This Is What It’s Like To Race A Priceless BMW In The Mille Miglia
This year marked the first time that many stars were to align, and for whatever reason, the gods shone upon me and I was given the chance to race in the 2016 Mille Miglia in a 1937 BMW 328 Berlin-Rome Touring Roadster. The experience is one that I had a hard time trying to put to words, so instead I turned on a recorder and tried to retell the experience to Michael Banovsky, our trusty Managing Editor, who could be heard audibly grinding his teeth at my smug retelling of one of the most ridiculous experiences of my life.
The below is the transcript from our conversation, edited only for bearability.
Michael Banovsky: Tell us about the car.
Ted Gushue: The car was a 1937 Berlin-Rome 328 Touring Roadster. It was commissioned by the Third Reich to be one of the most aerodynamically sound entries into the race that was ultimately never realized between Berlin and Rome. It was supposed to set up Germany on the world stage as a racing authority. There were two roadsters made, and then one coupé that was made. The coupé was the one that one the Mille Miglia in 1940. I believe it also won again in 2014, and I got to see that after the race, in their warehouse.
Obviously, the Roadster I was in was very tapered, almost nautical in design, I would say. It’s slippery in the sense that an upside down boat would be slippery, and it’s just beautiful and sculptural and it’s got power. I’m not sure I could have picked a better car to race in, for a couple reasons:
One, the 328 engine that is in this particular model is about 30 horsepower up on its regular 328 brother. With the drag coefficient of this model, you net out something like 40 more horsepower, if I’m not mistaken. The car is pushing 137 horsepower. It has drag coefficient of a tadpole, and it weighs 750 kilograms (~1,652 lbs).
It’s this perfect machine for speed on these tiny, windy roads. It’s also very, very small. I’ve been a few different 356 Porsches which look tiny from the outside. By comparison, they’re like the bridal suite at the Waldorf. This car has very little room for anything, and it was actually a wonder that my co-driver was even able to fit in it properly ’cause he’s so tall.
MB: What was it like to jump in a car this old at the start of the race without much experience in cars from this period?
TG: I’d actually just spent five hundred miles in a Triumph TR2, which is obviously a car that was made eighteen years afterwards…something like that. That car, I think was so poorly engineered that it actually trained me for a car from the 1930s, and in reality, the 328 was just a dream to drive. There was no play in the steering wheel. It was one to one. There was no wiggle. There was no wobble. The car was just tight. It was dialed in. It felt sturdy on the road. It felt confident. It has this great kind of aluminum bodied echo when you hit the accelerator. The gears were smooth. I maybe ground a gear twice throughout the whole weekend. I can’t tell you how many times I ground a gear in the TR2. To be fair, the 328 Touring Roadster has also been kept by really dedicated, very talented mechanics.
MB: Who were the mechanics?
TG: The people that get to work on BMW Classic are hand-picked from their dealership network as the highest performing mechanics in Germany, and somewhat the rest of the world. They get tossed into a qualification system, and from there they pick the best of the best, of the best. Kind of like SEAL Team Six except instead of killing people they are saving ancient BMWs.
MB: Who were you driving with?
TG: Now we were both co-drivers technically, we both got to drive, but the driver I was paired with was a man named Dr. Markus Schramm. Essentially, Markus Schramm, the way I understand it, is the Director of Strategy for BMW Group and he is a six foot seven, colossal column of German machine. He runs ultra-marathons on every continent. He’s run over one hundred kilometers on Antarctica and the North Pole, and his wife goes along for the journey as well. She has always been at the finish line of every major event he’s ever done with cold a beer. They’re like this power couple that just kind of do everything to the extreme.
MB: So dealing with you, that was like a walk in the park for him?
TG: Well, interestingly, I think I was uniquely a cinch for someone who carries a title like he does. I’d imagine if he would have been paired with a traditional journalist, like a hard-hitting guy from The New York Times, there would have been questions that he wouldn’t have been able to answer. As Petrolicious, we’re focused on the car. We’re in love with that car. It was actually a perfect “odd couple” marriage. We ended up having an amazingly fun time. We drove exceedingly fast.
MB: How are you treated when you drive into town in a car like this one? How are other major manufacturer teams treated?
TG: The entirety of Italy has basically gotten together in one big room and decided that this is going to be awesome and everyone should shut up and go along with it, so bare minimum every single car that drives into these tiny town is treated like a foreign dignitary (of which many were racing). The real difference I found was in the design of the car. The 328 Berlin Rome Roadster just looks so special and really stands out.
When we flew into these tiny towns it was obvious that we stood out from our age class. I think some of the other pre-war cars, ones that all kind of share that similar spartan design, might have slightly fewer cheers from the crowd because of the similarity, but largely everyone is just so excited to see you that it turns into one big explosion as you drive through town.
MB: What was it like in between the towns?
TG: The reaction on the road, in terms of driving by people was insane, but the coolest thing I found about the Miglia, is not just the people that you high five as you drive through Sienna or the farmers cheering you on from the hillside outside of Florence. It’s not the little kid that runs over and hugs your car as you’re parked in San Marino. Those moments are amazing, but it’s that the entire nation has dug deep in their garages, and have taken to the road to drive alongside you. Not get your way, but basically create this third lane on every road that the Mille Miglia touches in order to cheer you on from their insane cars.
You get some incredible cars. Like 10 S4 Stradales lined up at the gas pump. Cars that just don’t really exist. Like a Jolly Club liveried Lancia will come out and run a leg of the course behind you for fun, cause they live locally. We saw some unreal little Fiats. Some beautifully, beautifully curvy little Fiats that I’ve never even seen before. Strange little Abarths that you’d never even think to look up, just kind of parked on the side of the road, with the owner sitting on a fold out chair, watching the race go by. In that respect it’s like the entire country turns into one big rolling car show and you’re just making the rounds.
MB: Right. It sounds like I’d want to be the first one out every morning and I’d probably end up being the last one in, because I’d want to stop every mile.
TG: That is the crime of the whole event, is that you’re kind of on a schedule. Not kind of, you are, you’re on a rigid schedule, and there’s ways around that. You can speed and then chill out and cruise and grab a coffee. A lot of guys, especially on the crummy rainy days just dodged the course and took the autostrada to cheat as they didn’t really care about their place. And really, how can you blame them? They’re driving 10 million dollar cars. Who would want to put 300 miles on an Ecurie Ecosse C-Type on questionable roads they’ve never driven in the pouring rain?
The GDP of a small country was on the road in terms of car values, and they’re bouncing into each other in the rain. Some people are crashing. A guy flipped his Healey. We drove past that. Luckily, they were ejected from the car which is all you can really hope for because nobody really has seat belts.
MB: What is the pace like as you’re winding through these mountain roads?
TG: If we’re going through small town, a small castle town, we’re doing twenty miles and hour. But if we’re on the autostrada, 150, 160 km/h (90+ mph).
MB: It sounds like there was probably even more to go.
TG: It was really just how ballsy we wanted to be and I didn’t like being that ballsy. That being said, Markus is trained racing driver. He spends a lot of time every year on the Nürburgring. He’s a real, real driver’s driver, and I felt much more comfortable actually in the passenger seat. One, because I was driving a twenty million dollar work of art that didn’t belong to me, and two, it was more fun at points just to be able to look around in the open top roadster and experience the scenery.
Like driving through the mountain side, next to a Cisitalia Roadster, whose body styling I’d just never seen before. To see cars like that being driven by people wearing period-correct clothing, just thrashing it around, through these twisty mountain roads. That was really special, and you’re not able to see that if you’re driving.
MB: Exactly. It seems like a lot of really special things come together all at once. What were your thoughts on why a big company like BMW enters an event like this and puts its entries in the line of danger?
TG: I think they kind of have to as a brand that values heritage as much as they do. If you look at some of the big ad campaigns they’re doing around their hundred year anniversary, it’s very, very clear that a brand like BMW … you can’t fake believing in your heritage. Street cred goes a long way in our space, right? If you’re a brand that says you value heritage, you better be racing the car. You better have the Bat-mobile at the Monterey historics. If you don’t keep that passion alive, it starts to fade and fade and before you know it, it never happened at all and you’re desperately trying to revive it decades later.
MB: Speaking of Monterey, how does it compare to an event like Pebble Beach?
TG: It is overwhelming by comparison, but it also feels so much more right. It feels like the ultimate “screw you” to the straw hat crowd. To see people that have, in many cases, nicer cars, in better condition, with better provenance, with real race history out on real roads, driving them like they were built to be driven, it just feels so damn right.
I think as a publication, as Petrolicious, we love every aspect of our culture. But if I had to speak for what really gets us going, it’s when truly passionate people take truly special machines back out on the roads they were built to be driving at the speeds they were built to be driven at. Is Pebble Beach awesome? Yes. It’s beautiful. But give me an SSK sliding sideways around a side street in Sienna any day.
MB: Was there any moment that you didn’t enjoy of the race?
TG: Well, there was an accident.
MB: Go on…
TG: Coming through a roundabout at relatively normal speed I fishtailed on the exit over an invisible wet patch. I opposite locked, corrected, but there was just a fraction of a joule too much energy pulling me towards the guardrail, so we kissed it. No major structural damage, just a flesh wound down the right side. If you talk to anyone involved in the team, it was as if I had just cut my own mother’s face with a box knife. I was crushed.
Along come the mechanics, the real hardcore dudes who’ve been fixing BMWs since they were born. “This is not a problem” they insisted, before instructing us to get the hell back on the road and race.
As right as they may have been, I won’t soon be escaping the testical-cringing feeling of brushing up against a guardrail at speed in one of the most beautiful cars ever built. Driving off, Markus Schramm turns to me and says, “Congratulations! Now you are famous!”