'Il Leone prototipo'

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Dario Resta: “Il Leone prototipo”

Born an Italian, naturalised as a Brit, a gutsy racer and a man who left Europe to beat the Americans. Dario Resta was a blueprint for the exploits of Nigel “il Leone” Mansell. Hell, he even raced for Peugeot “the lion'” itself. Joe Scalzo writes

In 1993, Michael Andretti and Nigel Mansell exchanged addresses: Michael, then near the peak of his career in CART, crossed the salt pond for Europe and a season of rumbling in Formula One. And Nigel, the reigning world champion, abandoned F1 and lit out for America to graft his licks onto CART.

Europe caught the bad end of the deal; the colonies the good. Michael’s aborted and disastrous visit was a horrible embarrassment, not only to Michael, but to all those who’d been hallucinating that US race drivers were still world class. By comparison, the Nigel of CART was overpowering like the Nigel of F1, except more so; doing battle royal on 10 road courses, two superspeedways and on three bull-ring ovals, he made himself champion and tournament sensation with five wins, five seconds and thirds, lap records and glory galore.

A maniac! A gas man! was how his mes-merised, admiring squad of mechanics at Team Newman-Haas characterised him, and racing accolades from Americans don’t get any more sincere. Still, Mansell wasn’t the first brilliant Brit to stand Yank sport on its lid. Back in the long-ago of 1915-16, the great Dario Resta embarked on his own visitor’s tour de foice and accomplished things even Nigel couldn’t, including conquering the Indy 500. Mansell, furthermore, later had some of his US popularity fade. Resta never lost his. Grief on both sides of the Atlantic was apparently equally deep on September 2, 1924, when he met his end at Brooklands while typically in the middle of a 50-kilometre world record run.

The Dario Resta who came from the long-ago, and who never ever laid down in a race, was born in Italy, then raised, nationalised and educated in London. Verifiable facts are hard to come by, but apparently he apprenticed at roller-skating and pugilism before launching his racing career in 1907, the same year that Brooklands launched its own.

He had a bona fide flair for hurtling speed -which in the end caught up with him -and whenever he wasn’t busy zapping Brooklands and setting sprint and enduro marks, could be found campaigning Sunbeams on the continent. A wealthy and well-bred dandy, he also found time to operate D Resta Co, the famous London agency called on to select and purchase horseless carriages for the well-off.

Everything changed dramatically in 1915. Manpower shortages brought on by World War One led to Resta’s emergency hiring by Peugeot’s US importers, who shipped him to San Francisco for a pair of 400 and 300-mile grands prix that were part of the Panama Pacific International Exposition celebrating the opening of the canal.

Pre-WWI, American championship racing had been a rousing international fight with US marques Marmon, Maxwell, Mercer, National, Stutz and Duesenberg battling the Germans (Mercedes), the Italians (Fiat) and the formidable French with Bugatti, Panhard, Delage and, of course, Peugeot, which had possessed the brightest high-tech and maybe the best drivers, including Jules Goux and Georges Boillot. Champion of the 1913 Indy 500, Goux had won with Gallic flair: pounding a carpet of bricks for 500 miles had sounded like a cruel ordeal, so Jules, a bon vivant, selected champagne as the logical and civilised beverage to carry him through the six-and-a-half-hour slog; both he and his riding mechanic drove into the winner’s circle righteously plastered, and whatever bubbly they hadn’t personally consumed, they’d used during pit-stops to bombard and baptise their rubber and refuelling gangs. Boillot, meanwhile, was Peugeot’s madman qualifier who, in 1914 nearly nailed the Brickyard’s first 100mph time trial; it took five years for somebody to finally break his burning lap record of 99.86mph.

But because the French, Germans and Italians all had to abandon racing and go home to fight each other, WWI threatened to stop Peugeot successes cold. Which was why in 1915 the US distributors had expectantly presented Resta a blue-for-France Peugeot and shipped him to ‘Frisco under orders to win.

Eight decades later in CART, of course, Nigel Mansell received identical battle instructions from Newman-Haas. Yet compared to Dario’s, Nigel’s was the far easier assignment All he had for competition was, basically, a load of ex-Formula One has-beens or never-beens from Brazil, Italy, Colombia, Sweden and Holland, plus a tough Canadian, Paul Tracy, and one halfway decent American, Al Unser. Jr. And once Mansell discovered a way to overcome ‘Little Al’s’ deep-braking manoeuvres, winning was as easy as taking sweets off kids.

Dario, meanwhile, was confronting the very first generation of American race drivers, and those splendid fellows must have seemed like a real rogue’s gallery. Among them?

Teddy Tetzlaff; aka ‘Terrible Teddy’, winner of Santa Monica and Tacoma who, three days before gambling-ravaged Tacoma, got kidnapped by the gamblers, rescued by the police, then afterwards declared he was throwing in his lot with the kidnappers, who were not so bad guys.

Barney Oldfield, winner of Venice and Tucson, an ex-bicycle racer and saloon keeper, original test driver of Henry Ford’s old 999, and under contract to the mountebank promoters J Alexander Sloan and William Pickens, who proclaimed him ‘Master Driver of the World’. Oldfield was always in hot water for his uncouth ways and braggart mouth, yet managed to get off one of racing’s funniest lines without ever knowing it. At a Santa Monica road race where ‘Dirty Barney’ had been in the employ of the hapless Delage team, the equipment was so bad that all the other drivers and mechanics had quit. Making a pitstop and finding nobody there to work on his car, Barney not so politely inquired what the hell was going on. When all the team manager could do was reply with a shrug, “We seem to be out of esprit de corps“, Barney blew up. “Well go get some from Harry Stutz, godammit, he demanded.

Earl Cooper, winner at Santa Monica, Corona and Tacoma, star chauffeur of the Stutz team, assisted by a genius riding mechanic, Reeves Dutton, but handicapped by a despotic boss, the aforementioned Harry Stutz.

Eddie Rickenbacker, Duesenberg hero and winner at Sioux City, Omaha, Providence, Sheepshead Bay and Ascot, former garage floor scrubber, car salesman, travelling daredevil, future air warrior and top gun of WWI.

‘Wild’ Bob Burman, winner at Lowell, Kalamazoo, Oklahoma City and Burlington, fast but ill-starred, racing a duplicate Peugeot to Dario’s, and glitzing up the scene with a choking big diamond stickpin.

Ralph de Palma, twice national champion and winner at Santa Monica, Elgin, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Kalamazoo, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Chicago and Sheepshead Bay. Italian-born like Dario, Ralph knew his medieval demonology and first had manhandled ‘Mephistopheles’, a gigantic Fiat, subsequently traded it for a Mercer and then for the Mercedes destined to be the worst enemy of Resta’s Peugeot

Mansell in ’93 had faced 15 CART oval and road starts, all on pavement. Resta in ’15 faced an almost endless 27 American Automobile Association oval and mad competitions on pavement, cement, bricks, dirt and boards! Three of them, at San Diego, Glendale and Ascot, had already been contested when he and the Peugeot hit ‘Frisco that February.

He got off to a ripping start, winning both the 402-mile International Grand Prix and the 303-mile Vanderbilt Cup.

He didn’t bother going to the next three small-beer matches at Venice, Tucson and Oklahoma City, preferring instead to prime himself for Indianapolis in May, where de Palma, who’d started all four previous Indys, and who should have won in 1912, had his Mercedes primed and waiting.

Not, however, that Resta found the almighty Brickyard particularly intimidating -he was already accustomed to Brooklands, and Brooklands was faster. So, harbouring no freshman inhibitions, he was free to engage himself in a 500-mile-long war with de Palma that was eerily similar to 1993’s Indy war between Mansell and former 500 champions Emerson Fittipaldi and Arie Luyendyk, which had concluded with Nigel a close but wounded third after brushing a wall.

Well, Dario and Ralph – Peugeot and Merc – were already running one-two by the 100-mile mark. Always in sight of each other, obliterating all previous Indy speed records, they continued their nerve-biting chess game through the second 100 miles. Whereupon Ralph suddenly made a breakaway move and developed a lead of almost 40 seconds.

Resta was up to the challenge. But just as he’d methodically sliced the margin in half, the Peugeot cut a tyre and caught the wall. Re-emerging from the pits with a new shoe, he was suddenly at the controls of a cripple with four inches of play in the steering. Yet de Palma couldn’t slacken his pace, for instead of lessening, Dario upped the pressure.

Ralph’s overstressed Mercedes didn’t like it. With only five miles to go, a connecting rod snapped and the Mercedes began to haemorrhage oil. Frantically reducing his speed, perhaps fearful that he was in for a ghastly replay of 1912 — when he’d also broken while in the lead, then subsequently lost the 500 getting out and pushing the same overweight Mercedes to the chequer – de Palma anxiously held on. He won, but not by much. Resta’s ferociously wobbling Peugeot was nearly back on the same straightaway by the finish; this remains one of the epic 500s.

Having passed with full honours his initation to bricked racetracks, it was time for Resta to take his act onto the boards. He did even better. Board tack builders ripped off the idea of lumber speedways from bicycle velodromes, and for the first third of the century tried dotting the US landscape with the things. They really were econo-dreams. All you basically required was an army of carpenters hammering away for five days and, hey presto, instant racetrack. Chicago’s two-mile-long timber monster called Maywood Speedway was even faster than Indy, and it was as if Dario had been born to race there. He won at Maywood in June, then returned seven races later to win again in August. Come October, high on the looming boards of Sheepshead Bay, he really wound the Peugeot up and won at 105.39mph, almost as fast as Brooklands.

The 1915 tourney wrapped up in San Francisco that November. The second busiest in US history, it had been an exhausting cross-continental nightmare, swinging from west coast to east four times. It was a logistical impossibility to compete in all 27 races, but Harry Stutz had sent Earl Cooper to 14 matches, and after Earl scored his fifth campaign victory in ‘Frisco, he defeated Resta for the national three-A title by 460 points. Dario had done nine races, winning five.

Pleased, his Peugeot angels returned him to combat in 1916, when sanity temporarily returned to the three-A and the schedule was pruned to 15 meets. Aided and abetted by the collapse of Earl Cooper, who was unable to win a race, the similar collapses of Tetzlaff and Oldfield, the Corona crash and death of Burman (extra-ghoulish spectators pilfered the diamond stickpin from his corpse), the erratic wheelmanship of Rickenbacker; and the temporary Indy blackballing of de Palma, Resta became the first foreign driver to capture the American seasonal championship (it took 73 years for Fittipaldi to become the second). Resta won Chicago (twice), Omaha, Santa Monica and the big one at Indy — cut to 300 miles because of WWI considerations. His winning margin was better than two minutes, but his average of only 84mph suggests he probably wasn’t trying too hard.

But he certainly tried hard winning the first of his two Maywood Speedway extravaganzas that June. The 300-mile action featured an impossible 29 lead changes, with Rickenbacker, Wilbur D’Alene and the riding mechanic-turned-driver Eddie O’Donnell starting the fun by exchanging first place three times in the opening 10 miles. Rimming the tall boards in a howling pack, they were caught and engaged by Resta and the Peugeot. De Palma and his fearsome Merc next appeared and, with Dario lashing along in Ralph’s draft, the familiar pair left everything else behind. Then de Palma’s Merc went soft and Resta and the Peugeot, averaging 98.70mph, won what was arguably the main event of the whole board track era.

It was pretty much Dario’s last US main event too, although in later years he sporadically returned to the US and, as late as 1923, managed to park a Packard on the outside of Indy’s front row. As for Resta’s incredible Peugeot, the fame their little hot-rod achieved was surely not the sort that its US distributors had hoped for. Its design got counterfeited for the first time when the Indianapolis management — fearful that post-WWI conditions might prevent it from filling a starting grid – commissioned the construction of several copies and called them Premiers; one of these bogus Peugeots won the 1919 500.

The second, even more notorious, rip-off occurred when the double-overhead camshaft Peugeot design became Harry Miller’s major influence when he was inventing his Miller-Offenhausers. Even Mansell didn’t carry that kind of sway.

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