Simanaitis Says

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GOOD STORIES often get better—or at least more convoluted—in retelling. Such is the case with the 1933 Gran Primio di Tripoli. The original plan was bizarre enough: I Lotteria di Triploi/Corsa dei Milioni was an Irish Sweepstakes type of lottery, offering winners holding tickets of the race’s top three finishers a total of six million lire (around $316,000 in 1933, perhaps $ 5.7 million today).

By the time the Gran Premio dust had settled, there were clandestine meetings, claims of race rigging—and perhaps 7 1/2 million lire gone missing.

The 1933 race was the seventh Grand Prix held in Tripolitania, one of the North African colonies of Fascist Italy at the time.

The Mellaha Circuit.

The Mellaha Lake Circuit. Tripolitania, 1933.

The 13-km (8-mile) race circuit was a new one, and the lottery was to underwrite the circuit’s costs, hype interest in the race and the colony’s tourism, and generate income for the Automobile Club di Tripoli.


Lottery tickets were 12 lire (around 63¢) apiece. It’s not clear how many were sold, but it’s estimated the total pot was at least 15 million lire.

Each lottery winner was assigned a driver in the race, originally 30 in all. Six million lire was allotted to a lucky trio: If your driver won the race, you got 3 million lire; if he came second, you got 2 million; if third, 1 million.

The Automobile Club di Tripoli got 1.2 million lire for its efforts. Starting and prize money for the participants accounted for 550,000 lire.

The rest of the proceeds? Apparently “overhead.” In Fascist Italy, you didn’t ask.


The lottery drawing was held eight days before the race, which gave time for shenanigans. There are conflicting reports, but it’s pretty certain a meeting was held in a Rome hotel the week prior to the race. There, Giovanni Canestrini, one of the lottery originators, acted as moderator among three of the favored drivers, Umberto Mario Borzacchini, Tazio Nuvolari and Achille Varzi, and their three respective ticket holders.


Left to right, Unberto Borzacchini, Tazio Nuvolari (see also, and Achille Varzi.

Hitherto, these drivers and their ticket holders became known as The Six.

The deal they cut, possibly even with notorization of signatures, was legal enough, though not exactly a sporting interpretation of i Lotterie: No matter who of the three won, the jackpot would be split evenly among The Six.

Sporting journals reported the arrangement, and other drivers were less than pleased. Several said they were all the more determined to win, just to ruin it for the conspirators.

And then the plot thickens.

As race day approached, Varzi worried that his rival Nuvolari would ignore their deal, rekindle their racing feud, put them both out and cause them to lose all that money. On race day, he and Canestrini approached Nuvolari with another deal. (Borzacchini was not privy to this.) Canestrini flipped a coin—and the loser would not contest the other’s race.

Varzi won the coin toss.


The 1933 Tunis Grand Prix, held two months prior to Tripoli, had many of the same cars. No. 2 is a Type 51 Bugatti; No. 8 is Borzacchini’s Alfa Romeo.

Given these plots, the race was almost anticlimactic. The June 1933 issue of the British magazine Motor Sport gives perhaps the most accurate description—and certainly the least Italian.

Twenty-nine drivers actually started (Giuseppe Bianchi and his ticket winner were both out of luck). At the end of the first lap, the leader was Englishman Tim Birkin in his Maserati 8C/3000; Nuvolari was second in his Alfa Romeo 8C/2300. This held for four of the race’s 30 laps.

By mid-race, Birkin had refueled, burning his arm in the process. He continued, though the injury was to turn septic and, two months later, perhaps cause his death.

At 20 laps, Nuvolari’s Alfa Romeo led, with Varzi’s Type 51 Bugatti on his tail.

On the 25th lap, Varzi came by first—with a 20-second lead on Nuvolari.

By the start of the 30th and final lap, Nuvolari fought his way into the lead again.

At the checkered, wrote the Motor Sport correspondent, “…they roared towards the finishing line almost abreast. But the blue car was slightly ahead and to the sound of a tremendous cheer Varzi crossed the line barely a length ahead of his rival.”

Officially, Varzi’s Bugatti beat Nuvolari’s Alfa by 0.2 second. Birkin’s Maserati was third. (The other member of The Six, Borzacchini, had retired after brushing a corner-marker barrel.)

A complete analysis of the event, with original source material, is offered by H. Donald Capps at He observes, “That evening, Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini drink expensive champagne at the hotel and rumors begin…. A special meeting is held the next morning…. The President of the board recommends that the competition licenses of those named should be revoked and they should be disqualified from the race as well. After a long, uneasy silence, the recommendation is not acted upon.”


However, the next year, a new Governor-General of the newly named Libya changed the Corsa dei Milioni rules: The 1934 lottery was held a scant 30 minutes before the start of the race. The governor’s name? Our old aviation pal, Italo Balbo ( ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

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