October 5

This Day in History

Automotive

Oct 5, 1919:

Enzo Ferrari makes his debut as a race car driver

On October 5, 1919, a young Italian car mechanic and engineer named Enzo Ferrari takes part in his first car race, a hill climb in Parma, Italy. He finished fourth. Ferrari was a good driver, but not a great one: In all, he won just 13 of the 47 races he entered. Many people say that this is because he cared too much for the sports cars he drove: He could never bring himself to ruin an engine in order to win a race.

In the mid-1920s, Ferrari retired from racing cars in order to pursue his first love: building them. He took over the Alfa Romeo racing department in 1929 and began to turn out cars under his own name. Annoyed with Ferrari's heavy-handed management style, Alfa Romeo fired him in 1939. After that, he started his own manufacturing firm, but he spent the war years building machine tools, not race cars.

In 1947, the first real Ferraris appeared on the market at last. That same year, Ferrari won the Rome Grand Prix, his first race as an independent carmaker. In 1949, a Ferrari won the Le Mans road race for the first time and in 1952 one of the team's drivers, Alberto Ascari, became the world racing champion: He won every race he entered that year.

That decade was Ferrari's most triumphant: Year after year, his cars dominated the field, winning eight world championships and five Grand Prix championships. Ferrari won so much because his cars were ruthless. They were bigger and stronger than everyone else's and (in part to compensate for their excess weight) they had much more powerful engines. He also ensured success by flooding races with his cars and by hiring the boldest, most daredevil drivers he could find. Unfortunately, this combination of reckless drivers and heavy, superpowered cars was a recipe for tragedy: Between 1955 and 1965, six of Ferrari's 20 drivers were killed in crashes and on five different occasions his cars careened into crowds of spectators, killing 50 bystanders in all. (In 1957, Ferrari was even tried for manslaughter after one of these bloody wrecks, but he was acquitted.)

Ferrari tended to scorn technological advances that he did not come up with himself, so he was slow to accept things like disc brakes, rear-mounted engines and fuel-injection systems. As a result, the stranglehold his cars had on races around the world began to loosen. Still, by the time he died in 1988, Ferrari cars had won more than 4,000 races.

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