Baroness Maria Antonietta Avanzo (born in Contarina Veneta, now Porto Viro, in the province of Rovigo on February 5th 1889) was the first and most famous female racecar driver in Italian history.
Over her twenty-year career, she was the first representative of the fairer sex to take part in numerous competitions such as the Mille Miglia – a challenge she took for a total of five times – the Indianapolis 500 and the Targa Florio.
Avanzo – who was born Bellan, but took her husband’s name when she married Baron Eustachio Avanzo in 1908 – had learned to drive when she was still a child, after “stealing” her father’s motorized tricycle. That small one-cylinder vehicle, manufactured by French carmaker De Dion-Bouton, marked the beginning of a great future (but was also her first accident: she hit a passerby, who luckily was not hurt).
Her first major race was the 1920 Giro del Lazio, where she earned an audacious victory despite having to stop for a flat tire. She then took part in the Targa Florio aboard a Buick, but had to quit after just three laps.
The 1920s were a decade full of events for Avanzo. In 1921, she won the women’s Cup of Brescia Motoring Week and, in July, drove a twelve-cylinder Packard in the 1-kilometer competition held on the island of Fano, Denmark: when her car caught fire during the race, she had the coolness to drive into the sea at full speed, to put out the fire and save her life.
Regarding that episode, Enzo Ferrari once told a curious story: after getting out of the car, and then out of the water, Avanzo asked to change her Packard with a Fiat. Shortly afterwards, Antonio Ascari granted her wish having a new car delivered at her door, in exchange for her Packard (which Ascari refurbished).
After about five years in Australia, where she established a farm, Avanzo returned to Europe in 1926. And she went back to competing in the Mille Miglia, Le Mans, Indianapolis… at the wheel of various cars – Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Bugatti and Chrysler.
Her last race we know of was the 1939 Tobruk-Tripoli, which replaced the Mille Miglia after it was suspended due to a tragic accident the year before; she placed sixth aboard a Fiat 1100 Sport.
At that point, Avanzo was a 50-year-old, liberated woman and mother of two. She had led an adventurous life in high society, meeting celebrities like D’Annunzio and Mascagni, Hemingway and Mussolini, Modigliani, Nuvolari, Ferrari and Anna Magnani.
She was not tired of driving, and she continued to do so along the streets of Rome for many years, although without competing. She died on January 17th 1977, at the age of eighty-eight.
You can find out more about her fascinating life by reading Malin’s “Indomita. La straordinaria vita di Maria Antonietta Avanzo” (Malin Communcation, Rovigo 2014).