The training sessions became their own events. Drivers seldom practiced the entire length but instead travelled at two-thirds racing speed along various legs. The entrants planned these distances carefully, timing their arrivals to meet invitations for lunch and some wine with friends and fellow racers, or to pay respects to Ferrari or Maserati factories. But Lurani was quick to point out that, “the training for the race was not only a gastronomical and enological tour. The useful was combined with the delightful and we ended up knowing the long and difficult course well enough to compete it safely at speeds considered fantastic by the general public.”
All of Italy embraced the Mille Miglia, first run in 1927. With no idea how long it would take to cover a thousand miles, inaugural contestants packed suitcases with clothes for three days. The winner returned to Brescia barely 23 hours after he started. By the 1950s, as the speeds of competition cars exceeded 150 mph, organizers worked to ensure the circuit was closed, free from other traffic.
While the organizers interrupted the Mille Miglia during World War II, a legacy of that war and one of Benito Mussolini’s contributions to daily Italian life would continue to regularly interrupt the Mille. The Italian rail system would also become a special entry in Porsche’s road books. Herrmann remembers one train crossing on the Mille better than any other.
“The story starts with the fact that, in Italy, the trains run mostly on time,” he explains as he sits in the quiet of Losail’s pit garages. “There are security people (who) take care of the crossing gates. In normal times, they sometimes close the gate 15 minutes prior to the arrival of the train. They don’t know exactly what time the train will go through their crossing.”
Herrmann apologizes for his English, then enlists Stejskal as his translator. “During the race,” he continues, “they try to close the gates as late as possible, sometimes even as they see the train arriving! It’s to be fair to the racers, to not give anyone an advantage over the others. So the idea was always to close at the last second and open as soon as the train passes.
“But it’s important to know this: All the train crossings are different,” says Herrmann. “At some, the rails are right even with the road — smooth. At some, the rails are 10, 15 centimeters [roughly half an inch] above the road. In some, it was much higher, and this was very dangerous. So we included notes about these in the ‘bible,’ the ‘road bible,’ and the co-driver must be carefully reading this all along the route.”
His co-driver for the May 1954 Mille Miglia was factory mechanic and test driver Herbert Linge. Recalls Herrmann: “‘You must go slow here,’ the bible would say. But there were others where we could go fast. And we marked all these in Herbert Linge’s bible. We were on the road inland from Pescara, heading toward Rome, 160 kilometers away.” Pescara was the farthest southeast point of the route, which had clung to the Adriatic coast for about 200 km before turning inland. Herrmann and Linge had begun to climb the hills up from the shoreline toward the town of Chieti, an old Roman city complete with theater and temples from the 6th Century B.C.