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A Visit to Monza

Published on Fri, Jun 28, 1996

By: Len Frank

There is an irresistible pull to the name—the idea—of Monza. It pulls back memory…to a time before cable sports networks and the overexposure to the politics and business of racing today.

Original Monza photos, Matt Stone collection

(Matt Stone)


I don’t know about you, but for me there is an irresistible pull to the name—the idea—of Monza. It pulls back memory, or the automotive fiction that most of us substitute for memory, to a time before cable sports networks and the overexposure to the politics and business of racing today. There aren’t many tracks left from what I’m going to resist the temptation to call “the Golden Age.” Le Mans, Indianapolis, Pikes Peak. Monte Carlo, the Nurburgring—the old Nurburgring, not very many others.

It doesn’t matter that Indy has been repaved, massaged. If we were sensitive enough, we could hear—feel—the rolling boom of Ray Harroun’s Marmon still vibrating there, or at the very least the shreik of Frank Lockhart’s supercharged, intercooled Miller. It’s like that at Monza too: exposure makes the sensitivity grow, but it’s the music of Alfas, Maseratis, Bugattis…

First, there is no credit to be given. Monza, on my part was just an accident. Stuck in Milan (things could be worse), waiting for a guy who was supposed to show me around what remains of Modena and Maranello, Gooley and I made a break from the heavy city traffic to the comparative quiet of Monza. It would be an easy dash on a Vespa, roughly north, around the huge railway station and out of the city, through Nuevo Milano, past office buildings, discount stores, apartments, junkyards (Great junk! There was most of a 208GTB in one.) into the little city of Monza.

Here, kids cruise in Fiats, on motorcycles, scooters, mopeds, lick gelato, eat pizza, suck on Cokes, look cool. The signs for the autodromo are hard to find during the day, impossible at night. Streets here are not well lit.

But bright and early we go out to take a look on a humid Friday, on a late summer morning. No tickets, no passes, no guards, no crowds. Just drive in.

The autodromo is in a park, once a private estate, inside the city. It’s not too hard to imagine that the city grew up around the walls of the estate during an era when talk of things like internal combustion might have gotten you burned at the stake. We drove around the roads criss-crossing the wooded park, passed joggers, bicyclists, still no crowds, no cars. For the first time in Italy, Gooley and I were the only tourists. Pizza for breakfast.

Ahead of us, a sign with an arrow, CURVA GRANDE. Of course we followed it. There are a hundred pictures of the near-flat out right-hander stashed in my head. And remember: flat out is easy; near-flat out is very, very, hard. Through the woods, around a turn, a corner, then the road dead-ended. “Wonder what happened to the Curva Grande?” I said. Gooley said, “We’re on it.”

And maybe he was right.

A few years ago, I had the chance to run the Great American Race, that year from Los Angeles to Indianapolis, in a 1932 Studebaker Indy car. Without going too far down this side track, let me say that the Stude, its giant flathead excepted, is fairly typical of the racing cars of the late 1920s and early `thirties. Seating is straight up on the car—not in it. The steering column ends three inches

(Matt Stone)
(Matt Stone)

from the sternum, flywheel is about the same distance from the ankle. There’s a heat-sink disguised as a transmission roasting the knee, the u-joint behind it about three inches from the hip. The cockpit cowl edge is aimed right at the adams apple like a light alloy guillotine. Heat and fumes pour through the firewall, the wire wheels twist and deflect, the brakes hold, sometimes unevenly, sometimes not at all, the tires skip and hop…and all while sedately crossing the country on pretty good roads in pretty good weather.

The old Curva Grande is about three lanes wide, flat, more-or-less, bordered on both its edges by stone walls about a foot high. Not exactly Armco protection. The trees grow right up to the walls. It’s paved with square, sharp edged stones about three inches on a side—they were possibly level once, but I doubt it. Roads have been built this way in Italy for a couple thousand years, give or take.

Sitting here months later trying to sort it all out, what we were looking at might not have been the Curva Grande after all. A quick trip to the Mighty Archive produces the following Monza courses: the short Florio road and track course (4.263 miles); the short banked circuit (2.82 miles); the full banked road and track circuit; the short Florio run counter-clockwise (2.485); the slightly banked south curve with a section running diagonally to link with the road circuit, with chicanes; the full circuit (10 kilometers); the south curve of the road circuit taken clockwise, to the pit road and an acute hairpin leading back to the south curve…there were more. These courses were all used for the Grand Prix of Italy run before WWII—before the present chicanes were put in, before the big oval (no longer used) used for The Race of Two Worlds was built. And while the maps show the Curva Grande, there is never a mention in the course descriptions.

Try to imagine now, that the qualities, the handicaps, the characteristics ascribed to the Studebaker Indy car are transferred en masseto an average Maserati or Alfa (if average can be applied)of the era. And try to imagine yourself in the cockpit, the skin on your back burning from spilled fuel, the centrally mounted accelerator blistering your foot, cuts on your face from flung stones, and none of that bothers you because that car is approaching the Curva Grande at 140 mph. The chassis flexes, the tires skitter over the stones…how fast it can be negotiated in a P2 Alfa or an 8CM Maser or a type 35B Bugatti, I have no real idea. And most of the men who do know are gone now. Bathos? Try it.

The event being held the weekend we were there was analogous to one of our SCCA Nationals. There were races for Formula 3, Panda Formula, and European Touring Sedans. F3 uses chassis similar to Formula Atlantic, that is to say, thoroughly modern monococques with inboard suspensions but with production-based two-liter engines. On the face of it, having a non-crossflow two-valve engine (VW Golf, for example) compete against a four-valve crossflow seems patently unfair. The equalizer is, of all things, the airbox which has a spec-sized hole (About

25mm–without the usual press mechanism in place, details were extremely hard to come by). On the international scene, Japanese four-valvers are starting to be felt by the traditional VWs and Alfas. At Monza, as you might imagine, the Alfa is most often seen, but there was a four-valve Saab running hard. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a destroked Quad-Four out there?

Panda was a whole new class to me. It’s a national class insofar as I was able to determine. National racing classes are quite common: we have Sports Renault, F440, and our version of Formula V; England invented Formula Ford, France has Formula Bleu, once with little Dyna-Panhard twins, later with Citroen GS fours; Spain has special classes for Ford Fiesta and Seat-based cars, the latter very crude and undoubtedly cheap, Japan has Subaru-powered Hayashi formula cars. The Pandas are just an elaboration of this theme.

They are charmers—gorgeous little space-framed cars with alloy wheels, inboard suspensions, lovely glasswork that at least looks effective. What else would you expect of the Italians? That’s

(Matt Stone)
(Matt Stone)

rhetorical. The engines are stock Fiat four cylinder pushrod units, I think of 903cc, with 45 DIN hp. The reason for the equivocation here is that all of the information that I got was communicated to me through a calculator watch on the wrist of the designer/team manager. Lots of pointing and smiling and pushing of buttons. Thank God for the universal Arabic numerals and multi-function watches.

The transaxles are converted Panda 45s. Apparently there is a spacer allowed between the stock carb and the stock manifold and this piece has turned into a major area for fiddling. The spacers are about a foot long (providing some ram effect, I presume), and made of some insulating material, or made of light alloy, copiously finned, or welded steel with a box around the tube containing who-knows-what. What’s Italian for “Unfair Advantage.”

Onboard brake balance and sway bar adjustments, exceptional workmanship, lovely little Pirelli slicks–I want one. I’m not sure what could be done with it here—maybe drive it on the street?

The first time that I saw a European Touring Car Championship round (at Jarama, near Madrid, Spain) , it was the Walkinshaw Rover 3500s vs. the Eggenburger Volvo 240 Turbos. If “who cares?” is even now forming on your parochial lips, the answer should be “you.” These cars are the European version of our late ‘sixties TransAm series–possibly the best road racing (with doors) the world has ever seen. The cars are modified versions of production (or homologation specials) built in quantities of 5000 in a twelvemonth. The Volvos and Rovers rushing around were followed at respectful distances by Alfa GTV6s, MBz 190E2.3 16V, BMW 323, Ford XR4Ti, various Golfs, Fiats, Audis. Both the Volvos and Rovers had conspired to have negative camber in their solid rear axles, the XR4Ti had the radiator hanging down below the rear valance because the turbo intercooler occupied all of the space up front. The three hour race didn’t have a dull second in it (Rover beat Volvo for the manufacturer’s championship by a point, Volvo took the driver’s championship, and the BMW 635CSis were absolutely humiliated.), and I’m still not sure why the SCCA has followed Nascar’s lead down the silouhette path.

I saw some of the same cars, plus teams from Nissan and Mitsubishi, run at Macao later. This time Volvo won going away, and the Bimmers got humiliated again—a fine day.

The cars at Monza, though not running for the European championship looked as if they were. The Cosworth-Sierras are the class act, followed by the BMW M-3s, the Alfa 75s (Milanos to us, but with a turbo 1.8 four), various smaller Alfas, Fiat-Abarth 130TCs and other Ritmo derivations, Golfs, Peugeot 205GTIs, Opel Kadett 1.8 GTEs–cars we ought to be seeing here on and off the

(Matt Stone)
(Matt Stone)

track, BMW 635s again. Like the races at Jarama, Macao, and the Nurburgring (won by a Camaro—those poor 635 CSis), Monza was riveting. Pit action was not what we have been trained to think of as typically Italian—most of the teams, the fast ones at least, were as professional as anything short of Nascar.

The Cosworths, of course, couldn’t be caught. The M-3s won their class and were faster than the 635s (which had to run against the Cosworths). The Peugeot 205GTIs were leaders in the little class—especially the one that kept ricocheting off the curbing on both sides of the Esses that lead on to the start-finish straight, usually entering the straight on two wheels. A little rough on wheels, wheel bearings, etc.

The sedans were great, the formula cars entertaining, especially the Panda class. But somewhere, I’m sure, outside of the new garages and grandstands, away from the chicanes that don’t keep the ground effect cars from performing their unnatural acts, somewhere on a cobblestone paved road in the wooded park, somewhere on those rough, discarded slabs that are the high banking, the faint sounds of bouncing, sliding, smoking long-hooded, high single-seaters, red or blue, the sound of invading Millers and Duesenbergs, Mercedes and Auto Unions, of Moss losing his steering in the El Dorado Maserati at 150+, of Musso putting the Ferrari sprint car on the pole ahead of the basso profundo Offies, still echos, still vibrates.

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996 at the age of 60. During the next few months, we will be re-posting the entire collection of “Look Down the Road”, and you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”. – Roy Nakano

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