“In this area, the bible was marked that this was a smooth crossing,” remembers Herrmann. “We did 160, 180 kilometers per hour — really full speed. Herbert Linge showed me the green card.” In an age before closed helmets and two-way radios, the pair had developed a system that didn’t rely on yelling. “We communicated only with green, red, and yellow cards. The bible was more or less the road book for the ‘special’ occasions, where the road was narrow or the turn was dangerous or a railroad crossing was high. Those times I got the red card. In this case, the crossing was safe. Then we did full speed.
“This was the train track from Pescara to Rome,” continues Herrmann. “It was a track for the express train. It was mountainous, hilly on either side of the road. We couldn’t see where the road went — we could only trust Herbert Linge’s bible. There was no possibility to see ahead from the road. The car is very low. The hills were high. At crossings like this, there was an official who was further back up the road, away from the crossing. He was there to warn us with a flag if the crossing was open or closed. But this official was standing behind the closure, not where he should be. And this is the reason Herr Linge and I did not see the crossing…. To be honest, there was no way to stop anyway. We were doing 180 km/h, and I saw no train!”
Herrmann says Linge had his head down, reading his bible — looking for the next note, the next cue for the next colored card. “I pushed him on the head, the back of the head, to push him down,” says Hermann. “I leaned down and we went under the gate. We missed the train by a few meters, a few meters only. I just heard it behind me.”
In another interview two years ago, a writer asked Herrmann about the train-crossing and wondered aloud if Herrmann thought his driving had been reckless? Others have questioned for decades the madness and daring of racing a train just to gain another place, one more trophy.
He wasn’t the first to wonder that. The Mille Miglia lasted just three more years after Herrmann’s and Linge’s harrowing drive. Speeds had risen to such an extent that the winners could cover the 1,000 miles in 10 hours and a few minutes. The number of cars running the event had changed, too, from 77 the first year to 374 in 1954, when Herrmann and Linge finished sixth overall and first in class with a time of 12 hours, 35 minutes, 44 seconds.
Umberto Maglioli, driving solo in a 550 RS Spyder, finished fifth overall in 1957. He needed 80 fewer minutes to cover the distance, doing it in just 11 hours, 14 minutes, and 7 seconds. His triumph was tempered by a bad crash just 25 miles from the finish, one that killed a Spanish driver, his English navigator, and ten spectators. Overnight, the daily newspapers that had covered the races and the Italian Parliament that had passed laws to enable it became vocal opponents. The Mille was finished.
“There are paintings of this train crossing,” says Herrmann, helmet off, sipping some water almost six decades later. He alternates between German and English, leapfrogging ahead of Stejskal’s translations, anxious to have this story understood.
“One is completely wrong,” he says. “It shows the countryside is flat. Well, if it had been, I would have seen the train and I would have reacted. The correct painting even shows the crossing official. He is jumping out of the way. He was supposed to be 100, 150 meters back up the road. To warn us. But there he was. If he didn’t jump, we would have hit him. We all had a lot of luck.”