There’s an old film on Youtube I found one day in which Juan Manuel Fangio drives up in a Mercedes 190SL, hops in a Maserati 250F, pulls out past the Maserati FIAT hauler and a 450S, and rips around a track. It’s one of the first in-car camera shots that shows bumpy asphalt winding between overgrown weeds. Watching El Maestro nonchalantly cruise around in the iconic 250F on this rinky-dink track was an exercise in cognitive dissonance.
Little did I know that this was one of the most important race tracks in all of Europe: the Modena Autodrome (or Aerautodromo di Modena for the purists). In the 50s and 60s, Ferrari and Maserati were the fiercest of rivals, yet they tested on the very same track in full view of each other. This circumstance led to a constant game of one-upsmanship that propelled both to even greater heights!
Built in 1950, the Modena circuit has a unique name, which in English translates to “air/auto track.” During post-war reconstruction, the city added this resource as a way to stimulate the local economy, which was largely driven by the automobile industry. The facility also accommodated a local private flying club with a diagonal airstrip. On any given day, usage was split between functioning as an airport and as a test track.
Modena was at the center of the so-called Motor Valley of Italy. It was home to Ferrari, Modena, Stanguellini, and several other minor car builders. After the war, Ferrari decamped to nearby Maranello to rebuild its factory, but Enzo Ferrari and many of his workers still resided in Modena.
Prior to the war, manufacturers would go out on open roads to test their machines. Not a safe choice, but the roads were not yet full and top speeds were manageable. Race cars, in particular, were getting more powerful, and all agreed that they needed a dedicated place to test safely so as not to be a menace to the regular driving population.
The Modena Autodrome was at the edge of the city and not much to look at. It was surrounded by high walls to separate it from the adjacent multi-story apartment buildings. A few small, nondescript buildings dotted the property, including a simple garage and some larger hangars for housing aircraft. Finally, there was a small bleacher, similar to what you would find at a local high school field, to accommodate spectators when the occasional race was held.
The track itself was quite short, just 1.5 miles (2.4 km), and was rectangular in shape. Four corners had varying radii, and the high-speed flow was interrupted only by a chicane at the end of the main straightaway. Confoundingly, the apexes of the corners had foot-high walls at an acute angle that made staying on the track mandatory -- no clipping the apex here!
What made the Modena track so fascinating was not the races it hosted, but that it was where Italian titans Ferrari and Maserati both tested their race cars. The track was also put to use by Stanguellini, and it was available to others, so Mercedes-Benz was known to visit now and again as well as all of the smaller race car and motorcycle builders, including Bologna’s Ducati.
Modena was a city divided between the Houses of Il Tridente and Il Cavallo Rampante. The rivalry was palpable, and it was common knowledge that if one worked for either of the factories, they would never be offered employment at the other.
History recorded their many battles on the race tracks across Europe, but arguably the most important bragging right was to hold the track record at the Modena Autodrome. On the occasion of a newly set record, the word would spread like wildfire through the bars and cafes. It was never officially timed, but it counted all the same.
When a team was testing, the roar of the engines could be heard echoing throughout the city. Interested parties could head over to the track. From various taller buildings, one could watch the goings-on. It was a parade of the latest cars, with cutting-edge upgrades being tested by the best drivers.
Enzo Ferrari famously never attended races. He would make an annual pilgrimage to Monza on Saturday of the Italian Grand Prix weekend (and maybe a rare test), but other than that he was never seen trackside -- except in Modena.
He frequented the track because it was a mere two kilometers from his home. Mr. Ferrari would come out and watch the test of a new machine, his team of engineers hovering around the car with him standing over them.
In actuality, he was there more for the drivers than for the cars. You see, this is where a driver would be invited to visit to get their first opportunity to show their mettle for Enzo Ferrari. Without exception, every driver in the Ferrari stable would turn laps on the Modena track including Fangio, Moss, Ascari, Behra, Hawthorn, Farina, Hill, Ginther -- you name it, and they turned many a lap on the Modena circuit.
The Modena Autodrome was the host of annual races, however, they were typically second-rate. There was an annual Formula One and Formula Two race, but they were not part of the World Championship, and were more of an exhibition for the locals. The last one took place in 1961 and was won by Stirling Moss in a Lotus-Climax.
In the 1970s, Enzo Ferrari pushed for improvements at the track, mainly to make it safer for increasingly powerful race cars. He pressured the city and the local chapter of the Italian Automobile Club (ACI) to pay for the improvements. The proposal lost momentum, and it became clear that it would never come to fruition.
Mr. Ferrari took matters into his own hands and bought a parcel of land adjacent to his factory in Maranello. Thus the Fiorano Circuit was born, and was totally state-of-the-art, including closed-circuit TV that monitored on-track cars.
Eventually, Ferrari stopped using the track, and Maserati left the racing business. The loss of both anchor tenants led to the closure of the Autodromo in 1975. The land was subsequently turned into a city park, but one that celebrates the great car manufacturers. It is called the Parco Enzo Ferrari, and features trails that trace the route of the track, as well as statues and other monuments dedicated to the automotive greats. (Be sure to not confuse it with the new eponymous Autodromo di Modena, a more recent construction that has no relation to this historic location.)
By sharing a common proving ground, Ferrari and Maserati pushed each other forward. Their cars built in the 50s and 60s represent a Golden Age, and it was all pushed on by them being able to monitor each other’s progress in real-time. It was a small town. They tested in the open, so a constant feedback loop helped both organizations to benchmark their progress. The beneficiary of this? Those fortunate to have been able to watch the cars race in-period, as well as all of us who can admire them today!