October 1938: Tazio Nuvolari of Italy driving an Auto Union car in the International Grand Prix at Donington.

October 1938: Tazio Nuvolari of Italy driving an Auto Union car in the International Grand Prix at Donington.
Photo: Fox Photos (Getty Images)

After the death of both of his sons, Italian icon Tazio Nuvolari threw himself deeper into the world of post-World War II motorsport. With no one left to carry on his immense legacy, Nuvolari had but one wish: To win at all costs and to die on the race track. The fact that he failed to do the latter, Count Giovanni Lurani recounts in his 1960 biography titled Nuvolari: Legendary Champion of International Auto Racing, was perhaps the crowning tragedy on the Flying Mantuan’s life.

I received Nuvolari from a reader whose father, an avid motorsport enthusiast, passed away, leaving behind a stunning collection of literature. That reader offered to send the books to me, and for the past year, I’ve slowly been reading my way through that collection. Nuvolari has regularly been one of the books I’ve skipped; at 62 years old — older than Nuvolari when he ultimately succumbed to illness — looks its age. The bare hardcover is a bit dirty and well-loved, and I was surprised to find the tattered dust jacket tucked into the first pages, a bit worse for wear but still proudly displaying a photograph of the iconic driver behind the wheel, its black-and-white overlaid by mod stripes of overlapping primary colors.

The gorgeous jacket, though, wasn’t the only surprise I found inside. Lurani, who personally knew Nuvolari, put together a compelling narrative of the Italian driver’s life, starting with his championship-winning bicyclist uncle and Nuvolari’s adolescent fascination with all things motorized.

Nuvolari’s on-track successes — he clocked an impressive 150 race victories during his career — are detailed in great but fascinating length; Lurani goes beyond a simple recounting of race events to offer brief insight into the evolving politics of early motorsport and the respective strengths and weaknesses of each car Nuvolari drove.

But rather than harp on the things we all know about Nuvolari, I want to talk about what struck me most about this book: the tragedy of Nuvolari’s personal life.

The pre- and post-war era of motorsport was exceptionally dangerous, and Nuvolari wasn’t alone in his stoic proclamations of fearlessness. However, I was struck by the increasingly desperate tone he seemed to strike as his career — and life — progressed.

See, Nuvolari and his wife Carolina proudly raised two sons, Giorgio and Alberto, both of whom died roughly a decade apart during crucial moments of their father’s career. Nuvolari’s eldest son Giorgio was ill for much of his life, ultimately succumbing to myocarditis in 1937 at age 19, while Nuvolari was on a ship bound for America set to contest his first Vanderbilt Cup. In the prime of his career, Nuvolari took that victory, which he dedicated to his late son. Then, in 1946, his younger son Alberto died at age 18 from nephritis, or an inflammation of the kidneys, just as Nuvolari was set to regain his racing stride after the cessation of World War II.

Where Nuvolari’s early proclamations of his fearlessness regarding death and accidents were those of a strong and seemingly invincible younger man, the book almost unintentionally illustrates how that fearlessness almost became a desperate plea. Nuvolari was in his late 50s when his son Alberto died, and though he was desperate to continue competing in races, he was doing so at his own peril. Doctors knew he was ill but weren’t quite sure how to diagnose him; all they knew was that his condition seemed to stem from his lungs and that the alcohol-based fumes from Grand Prix cars made things worse.

An old man by that time, Nuvolari was still successful, but he seemed increasingly desperate. Few big-name racing stables wanted to take a chance on him, so he was often relegated to wresting performance from underpowered cars, often at the cost of his own health. And as Count Lurani notes the constant deaths of Nuvolari’s racing companions, it seems as if Nuvolari was almost attempting to get himself killed on the track; after all, he repeated over and over that he would rather die behind the wheel of a race car than in his own bed.

That last, macabre wish wasn’t to be granted; Nuvolari suffered a stroke while being driven to his home; it left him bed-bound, and he ultimately succumbed to it on August 11, 1953, having requested to be taken to the room where his son Giorgio died. He was 60 years old.

Author Lurani doesn’t linger on Nuvolari’s death, but the tragedy of it has stuck with me since I put down the book. We’re not privy to the internal workings of Nuvolari, but it’s obvious that the death of his two sons just as they were reaching the cusp of a promising adulthood took its toll. Without them, Nuvolari was left with nothing in his life but racing, and he seemed almost eager to die in pursuit of that legacy. It seems infinitely cruel that he was to die at the hands of his own protracted illness, not as a result of an accident. There’s a sense that Nuvolari passed on filled with regret.

It’s a fascinating look into a racer that history has transformed from a mere man into a titan of motorsport. When we remember Nuvolari now, we’re inclined to focus on the tenacity that took him to an impressive number of victories no matter the make and model of his car. We remember his impassioned, full-body driving style that seemed to be inspired by his days on two wheels. The more delicate parts of his humanity have been pushed to the sidelines. To be privy to those hardships and complexities in this biography is, truly, a privilege.

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