Tazio Nu­volari The orig­i­nal GOAT?

Click onto any Mo­toGP fo­rum and from time to time you’ll see the de­bate about who is the GOAT (Great­est Of All Time).

Old Bike Australasia - - OUT’N’ABOUT - Story Gary Edgar

Rossi gets fre­quent nom­i­na­tions; Mar­quez is po­si­tioned as the up­com­ing ti­tle holder and from there the claims start to range back in time seem­ing to fiz­zle out round about the era of Mike “The Bike” Hail­wood. The name Tazio Nu­volari would likely not be on the radar of most mo­tor­cy­cle fans and even amongst the car-rac­ing afi­ciona­dos the Fly­ing Man­tuan or Nivola as he was nick­named, would prob­a­bly strike a chord only amongst those of suf­fi­cient vin­tage. Yet Nu­volari was a gi­ant of his time, a leg­endary racer who drove like a man pos­sessed to re­peat­edly snatch im­pos­si­ble vic­to­ries against all odds. In the an­nals of Grand Prix rac­ing, his most fa­mous win was in the 1935 Ger­man Grand Prix at the fa­bled Nür­bur­gring. The Nazis were in power and the cir­cuit was awash with swastikas, ban­ners and uni­forms. The diminu­tive Nu­volari in his vastly un­der­pow­ered Alfa Romeo P3 faced an in­tim­i­dat­ing line-up of vastly more pow­er­ful cars. Five Mercedes Benz W25s and four Auto Union Type Bs were pi­loted by the best driv­ers the Ger­mans could muster, and it seemed a for­gone con­clu­sion that the podium would be owned by the Third Re­ich. How­ever, com­peti­tors and spec­ta­tors alike were to be treated to a masterclas­s in race-craft, tac­tics, ag­gres­sion and un­break­able re­solve.

Lap­ping faster and faster, gain­ing on the cor­ners and downhill runs, and pil­ing on relentless pres­sure to force the leader to de­stroy his tyres, Nu­volari hunted down and hu­mil­i­ated his op­po­nents to take the che­quered flag. The crowd of 300,000 of­fered “po­lite ap­plause” but the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Re­ich were en­raged. The Ger­mans had been so con­vinced of vic­tory that they didn’t have a record­ing of the Ital­ian na­tional an­them. Nu­volari – dis­play­ing the sort of su­per­sti­tion com­mon to rac­ers – al­ways car­ried a record­ing of the an­them with him and promptly sent his me­chanic back to the pits to col­lect it. Pity Adolph Huhn­lein, a lead­ing mo­tor­sport of­fi­cial and the luck­less in­di­vid­ual who drew the short straw to phone Hitler to tell him nei­ther Ger­man car nor driver had won. In his car rac­ing ca­reer Tazio went on to amass a tally of 150 vic­to­ries in to­tal, of which 72 were ma­jor races in­clud­ing 24 Grands Prix, two Mille Miglias and two Targa Flo­rios. But for all his jus­ti­fi­able fame as a rac­ing car driver, Nu­volari’s prow­ess on a bike is shrouded in the mists of time and re­ceives only pass­ing men­tion in most bi­ogra­phies. Born in 1892 at Cas­tel D’Ario near Man­tua (Man­tova) in Italy’s north, the shape of Tazio’s fu­ture may well have been pre-or­dained, as his fa­ther Ar­turo and his uncle Giuseppe were bi­cy­cle rac­ers of some note. Giuseppe had claimed mul­ti­ple ti­tles in the Ital­ian na­tional cham­pi­onship. The young Tazio greatly ad­mired him and it seems the uncle would pro­vide some defin­ing mo­ments in the boy’s early life. On Tazio’s thir­teenth birth­day Giuseppe gave him his first mo­tor­bike, which he mas­tered in a mat­ter of days. That same year, Giuseppe took Tazio to see his first mo­tor race in Bres­cia, some 60 kilo­me­tres to the north of Man­tua.

Nu­volari first took out a mo­tor­cy­cle com­pe­ti­tion li­cence in 1913 but the war in­ter­vened, and rac­ing did not re­sume un­til 1920. It ap­pears he com­peted through­out those first years, but only be­came a se­ri­ous – al­beit strug­gling – cam­paigner in 1923. In June that year he turned the cor­ner with a win against strong op­po­si­tion in a bike race at Busto Arizio, a town 35 kilo­me­tres from Mi­lan. That vic­tory earned him a slot as a works rider on the In­dian team. It ap­pears though, that his stint with In­dian may not have been stel­lar, as his con­tract was not re­newed for 1924 and Nu­volari’s at­ten­tion turned to cars with a no­table race against Enzo Fer­rari at Ravenna. That aside, bikes were his “thing” and he had es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion as a fiery rider who rev­elled in a chal­lenge. He con­tin­ued to race bikes fre­quently through­out 1924 and 1925 re­put­edly on such mar­ques as Nor­ton, Sarolea, Garelli and Fon­gri be­fore be­ing signed to ride for the much-ac­claimed Bianchi com­pany. Bianchi was re­garded as a su­perb ma­chine and aboard the 350cc – the Frec­cia Ce­leste (Light Blue Arrow) – Nu­volari was al­most unbeatable. Tazio clinched the 1925 350cc Euro­pean Mo­tor­cy­cle Cham­pi­onship by win­ning the Euro­pean Grand Prix. He won the Na­tions Grand Prix four times be­tween 1925 and 1928 and the Lario Cir­cuit race five times be­tween 1925 and 1929 – all on a Bianchi.

Typ­i­cal of the man’s unconquera­ble fighting spirit was an in­ci­dent in 1925. Nu­volari was test­ing for Alfa Romeo with the in­ten­tion of driv­ing in the Ital­ian Grand Prix, how­ever he crashed when the gear­box seized and was se­verely in­jured. This ruled him out of the Alfa Romeo drive, but he was de­ter­mined to ride in the Na­tions Grand Prix at Monza just seven days later. The doc­tors ban­daged him in such a way that he could be placed on his Bianchi in a rid­ing pos­ture – and with a cush­ion strapped to his stom­ach – he had to be lifted onto his mo­tor­cy­cle by his me­chan­ics for a push start and held up­right at the fin­ish. In pour­ing rain and again defying all odds, Nu­volari won. He con­tin­ued to rise to fame as a driver on the Grand Prix cir­cuits across Europe and the world. With health fail­ing, his last races were in 1950 and he passed away in 1953 fol­low­ing a sec­ond stroke. At least half the pop­u­la­tion of Man­tua – be­tween 25,000 and 55,000 peo­ple – turned out for his mile-long fu­neral pro­ces­sion. He lies in the fam­ily tomb in Cimitero Degli An­geli (Ceme­tery of An­gels) on the road be­tween Man­tua and Cre­mona. The in­scrip­tion over the door reads: ‘Cor­rerai An­cor Piu Ve­loce Per Le Vie Del Cielo’ (You will race even faster along the roads of heaven). Those who saw him drive swear it was al­most as if he had made a pact with the Devil…an­i­mated, ges­tur­ing, pound­ing the car, urg­ing it on to vic­tory or de­struc­tion.

It’s only that his driv­ing and vic­to­ries were of such myth­i­cal di­men­sions that they have tended to eclipse the story of his rac­ing achieve­ments on two wheels. Tazio Giorgio Nu­volari was the consummate racer and per­haps richly de­serv­ing of the ti­tle GOAT of his era…maybe of all eras.

ABOVE LEFT Nu­volari on his beloved Bi­achi. ABOVE RIGHT Tazio (seated) with two Bianchi team mates. BOT­TOM LEFT Tazio Nu­volari, Bianchi and Pirelli – the com­bi­na­tion to beat.

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