On the first Sunday in August we headed off once again to Atina. We arrived to find Atina’s Piazza Garibaldi decked out with colourful banners and fluttering flags and thronged with groups of spectators. There was a carnival atmosphere as the specially erected sound system piped out loud Italian pop music. The towns’ cafes were full to bursting, as during August the population of this mountain town swells as emigrants return to holiday back in their beloved hometown. The onlookers were further augmented by folk from several of the neighbouring towns.
This was the day of the annual Go Cart Race or “Gara di Carrozze a Cuscinetti a Sfera.” The race is named the “Gran Premio Dell’ Arco” and this was the 7th successive year of this fascinating spectacle, but it was to be the first time we have actually witnessed it ourselves.
The course runs for a length of approximately 2.5 kilometres, starting from the main archway at the entrance of the old Centro Storico in Atina Superiore, and winds its way down to Atina Inferiore / Ponte Melfa on the valley floor below.
For a year, in the cellars of Atina these wonderful contraptions are passionately constructed and tinkered with. The carts, instead of having conventional wheels, run on ball bearings. The rules of the race state that each cart can be built with a maximum of 5 large or small steel bearings (known technically as ball races). The carts are not powered, gravity being the only method of propulsion, and none appeared to be fitted with breaks. Some are simply steered by the pilots feet, some have more sophisticated rigid steering mechanisms such as steering wheels or handlebars. Some competitors fabricate weird and wonderful designs, we saw one made to resemble a pirate’s treasure chest and another in the shape of a typical Ciociara shoe.
This year 3 members of our family were to take part, with three different vehicles: Cousin Mario and his two sons Giuseppe and Simone. We finally caught sight of Mario, who was sporting his florescent fireman’s suit (he works as a Fireman at a local military munitions site). He was taking the final checks and adjustments on his cart very seriously.
From early that morning the Time Trials had been carried out to determine each driver’s starating position on the grid. Then during the afternoon the actual races began. There seemed to be 3 different age categories: Juniors, The Main Age Group, and the Over 50’s. As each set of carts prepared for the off we could see that some of the crash helmeted pilots had adopted a sitting position, some preferred to lie flat, while some mad caps had chosen to go head first …. into the abyss. The only general concession to safety seemed to be a line of straw bales lining the initial curve in the piazza.
The tension continued to augment as the sound system pumped out loud, stirring fan-fare music. The jovial commentator yelled into his microphone and prepared for the final countdown ……….
Cinque ……… Quattro ……… Tre ……… Due ……… Uno ……… “Goh” !!!!!!
Whistles blew and ahead of the carts sped a red Ferrari and numerous motor bikes all noisily beeping their horns. As the competitors started their descent from the archway, almost immediately they had to negotiate the first tight bend which loops round a full 180 degrees before careering on downhill. During the descent there are several more hairpin bends to circumvent, the sharpest being located by the statue of Padre Pio. A video screen had been set up in the main square so spectators could follow the progress of the race at various stages along the route.
Not all the carts managed to make it to the finishing line, including Mario’s, when literally 400 metres from the finishing line the inner and outer parts of one of his bearings parted company, causing him to lose “one wheel off his wagon“, so he failed to reach the chequered flag. Miraculously there were no competitors seriously injured along the way, just a few seriously uncomfortable grazes, not to mention those who suffered a little dented pride.
Then began the race debriefing as Mario examined his broken bearing, while other family members began to put in their oar, and criticise his cart’s overall design, resulting in a very heated discussion with animated gesticulations.
Sadly, I feel that this type of event would probably never have been allowed to take place in the litigation crazy Great Britain, due to the local authorities’ fear of being sued. Yet here in Italy it was a wonderful community event, with everybody, of every generation taking part in a spirit of friendly rivalry and fun.
Visit the Atina Blog site, created by cousin Mario’s son, Giuseppe Massa) to see a map of the race’s course and video clips of the 2007 Race.
Follow this link for Photos of the 2008 Race.
The town of Atina becomes alive in the summer when it also hosts its annual international 4 day Jazz Festival during the last week of July, when celebrities from all over the world come to perform. This event has been running since 1986.
Also in August there is the Notte Bianca. This phenomena was initiated in the larger cities of Rome and Naples, but is replicated in many other towns in Italy and now even in Europe. It is a night of celebration, music, culture and food, when no-one sleeps as revellers party all night long.