Monza Racetrack - Cat Tales

Save Monza

Christmas morning, and while most Americans are opening presents with their kids, Angie and I are sprawled on the couch with the rat-dogs nursing the previous night's martini hangovers and watching SPEED TV. Though I'm disappointed there's no motorcycle programming, I'm pleased the network is airing Grand Prix, director John Frankenheimer's epic 1966 Academy Award-winning film staring James Garner as American Formula 1 driver Pete Aron. Yes, it's a car-racing flick, but the cinematography is so beautiful and the action sequences so breathtaking, I've got to watch. From running through the French countryside at Le Mans to speeding by the seaside at Zandvoort in Holland, here's roadracing as it used to be, at triple-digit speeds, with none of the silly chicanes that have turned the modern version into corner-to-corner drag races.

Of all the great moments in the film, however, the best is watching the racers circulate Monza in Italy. Known as the Cathedral of Speed, it was when it was built in 1922 the most advanced motor-racing circuit in the world, one 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) lap essentially consisting of two-one around the high-banked oval and another on the road course. Imagine Japan's Twin Ring Motegi with the twin rings linked together and you'll get the idea.

Given its 85-year history, Monza has been the site of some of the greatest moments in motor racing-as well as the darkest. In 1928, a collision in front of the main grandstand resulted in the death of racer Emilio Materassi and 27 spectators. In '61, Wolfgang von Trip crashed at the entrance to the Parabolica, losing his life and taking 11 fans with him. And in '73 motorcycle racers Jarno Saarinen and Renzo Pasolini both perished in a first-turn pileup during the Italian 250cc Grand Prix.

Following von Trip's accident, the banking was no longer used, subsequent races run on the road course only. (There's a lesson for Daytona there somewhere.) And by the early '70s Monza's high-speed straights and kinks were dotted with chicanes, reducing corner speeds. GP bikes stopped visiting there in '87, but the World Superbike circus has made an annual pilgrimage since '90, and last year the bikes broke 200 mph. Banking or no banking, that's fast!

As if all this drama wasn't enough, in the wake of F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna's death at Imola in '94, Monza was pressured to increase runoff, which required the removal of a number of trees. Seeing as how the circuit is located in a public park (it'd be like having a racetrack in New York's Central Park-now there's a concept!), this got the environmentalists in a tizzy. It was only by relocating the trees and planting others elsewhere that the changes went through.

Then last year the track came under fire from its neighbors over noise, a local judge threatening restrictions on unmuffled race engines. Fortunately the track survived that salvo, and for the moment only the disused portion of the banking outside the road course is being threatened, some locals feeling that land could be put to better use.

It seems ironic that as this was going down, MotoGP was taking a leaf from F1's books and calling for louder exhausts. Sure, the new four-strokes sound incredible, but they're deafening. During the two-stroke era, spectators could actually hear the announcers.

Some tracks get around the noise issue through clever negotiating. Laguna Seca, for example, limits itself to five "loud" events per year, works closely with the chamber of commerce to remind area businesses how much money the race fans bring in and donates a percentage of its proceeds to local charities. The rest of the year the track runs under noise restrictions so strict that stock sportbikes are sometimes ejected from track days.

I grew up on Long Island and watched Bridgehampton languish and die due to urban encroachment and noise. And then, after I moved to California, Ontario, Riverside and Carlsbad all met the same fate. Now I look at the houses sprouting up near Willow Springs-the track that really was built in the middle of nowhere-and wonder how long it will be before the residents start complaining.

If it can happen at Monza, it can happen anywhere.

To sign the Save Monza petition, log onto www.motor