On paper, it looked wonderful. In the autumn of 1956, Giuseppe Bacciagaluppi, President of the Automobile Club of Milan, invited Duane Carter, Competitions Director of the United States Auto Club, to Monza, and in his mind were the seeds of an idea: a match race between the best of America and the cream of Europe.
A banked track had been added at Monza, first incorporated into the existing road circuit for the Italian GP in 1955, but the GP drivers were not enamoured of it. For one thing, suspension travel was completely used up as the cars were pressed into the banking; for another, the surface was extremely bumpy.
Bacciagaluppi, concerned that the banking might prove a costly white elephant, was looking for new ways to use it, and his idea appealed to Carter. Thus, plans were laid for a ‘Trophy of Two Worlds’ the following June, on the banked track only.
In April, USAC star Pat O’Connor went to Monza with Firestone’s test car, a roadster fitted with a 5.5-litre V8 Chrysler, and ran 226 miles, putting in a best lap of over 170mph. The following month, he took the Indy pole at just short of 144mph. By any standards, Monza was going to be one fast race.
Once Indy was done, 10 of the roadsters were transported from New York to Genoa by ship, while the drivers and mechanics travelled later, and in rather less style.
The flight, from New York, was in an old DC3 charter plane, refuelling in Newfoundland, Gander and Shannon. When they alighted finally at Milan, sustained only by elderly sandwiches and lukewarm coffee, they had been aboard for 26 hours.
Once in Italy, they were dismayed to find they would effectively be racing against themselves. The European ‘challenge’ had petered out.
There were two problems. First, there were no existing cars capable of taking on the roadsters on this banked oval track, the F1 drivers pointing out, reasonably enough, that a roadster wouldn’t have been too wonderful at somewhere like the Nurburgring; second, the Europeans were concerned about the likely speeds.
So they decided to boycott it, and the only cars to take on the Indy brigade were three Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-types ‘fresh’ from Le Mans.
Jimmy Bryan apart, the major US stars at Monza were O’Connor, Tony Bettenhausen, Eddie Sachs, Troy Rudman, Johnnie Parsons and Bob Veith, and once they started practising seriously, spectators witnessed raw speed quite unknown at the time. Bettenhausen, in the fearsome supercharged Novi, ultimately took the pole with a lap of over 177mph.
In the absence of the European stars, the crowd was disappointing, around 20,000, but were entranced by the wheel-to-wheel racing. In furnace conditions, Bryan chewing cigars throughout won two of the three 63-lap heats, and placed second to Ruttman in the third, thereby ensuring overall victory, at the astonishing average of 160.1mph. A month earlier, Sam Hanks’ winning average at Indianapolis had been 135.6.
The Monza banking, though, had given the cars a fearful beating.
Between heats, the Indy mechanics worked feverishly, welding up shock absorber mounting-points and split fuel tanks. By the end, only three roadsters were still running; next time, the mechanics said, they would know what to expect.
The 1958 Monza 500 was altogether different, for now there was sizeable European contingent, with specially-built cars from Ferrari and Maserati, and drivers such as Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, Luigi Musso and Phil Hill. The greatest of them all, Juan Manuel Fangio, was down to drive the Dean Van Lines roadster, and he qualified third. Again it was blazing hot, and this time spectators turned out in force, not least because Musso had put the 4.1-litre V12 Ferrari on the pole, at over 174mph. He led the early laps, too, fighting with Jim Rathmann, Bryan and Ruttman, but the primitive Ferrari gave him a dreadful time on the banking, and ultimately, completely spent, he handed over to Hawthorn, who had no taste for this kind of racing.
After his own, 3-litre, Ferrari had blown up, Phil Hill was also drafted in to take his turn in the 4.1.
“Once Musso had worn himself out, it finally boiled down to where Hawthorn and I were doing all the driving, and that meant mostly me, because I got along best with it, for whatever reason. I was expecting the worst, and found out it wasn’t really that bad. Musso got exhausted in the first heat, because it was hot as hell that day, and he was getting cooked in the cockpit. Back then, the typical Ferrari way of cooling things off was to cut a bigger hole in the bodywork, so by the time I got into it, there were enormous volumes of air going through it.
“When I started to sort of like it, Mike would say, ‘Why don’t you do another stint?’ The Italian press thought we were fighting over who should drive in fact, he was leaning down into the cockpit, tightening my safety belt even more!
“Hawthorn knew it was going to be his last year, so he hated anything that was new, you know, and each time he’d finish something like that, he’d say, ‘Well, there’s another race I won’t have to drive again’. It was the same with the Targa Florio.”
Hill was in a curious position in this ‘Two Worlds Trophy’, an American, yet part of the European squad. “It was pretty much a ‘them and us’ deal but mainly ‘them’, because there weren’t enough of ‘us’!
“We got on fine with most of the USAC guys, but I really didn’t care too much for Bryan. He acted like the whole culture was incomprehensible, and he just wanted to blow these Italian puppies off and go home. I remember him criticising me for carrying an umbrella, as if there was something effete about it! Like, a real man gets wet, you know.” Unlike team-mate Hawthorn, Hill quite enjoyed the race. “I didn’t mind it. It seemed easy as anything: you just tore around, and the car did it its own thing. You just sort of guided it when it started getting out of hand, and that was all there was to it. It was a dumb job driving around there don’t let anyone tell you it took any great skill. It was just a matter of keeping it pointing in the right direction.
“The only thing that was bad was the heat, and the terrible bouncing on the banking. We were third overall, and I was pretty pleased with that.”
That weekend was the first time Hill, or any of the ‘European’ brigade, wore a seat belt “We put one in the Ferrari,” said Phil, “after Dan Gurney and I had watched Musso on the banking in practice, and saw what he was going through I mean, the guy was damn near getting thrown out!”
Gurney, spectating that weekend, was astonished by Musso’s courage. “That car was not handling well on the banking it was kind of dancing up there, right ready to go out of control, and he just left his foot in it, and tied to do it, anyway. It was really just raw bravery. I guess he was doing it for Italia.”
Hill remembers that Hawthorn and Collins gave Musso a very hard time at Ferrari, and he had sympathy for the Italian. “They were still at the end of that ‘Brits-hate-the-Eyeties’ sort of thing went back to the war, I guess. There was definitely something between you Brits and the Italians, and I don’t think Peter and Mike liked any of them. They ripped Luigi up one side and down the other.
“As well as that, he had been ripped up in the press quite a bit he had more than his share of Gazzetta dello Sport. And the following weekend, at Reims, he was trying to keep up with Mike, and he killed himself.”
At Monza, no-one had any answer for Rathmann, who won every heat, set an overall average of 166.72mph, and collected $40,000. Bryan placed second, followed by the Ferrari, then Ray Crawford and Jimmy Reece. Moss, at the wheel of a Maserati sponsored by the Eldorado ice cream company, ran well in the first two heats, but then had a huge accident in the third, when his car’s steering broke on the banking. At the time, Moss was fighting with an American rookie who had taken over the Sclavi and Amos Special from veteran Maurice Trintignant His name? A J Foyt. This second `Monzanapolis’ race was judged a great success, and as the Indy drivers flew back to New York, they expected to be back in 1959 for an even more competitive race. Sadly, the Automobile Club of Milan had lost money again, and the saga of the Monza 500 was at an end.