At the present-day Mille Miglia automobile rally that takes place in sunny Italy—otherwise known as the Oscars of the classic speedster—the stars are the cars. In fact, Enzo Ferrari once called this glamorous celebration of Italian motorsports history “the most beautiful race in the world.” The four-wheeled celebrities roll out on a wide, red carpet just like the cast of a Hollywood blockbuster to the screams of the crowd and the flashbulbs of the paparazzi.
The iconic race is also one of the toughest to get into, attracting thousands of entries a year. Only 400 or so make it past the complex set of rules, watched over like hawks by the rally’s organizers and verified at painstakingly detailed tests called “scrutineering” a couple of days before the race. To literally “seal the deal,” a special wire is affixed below the steering wheel to make sure no changes or alterations can be made.
We had to sift through pages upon pages of applicants from Italy, Germany, France, and also the United States, Australia, and Japan to finally find our names listed among the auto ammesse or “accepted cars”—mine as well as my son’s, as “driver” and “navigator.” It was a moment of excitement, honor, and yes, disbelief. I had always dreamed of witnessing the Mille Miglia, but I had never dared dream that I would actually end up racing my own car in it!
After all, only cars that ran in the Mille Miglia’s formative years from 1927 to 1957 can even be considered. To add, they must be not just in pristine and original condition, they must also be in tip-top shape. After much searching, I was finally able to locate a 1957 Porsche 356 A, wonderfully restored in Italy. It was the perfect match. The family and I quickly dubbed the “Lago Verde”-colored beauty “Salaginto” because of its iridescent green sheen.
Mille Miglia literally means “Thousand Miles” but in 2023, it is roughly more than 2,100 kilometers, running from Brescia to Rome (and all the magnificent, medieval towns in between) and then back again. It’s a grueling, five-day course, driving for more than eight—sometimes up to 12 —hours a day, with its share of thrills and spills, exhilarating victories, and yes, even the occasional mishaps.
And yes, while it is true that the drivers and owners of the Mille Miglia are now practically anonymous—gone are the days of superstars like Sterling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio—the Italian press seemed to have made an exception in response to the sight of the Filipino flag and our trusty plumero (or feather duster).
As soon as the announcer said, “Welcome to the Philippines and the Mille Miglia’s first Filipino entry,” the newsmen swarmed all over us, not to mention our loyal kababayan, who had turned out on Philippine Independence Day. It was my cue to bring out the plumero that I had hand-carried from Manila and to give Salaginto a light dusting for good luck. (My grandfather’s driver would always travel with a similar duster and he would gently apply it on my lolo’s burgundy-colored Mercury every morning.) The media loved it and made a beeline for the car like ants to candy. Italian plumeros are now made of tufted polyester, unlike this Filipino classic.
You might say that we put a Pinoy twist to the famous words, “I came, I saw, I conquered”—thanks to the flag and that plumero. Yes, we brought in Filipino flags as well and waved it tirelessly at the Piazza Vittoria on opening day and every stop of the route. It was a meaningful way to mark our country’s 125th year of nationhood. We also wore the three stars and the sun in patches on specially ordered racing suits. (This time, these were not from Manila but bespoke from Paris, from a tailor discovered by my co-navigator, T.O.)
It’s a grueling, five-day course, driving for more than eight—sometimes up to 12 —hours a day, with its share of thrills and spills, exhilarating victories, and yes, even the occasional mishaps.
We managed to vanquish the challenges of the grueling race thanks to our own support team, led by my wife Bessie, daughter Carmen, and daughter-in-law Anika. Bessie thoughtfully equipped us with Asian-Italian hybrid packed meals: Kopiko coffee candies, Bakkwan beef jerky and breadsticks from Brescia. The car was a manual setup, so you needed to steer with one hand while gobbling down the food. We even brought portable mini fans to beat the Italian heat.
Lending moral support was none other than dragon-lady Vivian Yuchengco of the Philippine Stock Exchange, who made time in her very busy schedule to come to Brescia to catch the race. (She wound up in the local newspapers, too. I teased her that her photo crowded out the news that former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi had passed.)
My eldest son, Maurice (with his daughter Helena) also flew in for the occasion, all the way from Australia. He happens to have an Italian grandfather (who had to leave Italy during the fascist regime and come to Manila) and since he spoke Italian, he took charge of most of the interviews.
However, it was my youngest son, T.O., who would have the last word. Asked if he would return to run the Mille Miglia again in 2024, he replied, “Oh, yes, and this time, I will drive like an Italian!”