By Wendy Verlaine/August 21, 2012
While some of us keep our dreams in a holding pattern waiting to be released into our lives, not so for race car driver, Sylvia Oberti. She has a history of turning a dream into an accomplishment. Sylvia is the only female to successfully solo and complete Italy’s famous Mille Miglia annual 1,000 mile auto race, and she has repeated this feat sixteen times.
“It’s not a sport for the faint of heart. I get windburn, sunburn, chapped lips, funny tans, and wild hair. It’s a grueling challenge but an enormous accomplishment.” Sylvia Oberti
In this year’s race, held May 18th to 20th, Sylvia was on the winning team, Scuderia Sports. She and the Argentine crew members of her team won with a 1933 Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 Zagato. She has raced throughout the world, from France to Japan, often as a winner.
I was thrilled to meet Sylvia, and her enthusiasm, determination and courage reminded me we are not all created equal. She described how it all started for her, what it takes to fulfill a life-long quest and the importance of giving something in return…
EYE: You are a Mille Miglia star, famous as “La Sola Pilotessa,” the solo woman driver. Of the 1,600 applicants, only 375 cars are chosen to be on race teams. There was only one other solo driver in this year’s race, a man. How did it all begin for you?
SYLVIA: It was a dream, something I passionately wanted to do for years.
EYE: How did you learn to drive well enough to race?
SYLVIA: I drove high performance cars for years and then trained with Bob Bondurant at his School of High Performance Driving. I trained in “open wheel” specially built single-seater race cars where the wheels are outside the car’s main body for greater speed.
EYE: What was your first car?
SYLVIA: It was a Ferrari 308 GTS. It was considered a baby Ferrari but qualified for entry into the Ferrari Club. I joined for the chance to drive my car at speed and meet like-minded drivers. It was so much fun to race.
EYE: What was your first significant win?
SYLVIA: I won an important event in 1989. I was the only woman racing against eleven men. Immediately upon winning, I sat in my car too thrilled by the moment to get out of the car. As cars came into the pit lane and drivers jumped out of their cars, one race driver yelled ‘Did you see that guy who flew past us?’
“I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I just buy my own car!’”
EYE: So how did you advance to the Mille Miglia?
SYLVIA: I went to see the Mille Miglia in 1991 for the second time and wanted more than ever to participate in this historic race.
EYE: I understand that The Mille Miglia, or “1,000 Miles,” had a glamorous and dangerous reputation from 1927 to 1957. Even though it was forced to stop in 1957 due to a terrible accident and the dangers of high-speed driving through Italy’s historic town centers (starting in the north in Brescia, down the Adriatic to Rome and back up the Mediterranean side of Italy), it was ultimately argued back into existence twice, most recently in 1977.
It changed from a high-speed race to a rally made up of teams of seasoned and often celebrated race drivers who have enough stamina to endure three intense days of close to fifty hours of racing. How did you make the decision to enter the race as a driver?
SYLVIA: I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I just buy my own car!’ The thought had never occurred to me that I could just buy the car and do it. It wasn’t that I was thinking it’s too expensive.
I had been conditioned! I always thought that I should drive with someone who owned a car, be their co-pilot, the navigator.
The guys buy their cars, go to the Mille Miglia when they can’t speak the language, have no experience driving in Italy, and they don’t repair their cars, they hire mechanics. So I thought, ‘Why can’t I do it?’ It really was the epiphany of a lifetime.
EYE: What did you do next?
SYLVIA: I started looking for an affordable but eligible car. Qualifying cars are either the actual cars or the same model of car which participated in the original races. I bought a $60,000 1951 SIATA model 300BC Spider or Barchetta, meaning little boat in Italian.
My SIATA is a red beauty, the racing color of Italy and designed to perfect scale. Barchetta is a body style that does not have a roof or the possibility for a cover. It qualifies for several types of races due to its age, body style and history. It’s handmade, designed by Bertone who designed Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and other cars.
EYE: You must have enormous endurance, driving nearly fifty hours over three days. I understand there are daily checkpoints where you have to arrive at a prescribed second, and a driver cannot pass ahead of time nor behind it.
SYLVIA: Adrenaline helps, but I’m mostly powered by Illy espresso!
EYE: Why does the race start at 8:00 PM at night?
SYLVIA: It is a tradition from the 1927 race to start at night. Cars line up in numerical order in Brescia and blast off every twenty seconds. My start was at 8:46 pm as #139. It is practical and safer to drive through the night due to fewer cars and pedestrians.
EYE: Can you describe the excitement?
SYLVIA: It’s thrilling. We drive on cobble stones through ancient towns with castles and monuments backlit in the middle of the night. It might be raining but hundreds of people are there under their umbrellas cheering you on, yelling “Vai, Vai,” Go, go!
EYE: Do you constantly pass cars, even non-event traffic?
SYLVIA: Of course! I have to pass everyone! I have to drive as fast as I can to reach the next checkpoint. But I moderate my speed in town centers. It is a crazy, wild ride.
WENDY: What are the dangers you confront?
SYLVIA: Saturday is the most dangerous day as all the drivers are exhausted. Locals are out running errands, along with extra weekend traffic.
EYE: What are some of your favorite parts of the route?
SYLVIA: Siena is so beautiful. People interact with you as you are slowly driving into the famous Campo. It’s so moving to experience the warmth and friendliness of the Italian people. Driving through Tuscany along fields of red poppies and arriving in Florence is breathtaking.
This year, grandmotherly ladies with flowered aprons offered me espresso and chocolate on a silver tray. It was just so very sweet and unexpected! Often kids run after the car, squealing and cheering. If you could just see the number of guys I pass along the road standing there with their thumbs out! (we laugh)
EYE: Did you meet with any difficulties this year?
SYLVIA: I drove the last four hours without a clutch. I had to shift according to my rpms and was nervous the entire time. Mechanics just couldn’t follow close enough to help me. At one point I had to make a decision. Do I make my time and forgo the clutch?
It’s also difficult wearing a helmet. Even a few ounces feels like ten pounds after two hours.
EYE: What do you wear when you race and are open to the elements?
SYLVIA: The problems are that most goggles are too large as they’re made for men, and women’s gloves are poorly made.
WENDY: Did you design your own goggles? (teasing)
SYLVIA: Yes! It’s my own design brand for women called “Pilotessa,” my Italian nickname. (we laugh) I also designed my own gloves for comfort and endurance due to intense steering. In a single day I may go from mountain ranges with twenty foot snow banks to rain to hot and steamy in valley towns.
It gets very wet inside the car when it rains. Bucket seats hold the rain, and hard rain fills the car with water. Oil and water make my shoes slip off of the pedals. Water even sloshes around on the floor!
EYE: What time did you finish the race?
SYLVIA: After 11:00 PM and I was barely able to drive my clutch-less car over the finishing ramp. Our team won the Mille Miglia, and our drivers rallied around Claudio Scalise and Daniel Claramunt, the Argentine team members with the winning car. Everyone was sprayed with champagne!
Still in our dirty race clothes, a midnight celebration dinner followed. We have a very entertaining group of people, and they put on a dinner show with pranks, joking and sharing tales.
EYE: What is the celebration like after the race?
SYLVIA: There is an awards ceremony at the Teatro Grande di Brescia and a luncheon for all 2500 drivers, co-pilots and teams at the Museo Mille Miglia.
“For the women who do this, it’s the adventure of a lifetime.”
EYE: How would you sum up this event in terms of hardship and glory?
SYLVIA: Well, it’s not a sport for the faint of heart. I get windburn, sunburn, chapped lips, funny tans, and wild hair. It’s a grueling challenge but an enormous accomplishment.
Though it can be heartbreaking when your car breaks and you can’t finish, you know you just have to do it again to know what it’s really about. For the women who do this, it is an adventure of a lifetime. It really is!
EYE: You are well known for your charity work. You have raised on your own over $2,500,000 of which 100% goes to a chosen cause, and you crusade for early cancer detection. Will you tell me a bit more about this?
SYLVIA: It’s been over twenty years of charity fund raising while racing. I supported 12 pediatric hospitals, a medical camp for children, and other community projects chosen on the route. It’s hard to raise money during the Mille Miglia, but it helps when you ask for funds for specific things rather than just the funds. It is all done on a voluntary basis and very low profile.
EYE: Why is it important to recognize individual communities that are along the route of the race?
SYLVIA: When you race in another country, you ask what can you do to show appreciation for the kindness offered by your host, and how you might acknowledge the disturbance the race causes the peaceful regions. By asking the community what they need, you are met with gratitude.
EYE: Tell me about your mascot which is dearly recognized.
SYLVIA: Angelino is a white bear with checkered flag wings, and he’s been dubbed the guardian angel on the road of life. About 30,000 bears have comforted children and adults in schools and hospitals around the world.
EYE: What is your future hope?
SYLVIA: For the 2013 Mille Miglia, I’m negotiating with the new race organization and hope they agree to add a donation amount to every application so by race time we can give at least 50,000 Euro (or about $70,000) to the local pediatric hospital.
Next year I hope to race solo another 1000 miles all the way to a checkered flag finish!
EYE: I can already hear the cheering. Thanks, Sylvia.
About the Author:
Wendy Verlaine is a TWE Contributor and a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, jewelry designer and owner of Verlaine Collections. Formerly a San Francisco art dealer, she continues to stay closely connected to the art world.