How I Became a Driver - Pt. 2

1964 began with a heavy blow: in the first race in Monza I was behind the fierce new Simca Abarths by almost a lap.


Photo © Actualfoto

My Giulietta SZ had seen better days, and so I asked my father to buy me an Abarth 1000, the one with Fiat 600 bodywork and the large radiator protruding from the front. He agreed, though somewhat reluctantly, as he was very fond of the Alfa Romeo brand. This is why I kept the SZ, which I used as a service vehicle.


I went to see my friend Pirovano at his body shop and had a tow hook welded to the Giulietta to tow the trailer with the Abarth to races around Europe.

Then, at the end of the year, a driver called Mario Saruggia asked me to be his second driver for the Nürburgring 500 km. I had beaten him more than once that season, and perhaps that was why he decided to bring his most feared opponent on board. Saruggia was quite a character, he once told me he had paid an advance of 500,000 lire for a trip to the moon when they started taking civilian passengers…


Just like today, at that time there were 120 cars on the starting grid of the Nürburgring 500 km. We were there with Saruggia’s own “Millino” (the Abarth 1000’s nickname, ed.). And then there were Ferraris, Jaguars, Abarth Sports and others. The practice sessions were held on Friday and Saturday, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.


On the first day, I woke up at 8 and went straight to the pit.

There I was, in my suit and helmet, but Saruggia wouldn’t even let me drive a lap. He said I had to get to know the track first. After all, I was the “guest” and during the race I wouldn’t have driven more than three or four laps. The important thing was that he was prepared and ready. On Saturday morning, the same thing happened. At that point I was very frustrated, and he let me drive two laps in the afternoon. I did the first lap, then the second, and then went back to the pit as agreed. Everyone there was speechless: I was between 5 and 10 seconds faster than the official Abarth drivers.


Half an hour later, a man came up to me. “My name is Renzo Avidano,” he said. “I know who you are,” I replied.

Avidano was Carlo Abarth’s right-hand man. Then I only knew him by sight, but I had a lot of respect for men like him. At that time, I was little more than twenty, and the fact of being physically small made me seem even younger. “Mr Abarth asked me if you could come to dinner with us this evening,” he said. At the time I didn't pay much attention to the invitation, and as I didn’t want to abandon my own group, I suggested we meet in Turin the following week. Avidano reported back to Abarth and then came back to me. “Mr Abarth is very sorry you can’t make it this evening, but looks forward to seeing you in Turin.”


I thought he wanted to offer me a discount on spare parts, but in fact he offered me a contract: five years, 182,000 Lire a month (200,000 less the insurance fee) plus 45% of any prize money. At Abarth they also used to keep 5% for the mechanics too. This was divided among all of them, even those with the humblest tasks. And I carried on this respectful tradition later at Ferrari and Alfa Romeo as well.


I went home. I got married. And then, just to ruin it all, I was called up for military service, which kept me away from the race track for eighteen months.

But Abarth kept his word, and my place. A great period began with the team when I was discharged, and lasted until 1969, when I was hired by Enzo Ferrari.


Carlo Abarth’s knowledge of mechanics was so great that if a driver didn’t give him enough information, he would climb into the cockpit and try the car himself. I remember one particular episode. We were in Vallelunga, where we had to test a particular modification to the front end. He was so convinced that it would work that he stood right in the middle of the Roma Curve, just outside the trajectory, with a newspaper under his feet. I was supposed to drive past him, the car just twenty centimetres away, and tear the newspaper from under his feet with the wheel. Clearly, he trusted his driver and his car, but most of all he trusted himself and his theories.


He was a very direct person, with a big heart.

More than once, he withdrew from a competition when he didn’t think that the conditions were safe enough for us drivers. Looking back, I think Abarth taught me some great lessons in life. I came from a wealthy family, and I must admit that sometimes I was quite cocky. Abarth took me down a peg or two, he made me realise that if I wanted to do things properly, I would have to behave differently.


Thanks to him, I became not only a professional driver but above all a more responsible person.

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