Pescara’s scintillating summer party

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An array of precious metal turned out to celebrate the anniversary of the race in true Italian style  

The bells of San Pietro Apostolo were calling Pescara’s faithful to nine o’clock mass as Venanzioro Fonte, a medium-sized cigar clamped between his teeth, primed the engine of his 1924 Alfa Romeo RL Targa Florio. Petrol dripped from its twin carburettors in the bright morning sunshine. The temperature was already touching 30 degrees Celsius – and heading for 40 as, barely a hundred metres away,
early-rising holidaymakers made their way across the freshly groomed beach towards the lapping waves of the Adriatic. Moments later the church bells were drowned as the engine’s six cylinders coughed, barked and finally bellowed into life through an unsilenced exhaust in the tree-shaded car park.

Fonte’s Alfa was not alone. More than 40 other historic racing vehicles of varying ages and degrees of gorgeousness had been assembled for a weekend in celebration of Pescara’s motor sport history.  But Fonte and his car were the designated co-stars of the show, occupying a special place of honour in a glittering cavalcade.

Four of the Spider-bodied RL Targa Florio models were built in 1924, two with three-litre engines and two more with the capacity expanded to 3620cc. Fonte’s car is one of the latter pair, and is the only survivor of the entire quartet. The drivers of the factory entered RL TFs included Antonio Ascari and Giuseppe Campari – and the 26-year-old Enzo Anselmo Ferrari, who won the inaugural Coppa Acerbo in Pescara that year at the wheel of one of the 3.6 models. Whether or not Ferrari was driving Fonte’s car, neither its owner nor the many Alfa historians can say, but its presence at the head of the cavalcade was presented, quite justifiably, as a direct link with the past. 

I had arrived the previous night, midway through a banquet for participants. As the author of a book on the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix, my role was to give a talk on the history of the race. There was a lot of history in the air and, over several glasses of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Fonte told me about his background. He had been born in 1947 in a village in the foothills not far from Pescara. His father was so delighted by the arrival of a son that he had added the suffix “oro” – gold – to the child’s designated Christian name, Venanzio. The celebrations of his birth, Fonte said, had gone on for a month. As a young man, however, his refusal to follow his father and grandfather into the practice of civil engineering had created tensions. He left for America, where he founded a company that specialised in precision machining. Now Dynamic Flowform, based in Massachusetts, uses patented thinwall technology to make lightweight mortar cannon barrels, nuclear waste casks, petrochemical pipes and rocket nozzles for satellites in materials such as titanium, zirconium, cobalt and other exotic superalloys.

Fonte led the Saturday morning parade into the hills above Pescara, leaving the handsome Hotel Esplanade and heading along the road that formed the old main straight before turning right up the Via de Circuito, nowadays lined with small shops and offices. Gradually the visual clutter of the 21st century fell away, the road narrowing as it rose towards the small town of Spoltore, dominated by a 14th century castle and church. Now there was little visual evidence to suggest that we were not back in the days when the Alfa was young.

Between Spoltore, the highest point of the old 15-mile circuit, and the next village, Cappelle sul Tavo, the cars negotiated a sequence of curves and bends winding mostly downhill, where photographers from the 1920s to the 1960s had found the finest vantage points from which to capture men and machines at work in a beautiful but demanding environment. Above a spectacular hairpin Fonte pulled in to meet dignitaries, including Roberto Loi, the president of the ASI, Italy’s historic car club, for a ceremony to honour the large stone memorial placed there in memory of Enzo Ferrari’s victory 93 years before. 

Leaving the site, the cavalcade made a detour to the village of Cepagatti, further up into the Abruzzi foothills, where a master of
ceremonies with a loudspeaker introduced the cars as they parked along the wide main street. While the crews enjoyed a mid-morning cup of coffee, the locals were able to pore over exotic machinery that had come from all over Italy. Among the pre-World War Two machines, a vast 1913 Fiat Zero Spider had arrived from Siena. From Giulianova, 30 kilometres up the coast, came an imposing 1923 Itala 56A. An immaculate black 1937 SS100 arrived from Siena. A pair of lovely little Fiat 508 SS Coppa d’Oro models lined up, one from Bari and the other from nearby Chieti. An eye-popping Lancia Aprilia with streamlined open Superleggera bodywork by Touring, a competitor in the Coppa Acerbo in 1938 and ’39, made the journey from Bolzano. 

One by one, again led by Fonte’s Alfa, the motorcade resumed its progress towards a vineyard overlooking a glorious valley, with Monte Amaro, a 2795m mountain peak whose slopes provide the home for chamois, wolves and wild boar, in the distance. The Cantina Zaccagnini had prepared itself well. On a wooden deck above the valley, with its 300 hectares of vines, a blue carpet had been laid for the Alfa, its face turned towards its companions as they assembled on the driveway in front of the low modern buildings where Marcello Zaccagnini supervises the winemaking process. 

Inside, a table was covered with bottles of red wine with a familiar face on the label: that of Sir Stirling Moss, the presiding spirit of the event. Moss’s image was also to be seen on the shirts worn by the event staff and on the VIP passes, while the black and white image of his Vanwall powering through one of the curves below Spoltore in 1957 dominated the posters that had been put up all over the town. Stirling and his wife Susie were forced to cancel their plans to attend the celebrations by the long convalescence from a chest infection that led to his being admitted to hospital in Singapore three days before Christmas. Still recovering at home in London, he sent his greetings and best wishes to the event, along with the message that the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix had been not just a memorable event in his career but a pivotal one. In his absence, he remained the guest of honour.

A noisy lunch in the cantina’s art gallery, fuelled – for the navigators, anyway – by copious quantities of Sr Zaccagnini’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and by a sweet Moscato to accompany with the little biscotti known as ciambelline al vino bianco, eventually ended with the drive back to Pescara. A brief rest was available before the evening’s main event: an after-dark parade through closed streets near the seafront, with the cars sent out in small groups to complete several laps.

The blessings of the municipality had been received by the organiser, Fabio Di Pasquale, and the mayor of Pescara, Marco Alessandrini, was much in evidence, not least in the passenger’s seat of the Alfa RL as Venanzioro Fonte took it out for the first couple of circuits. Local people and holidaymakers, after a long day on the beach, lined the barriers to enjoy the sight and the sounds as the other pre-war cars followed the Alfa, including a locally based 1930 OM, a 1930 Riley Brooklands from north of Milan and a 1934 Singer 9hp Le Mans Sport from south of Rome.

Sent on their way by an excited announcer, the post-war cars included a shoal of exquisite little Fiat-engined barchettas, including a Moretti, a Stanguellini, an Ermini and a Giannini that had given Luigi Musso his first experience of competition in 1950. Among the thoroughbreds were an OSCA MT4, built in 1953 but rebodied five years later in the style of a D-type Jaguar, and a Porsche 550 RS Spyder. The curiosities included an Ockelbro-Simca, built in Sweden in 1956, and a fibreglass Falcon from 1957. Italian-owned representatives of British engineering included an Elva Mk 1B, a Lotus XI and a C-type Jag. Each made an impression, but the pièce de résistance was supplied by a single-seater: the supercharged 1.5-litre Maserati 6CM with which Nicola Sculco gave the spectators a glimpse of what it must have been like to watch Luigi Villoresi leading the Coppa Ciano in 1938 in that very car before retiring to hand victory to his brother Emilio in an Alfa 158. Urged on by the crowd, the bare-headed Sculco, a lawyer from Milan, undertook several laps at increasing speed before, with a broad smile on his face, returning to the car park.

No Italian event of this nature would be complete without the cups and shields that were presented to the drivers at a ceremony in the old port the next morning. And there was a special trophy – a silver model of Stirling Moss, about 18 inches high – to be taken back and delivered to the London home of the great man, absent from the weekend in body but fully present in spirit and in the minds of all those who relived, for a few golden hours, the heroic battles of decades long gone.