(1995) In the way that Italians drive eat and live, they are a different breed than other Europeans. No task is attempted half-heartedly. Italians throw passion into all that they do. In practical matters, function follows form in importance. Even the screwdriver displays in hardware stores will capture your eye with their aesthetics.
When it comes to motorcycles, Italy is home to the most beautiful streetbikes in the worldcompliments of the Renaissance.
Italy is insanity though. Driving a car or motorcycle here is akin to Mad Saturday at the Isle of Man, with less of a police presence. The first time you drive up a curvy one lane on-ramp, a tick away from your own traction limit (in rental vehicles), and with little ado a middle aged Italian woman calmly stuffs her Fiat inside your line and harshly bumps her machine ahead of yours, tossing gears as she enters the main road, suddenly you know something has changed in the drive down from Zurich.
In Italy there are only two speeds: resting and near full unhindered forward velocity. Italians sit at stoplights intently watching the glow of the red until it snaps green. They're like a Funnycar driver as they leave the light, accelerator to the wood, jamming gears and jockeying for position. He or she with the most balls or horsepower wins. It's an all-out drag race to the next light and if the light should happen to be dark red, the brake is applied with the same fierce touch as the accelerator was just a short block ago. That's the way people travel in Italy--in block long drag races and contests of bravado as the pack meets red lights. There is really no way to document this statistic, but Italians must use more tires and brake pads than any other nation on earth.
On Italy's freeway system, instead of the normal fast and slow lane, there is a fast lane and an infinitely much faster lane. Once traffic enters the Autostrada, Italy's version of the Autobahn, top speed becomes paramount in importance and everyone drives as if they are in a grade five medical emergency. It's wonderful. This is where you'd want to own a ZX11 or YZF1000.
Italy is the Mecca for motorcycle racing that it is fabled to be the world over. Ducati is not just the racing machine of choice in Italy, it is a religion second only to Ferrari as far as Italians are concerned. Italian riders are also revered. Giancarlo Falappa, who impressed the world with his spirited rides on both Bimota and Ducati machinery before being savagely injured in a testing crash years ago, was just hanging out at Monza the day we attended practice. Throngs of Italian fans mobbed him each time he ventured out in public. Once he sat down, his fans stood in line for the honor of watching the former Italian wildman eat his lunch. The same for Frankie Chili and Ducati team manager Virginio Ferrari. In America, former front running Superbike riders are looked upon as last week's news when they come to the track as spectators a year or two after their prime; in Italy they are cherished like fine wine. If Freddie Spencer had been Italian, they would still be toasting his name in Milan yet today.
Autodromo Nazionale Monza, or Monza, is situated just a few blocks away from the town square within the city of Monza, just a few miles from the hub city of Milan. Monza is fairly unique in that the circuit is located inside a park (Parco de Monza) and surrounded by a tall stone wall on all sides. In trying to find the circuit for the first time you can drive around the city for hours, hearing the throb of the practicing Superbikes but failing to find the entrance to the track. On race day you can walk the sidewalk around the circuit knowing that just behind that block wall, Carl Fogarty is storming around the track. You can feel the vibrations from the machines through your feet, but as the block wall is ten feet tall and probably a century old, seeing Carl in action from the street is impossible.
Some Monzanos scale the walls and enter the track illegally but most buy a ticket and wait in the several mile long line of vehicles to enter the circuit. As with most popular European races, leaving for Monza at dawn is the only way to ensure that you'll get in.
Originally a long oval, Monza was built in the early twenties and for many years was known for its steep, abrasive cement banking. Some time after the second World War, Monza underwent a restoration and the oval was abandoned for a three and a half mile road course encompassing six long and very fast corners. Sections of the old circuit still exist and with some adventurous climbing and trespassing, one can climb out onto the now abandoned legendary surface. The pre-war banking is incredibly steep, much more than Daytona or Charlotte and really reminiscent of the vicious American board track venues from the turn of the century. Only the very fit can climb up to the center of the old Monza banking and balance themselves without tumbling down.
What replaced the old Monza is a modern road circuit facility with abundant spectator sight lines and fully equipped and clean garages for the teams. One of the most impressive features of the track is the Curva Parabolica, a high speed, long, double apex corner leading to the start and finish line.
A walk from one side of the circuit to the other can take hours but is well worth the time. Tall trees and lush foliage are everywhere and a single lane dirt road twists through the forest to the better sightlines. Most Italian enthusiasts ride their Aprilia, Ducati or Cagiva streetbikes out to the distant sections, hang their open faced Nolan helmets on their bike's mirror and enjoy the sunshine and the day.
Tall cement grandstands line the track at different points and a twenty foot wire fence (topped with barbed wire) separates the spectators from the racing surface. Barbed wire exists primarily for the days when Ferrari wins at Monza, but was assuredly installed with the thought that Ducati and Cagiva could also win. All precautions must be taken to corral the chaos that would follow.
One of the most notable races at Monza ever to take place was the 1983 duel between Kenny Roberts and Freddie Spencer, where Roberts crashed early and got back up only to run out of gas on the final lap handing the win and, in some ways, ultimately, the 1983 500cc championship to Spencer.
GP racing came back to Monza in the late eighties when Wayne Gardner won a race better known for being the final time Kenny Roberts rode a 500 at a Grand Prix. Mike Baldwin was injured and the King joined then Lucky Strike Roberts rider Randy Mamola in the Friday practice session on Baldwin's bike (win drinks at Siebkins with this information: the King's final competition number - fifty one). The GP bazaar came to Monza with some regularity up until the seventies but has only been to the Italian circuit a handful of times since the early eighties.
However, the WSC series is cementing a long term relationship with the Northern Italy circuit and the Superbikes have a growing following in Italy. The Flammini organization, which owns the WSC series also promotes the Monza race.
Although a complete and total nightmare to get to or from any hotel in Italy, Monza is worth the trouble: scenic and fast with great sightlines as an added draw. Great photo opportunities abound inside the festive atmosphere of the track. Polite souvenir vendors hawk toddlers pajamas fashioned after Roberts' 1983 leathers. Unconcerned Italian women in tank tops readily demonstrate that shaving regularly is not an Italian custom.
Everybody goes to see the Superbikes at Monza. On race day Mick Doohan drove his Rover down to watch his friend Aaron Slight ride, and other GP conspirators were seen both in the press room and about the grounds. Ducati won both races on that day in June - with paisano Chili, on a customer machine, outright beating Fogarty in the second race, thus Italian fans had more than enough reason to party until Tuesday noon. And they did.
From an American standpoint we were lucky enough to be present when Colin Edwards mounted his first World Superbike podium with a deserving third. He held an American flag high and gave an appropriate Texan "Yee-Haa" that only about eight people at the circuit recognized as his Rebel Yell.
After a day at the races we returned to the Hotel Villa Flori in breathtakingly beautiful Como, on the banks of Lake Como. An old world tourist town, the hills surrounding the deep blue lake are punctuated with pastel colored villas and terra-cotta roofed inns, where deep-pocketed tourists from other parts of Europe and America are lured to spend some time and lire. Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and Napoleon used Como as a holiday spot between novels, international treaty signings and battles, finding relaxation in one of the most visually stunning spots in all of Europe. Como has a relaxed summer climate, with Mediterranean warmth at the base of the mountains and cooler air at the top of its winding mountain roads. Friends and I boarded the ferry each evening and traveled across Lake Como to the town square where we drank Italian beer and ate more pasta than anyone thought imaginable. Once the sun went down, Como-ites came out and sat on the steps of their villas or on the park benches and talked among themselves. Strangers spoke to one another and people tousled the hair of each other's children.
Try and find that in America.