting that Nuvolari was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in WWI, just like Walt Disney.