This Day In History: May 12

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On May 12, 1957, during the famed Mille Miglia motorsport endurance race in Italy, Ferrari driver Alfonso de Portago dies in a horrific crash. The accident, which killed the 28-year-old Spaniard, his copilot Edmund Nelson and nine spectators, leads to the discontinuation of the Mille Miglia, an annual race established in 1927.

Alfonso de Portago was only 30 miles from the finish line of the 1,000-mile open-road race when one of the tires of his 3.8-liter fire-red Ferrari blew out. He crashed on a straightaway between the towns of Goito and Guidizzolo, traveling at a speed of nearly 150 miles per hour. At the time of the crash, he was in fourth place, even though it was his first time driving the hazardous, twisting Mille Miglia course that ran round trip between Brescia and Rome. According to Sports Illustrated, it was the "worst composite disaster" in racing since the Le Mans tragedy of 1955, only two years earlier.

Don Alfonso Cabeza de Vaca y Leighton, the 17th Marquis de Portago, was a larger-than-life figure, the son of a Spanish nobleman and godson to Spain’s King Alfonso VIII. Portago became a fierce competitor across many sports, including polo, steeplechase, horse racing, swimming and jai-alai. He even competed as a member of Spain's one and only Olympic bobsleigh team in 1956. Known as an inveterate thrill seeker, he earned a pilot’s license at age 17, but quickly lost it after reputedly flying a borrowed plane under a London bridge to win a $500 bet.

Portago's deadly crash killed nine spectators when his car vaulted over a barrier and into the dense crowd of onlookers. The tragedy marked the end of the Mille Miglia, a notorious road race already marred by gruesome accidents. Journalist Ken W. Purdy, who knew Portago, wrote in Car & Driver magazine that the legendary athlete "was an adornment in the world…a pillar of fire in the night, producing no useful heat or light, perhaps, but a glory to see nonetheless."