“Calm and staid on the outside, you could feel that within him burned the fire and passion of his native land”
Enzo Ferrari on Nino Vaccarella
Winning one’s home race is on the bucket list of every professional racing driver. Nino Vaccarella did just that, only his home race was the Targa Florio, the jewel in the crown of Italian, and specifically Sicilian, motorsport. Preferring sportscars to open-wheelers, Vaccarella remains one of the most decorated racers of his era not to succeed in Formula 1.
|Date of Birth||March 4th 1933|
|Date of Death||September 23rd 2021|
|Teams||Non-works de Toamaso (1961), non-works Lotus (1962), non-works Porsche (1962), Ferrari (1965)|
|Best Result||9th (Italy 1962)|
Early Years: A Sicilian Schoolteacher
Nino was born and raised in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, where he fostered a passion for motor-racing at a young age. His father had died when he was in his early 20s, and so it was put to his sister and he to inherit their family-owned private school. He did keep to his studies, and like Helmut Marko, Nino became a doctor of law in 1956, before returning as deputy principal of the school as its English teacher.
Being a native of Sicily, it was very quickly apparent into his racing career that Vaccarella would be an aficionado of the Targa Florio, him knowing the Sicilian roads “like the back of his hand”, as Vic Elford described. Still an amateur at this point, his strategy was simple in that he would drive his own car round the circuit after classes were finished, observing every corner, kink and facet of the temporary circuit.
“For every single corner I had my point of reference: a tree, a house, a wall, a dip down. I knew every corner and how to set the car up for it.”
Vaccarella tells in a 2000 interview about his early strategies for tackling the Targa Florio, Sicily’s iconic race-track.
His first professional race was the 1957 edition of that event, an event he would attend a whopping 16 times between then and 1975! In his first outing, he came 109th out of a massive 136 entrants, while at the front were drivers like pre-war champion and Formula One race winner Piero Taruffi. In his final outing, which he won, he was teamed up with journeyman Arturo Merzario, who since his own F1 stint continued participating in endurance races up until 2012.
Vaccarella won the Targa Florio three times, in 1965, 1971, and 1975, with another two podiums and a fourth place. However, his first great success came very soon into his career, with a win at Enna-Pergusa in 1959. Driving an Alfa Romeo in the 1960 Targa had him on course to win, but after a stone punctured his fuel tank, not even the desperately enthusiastic locals could patch up the issue with their tape and extra petrol cans, and get him back on track. However, the super-fast Sicilian had made a name for himself at home, and was going to do the same abroad.
1961-1965: From Sicily to the Great Races of Europe
His races to this point were all located in Italy, and most often Sicily. After proceeding towards greater heights, taking part in endurance races such as the 1000km of Nürburgring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1961, Nino was picked up by Count Giovanni Volpi di Misurata, which is a story in itself. The count, who was the son of one of Mussolini’s cabinet members, inherited a vast fortune in his mid-20s and spent it, as all good people do, on motorsport. One of Ferrari’s biggest customers, he founded Scuderia Serenissima Republica di Venezia and made Vaccarella a chief driver.
This is not to deceive the reader, however, that Nino had easy competition at home driving expensive cars; indeed, he had plenty of rivals. The Targa Florio was a legendary track, famous or infamous depending on who you asked, and in the 1960 edition alone Nino was brushing with the shoulders of Graham Hill, Wolfgang von Trips, Phil Hill, Jo Bonnier, the Rodriguez brothers, and Giorgio Scarlatti. Until the early 1970s the track was a key part of the international racing calendar, and Vaccarella’s success made him synonymous with it.
He was partnered with Maurice Trintignant for the 1961 Paris 1000km race, where he took third. It was for this and a class win at the Trophée d’Auvergne that Nino received the positive attention of a certain Enzo Ferrari. This certain Enzo put Vaccarella on the Ferrari programme for 1963, and the boss’s trust was paid in full.
The first race for him, and indeed the one in which he was expected to prove himself, was the 12 Hours of Sebring in March that year. Alongside other Ferrari staples Willy Mairesse and Lorenzo Bandini they finished 2nd to round out a 1-2 for the team. In fact, classes or otherwise, the Ferraris showed up the Yanks by having their cars take up all of the top six positions! Unfortunately, a crash at the 1000km of Nürburgring fractured his arm and temporarily put him out of racing until 1964. Another reason that 1963 was a year to forget for Nino was that he was withdrawn by the commissioners for that year’s Targa Florio after having his driver’s licence revoked for a recent incident near the Pescara circuit.
For the next year he returned alongside Ludovico Scarfiotti for another 2nd place at Sebring, before taking the first great win of his career at the 1000km of Nürburgring. At the dreaded Nordschleife, despite qualifying 8 seconds off the pole time set by John Surtees and Bandini, Nino and Ludovico were able to keep the car on track to dominate the gruelling race, while their teammates broke a wheel and dropped far behind.
And that wasn’t the end of it, either. Only a month later, the grandest event of them all, the 24 Hours of Le Mans came by, and Nino took the Ferrari 275 P to a brilliant victory. He and Jean Guichet covered a record distance up until that point, and the Ferrari team took their fifth consecutive victory at the event to cement their place in motorsport history. Incredibly, Vaccarella was not able to celebrate his victory, as he was needed at school the very next morning. He immediately drove to Orly Airport to make it back to Sicily for Monday morning’s class. He credited victory to Guichet’s care for the car:
“Guichet was an excellent driver. Maybe not the fastest, but the car he gave back to you was always in good condition: the clutch the brakes, etc. We had an excellent 24 hours and set a new record doing so.”
This victory, as well as others, puts Nino right at the epicentre of the Ferrari Golden Age of the early 1960s – not as a bystander, but as an integral part of that success. From there, the next logical step was his home race at the Targa Florio. Going into the 1965 race was like a homecoming, with his name adorning the walls of the city section as the crowd welcomed home their local hero: “Viva Nino”. He likened it to the Tour de France, with the crowd disrupting the circuit to will him on. As it turned out, Nino and Bandini dominated the race from the get-go with a four-minute lead over the Porsches by race-end. Enzo had a suitable reward in place for his star driver: a cameo at that year’s Italian Grand Prix in a proper Ferrari.
So, what of Nino’s Formula 1 career?
1961-1965: Nino’s Formula 1 stint
Nino’s first outing in Formula 1 had been with Count Volpi’s team Scuderia Serenissima, debuting at the fateful Italian Grand Prix of 1961. After losing a few places off the line, he overtook Bandini and Tim Parnell a few laps later, before retiring from an engine failure not too far into the race.
His various forays around the globe made him a part-time driver in F1, and Nino had to refuse an offer from Ferrari in 1962 due to the contracts he had already signed with Serenissima for that year. What followed were occasional outings, such as when he DNQd at Monaco in a Lotus 18, and at the German and Italian Grands Prix, where he managed his first finishes at the top level. An impressive 15th on the grid at the Nürburgring was put to no use as he was almost last by the end of the first lap. He remained at the back of the grid for the remainder of the race. Coming back to Monza for the following race, he again impressed in qualifying, only to fall to the back of the pack and end the race as the last of the serious runners.
So it wasn’t until 1965, when Enzo rewarded Nino with a Ferrari drive at Monza, that the Italian got the taste of top machinery. This time, arriving at the circuit was something else entirely. Vaccarella had not driven an F1 car in three years by this point, and in front of the Monza crowd he managed a 15th place start in qualifying, 1.7 seconds off Bandini who was running for the whole season. In terms of positions the race was unremarkable, and he got picked off one by one by competitors until he was down in 17th. Attrition and a few overtakes got him as high as 9th before engine troubles took him out with 18 laps to go.
So it seems a consistent tale of Nino’s Formula 1 races: consistently great qualifying followed by slow race pace and a tumbling down the order. Perhaps such an analysis can give us a clue as to why he stuck to sportscar racing instead of taking up single-seaters full-time. However, the Sicilian can boast of something that few can: he drove a Ferrari at the Italian Grand Prix.
1966-1975: Later Career and Success
After the mid-sixties, Nino split from Ferrari and drove in most the main circuits yearly, from the usual mentioned above, to the 1000km of Paris, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 1000km of Spa. He recorded a whole string of DNFs after his win at Le Mans, all the way for about two years later when he won at Enna in a Ford for Scuderia Brescia in the summer of 1967. Then in 1968 for Autodelta he drove with Bianchi and proud reject Nanni Galli in the Grand Prix of Mugello, before winning the 500km of Imola a month later. Another win at Enna a year later rounded off a decade of sportscar stardom for the Italian.
Come 1970 and he was back again driving with the Ferrari marque, finally winning the 12 Hours of Sebring alongside Ignazio Giunti and a young-ish Mario Andretti. That race was legendary for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the attrition was brutal and it took the 83 entrants down to a mere 26 finishers. Secondly, the Ferraris were neck and neck against the Porsches, who were absolutely desperate to win. Andretti, who had been in the other Ferrari to Vaccarella, was forced to retire with a gearbox issue, and so the Ferrari officials had him replace Giunti immediately in order to take Nino’s #21 to victory. They did so against the all-American lineup of Peter Revson and Steve McQueen (yes, that Steve McQueen), overtaking them with only a few minutes on the clock of a 12-hour race. One for the ages.
Again, the rest of the season was punctuated by appearances in almost every European sportscar endurance race of the era. By 1971 he was back with Autodelta, winning the Targa Florio for a second time alongside reigning European Touring Car Champion Toine Hezemans. By now motor-racing was changing, and Nino was 38. Another season in 1972 would be his last in full-time running, with a strong running at Daytona to complement the usual running he took part in each season.
1973, when Vaccarella turned 40, was when he hung up the racing gloves for the most part. After that year’s Targa Florio, which he didn’t finish, he wasn’t seen again until one final appearance in 1975. His final ever motor-race was also the site of his final win. The Targa Florio had been removed from the world championship after 1973, and Nino likewise was a bearer of past glory. There was a bittersweet feeling to the victory, therefore, though the Sicilian did what all drivers dream of, and left motorsport with his head held high.
Later Years and Looking Back
Nino Vaccarella was absolutely recognised by the Italians, and especially the Sicilians, for his skill and success. The Italian government awarded him with the Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and he moved as so many driver so, into management roles. Alongside his teaching duties, he also started running the career of his son Giovanni, until the latter’s tragic accident at the 1993 Targa Florio that left him quadriplegic.
For Nino, his Sicilian heritage was very important to him. He talked avidly about his career, and the unabated enthusiasm from his home crowd in spite of so many missed attempts at winning the Targa Florio – he claimed he could have won at least five more, and this author believes him. Had he accepted an offer from Porsche, he could have led the marque’s five consecutive wins at the track from 1966. At the 1965 edition, Nino’s first win, there were 500,000 people lining the race track to watch the home hero.
When the Targa Florio, the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 1000km of Nürburgring all formed part of the World Sportscar Championship, Nino Vaccarella remains the only driver other than Olivier Gendebien to win them all.
His last racing run was done in 2016, where he was reunited with Jean Guichet for some practice runs in the run-up to the Le Mans weekend, at the sprightly age of 83. He died in 2021 in his native Palermo after a long illness.
“I think that people are born talented drivers, surgeons or artists. It’s not a matter of school.”
Sources: ferrari.com; racingsportscars.com; snaplap.net; Motorcult TV; 24h-lemans.com; oldracingcars.com; italy24news.com