A Monza Visit

Paul Gohde stands at the finish line on the Autodromo Nazionale Monza track. [Paul Gohde collection]

Paul Gohde stands at the finish line on the Autodromo Nazionale Monza track. [Paul Gohde collection]

by Paul Gohde

This was to be a “Bucket List” visit that had lingered, unfulfilled, long after numerous trips to Europe. There had been visits to the Nürburgring, Brooklands and Reims-Gueux tracks, but the Autodromo Nazionale Monza and its iconic history was the missing circuit. A recent trip to Italy finally checked that track off the list.

Built in just 110 days back in 1922, the track, located in one of the largest public parks in Europe, is just a 15-minute trip to the suburbs by regional train from Milan’s Central Station. As with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Monza was first built primarily as a test facility for automobile manufacturers, but as with Indy, testing soon turned to racing, and the Grand Prix track, along with a shallow-banked oval, opened for competition in autumn of that year.

Much of the original 3.4-mile (now 3.5-mile) Grand Prix circuit remains mostly unchanged from the original, and is used primarily for the Italian Grand Prix and Moto GP motorcycle racing. Several renovations, especially after WW II destroyed much of the circuit, have brought the racing facility and its spectator amenities up to modern racing standards.

The original oval was torn down in the late 1930’s, but was replaced in 1955 by a very high-banked 2.6-mile concrete oval that played host to a pair of Race of Two Worlds events in 1957-58, among other events. Those races matched Indianapolis 500 roadsters against various F1 cars of the day. Jimmy Bryan and Troy Ruttman won those 500-milers but that track remains unused for racing since 1969 (except for the annual Rally of Monza). The dangerous oval still lies in a state of some decay today; a wall of concrete whose banking many visitors still try, but fail, to climb.

Arriving in Monza for a morning tour of the track involved a 15-minute taxi ride from the train station and a walk to the infield where an “Infopoint” office signed us up for a 90-mph ride around the road course and an English-language tour of the facility. Tours are available on most days when there is no on-track activity. We made arrangements on line for the visit prior to leaving for Italy; a plan that had been highly recommended.

After seeing so many Italian Grand Prix races on TV over the years, the high-speed van ride was thrilling, with the chicanes leaving a lasting impression of how 20 open-wheel racers manage to get through those tight apexes safely (which they often don’t). The iconic names of Ascari, Fangio, Moss, Hill and Clark hung heavy over the track as memories of their races from long ago jumped out in front of the van.

After the ride, the infield paddock area offered several souvenir shops and a café where we had a bite to eat before our afternoon tour.

Our tour guides for the day were two college-age girls who were well versed in the track’s history and provided an informative time for the two of us plus an Italian gentleman (the tour was given in both English and Italian).

The hour-long walk took us to the media center, race control, the pit and paddock area and the post-race winner’s podium among others. No celebratory champagne was provided however.

After the tour ended, the Infopoint office served up the highlight of the day. Knowing that I wanted to walk on the old high-banked oval, they pointed out a path through the woods and an open gate that allowed us to finish-off the Bucket List visit to the historic banked track. We spent a half-hour trying to crawl up the steep banking, shooting pictures and walking for a while on the concrete surface, thinking about the James Garner movie “Grand Prix” that was filmed here back in the mid-1960’s dramatizing American Phil Hill’s 1961 World Championship-clinching race.

A slow walk back to the paddock and an expensive stop for some souvenir items ended the day, but the real memories were brought home with the thoughts of finally making a dream come true. Thanks to all at the track for making this memorable day possible.

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