To “prance” is to “rise by springing from the hind legs”, according to the OED. To Italians, its present participle is commonly associated with Ferrari: a woman gave a prancing horse to Enzo Ferrari as an “amulet” in loving memory of her son Francesco Baracca, an aviator who had died during the First World War and who kept this amulet is his cockpit at all times.
“The prancing horse of Maranello has little to do with this story, it plays a minor role: prancing on uphill roads in climb hill races was Odoardo Govoni, nicknamed Dino, a true crazy horse who succeeded with many cars during his thirty years long career.”
Dino also cherished Maseratis and the trident they bear on their bonnet (a brand they derived from the statue of Neptune in Bologna, where the company was born). Dino was born in Cento, not far from Bologna itself, in the middle of what Italians call the “motor-valley”, the stretch of land enclosed by Ferrara, Modena, and Bologna.
Odoardo Govoni took part in his first races in 1954 with a normal Fiat 1100 TV, his family’s car, and in a few laps he proved he had talent; quickly he quickly moved on to an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint, the sports car for young emerging drivers, and confirmed that he had what it takes to be a racer ― he was a true “corridore”, as they used to say in Italy.
“Dino wasn’t a gentleman driver, as we’d say nowadays.”
No, he was different: fast, “sensitive”, able to understand each car he was driving, with an extemporary driving style during the few minutes that passed between the beginning and the end of the hill climb races.
Dino needed a more performing car; by the end of the ’50s you could still knock at Maserati’s and ask to buy a race car as a privateer. He went twice: the first time he bought an A6GCS, not a new model but still fast enough to win many races and conclude the 1957 “1000 Miglia” (the last edition) well placed.
With that red two-seater sports car, he had the chance to beat Luigi Musso (Ferrari’s driver) for the opening race of the brand new Rome racetrack, in Vallelunga.
Such an incredible victory: a young driver without the official works team beat the experienced Luigi Musso racing on one of the latest Ferraris with an old Maserati.
He didn’t miss the chance to win a race, but he was increasingly competing against cars what better developed and more powerful engines: his A6GCS was outdated, and he needed a new car.
So Govoni returned to via Ciro Menotti (Maserati’s headquarters), asking for a new and more powerful sports car. There was the last model, so-called “bird-cage” because of its chassis full of knotty tubes: a few weeks earlier the car had been tested by Stirling Moss, Maserati’s official race-driver who won the debut race; but after that, the project had stalled. The company used to work in that way, Dino explains:
“Mr. Alfieri, was a brilliant engineer: but once they finished their new models, they did the shake-down ― in this case, Moss was enthusiastic ― but they didn’t have a planned race program. They just parked the cars in the factory.”
These racing models didn’t take advantage of this opportunity, perhaps for economic reasons, or perhaps because the management did not think racing cars’ popularity would have had an impact on streetcar sales.
After a long wait, on a Friday morning (race were on Sundays), Dino finally received a Birdcage for the debut on hill-climbs; Maserati was not really taking a risk: the driver would have been to blame if he lost, whereas it would have been a success for the car company if he won. Dino ended the Pontedecimo-Giovi in the first position that day; this time, too, in front of a Ferrari.
That victory shocked everybody and made Dino Govoni even more famous than before: a young man from a good family, who enjoyed life and won races. Lots of them.
Dino and his Maserati were often mentioned during the weekly newscast transmitted at the cinema before the Italian TV Quiz “Lascia o Raddoppia”. Actually, as Dino still says humbly, Ferraris were certainly more powerful but the chassis of the Maserati was unbeatable, which is why they won so often.
However, the driver was responsible for those victories. Enzo Ferrari was well aware of that; Unlike Omer Orsi (the owner of Maserati), he truly believed in the power of motorsports. So he invited Dino for a meeting where he asked him to be his driver, which understandably pleased Dino very much; the two parted with the purpose of planning the racing season together soon.
A few weeks later the phone finally rang at Govoni’s firm; someone answered and quickly ran to the second floor looking for Dino:
“Mr. Govoni, Ferrari on the phone! Dino, who was in the bathroom, hurriedly said: “OK, tell him to wait a moment” ― an answer that still baffles him to this day, although he himself gave it.
A dream had come true, but the phone call had come in the wrong moment and he had given Ferrari the worst possible answer. Maybe he thought the deal was already done; but Enzo Ferrari had a really bad temper and did not appreciate that answer at all, so he hung up. Many years later, Govoni found out that an angry Ferrari had screamed:
“Govoni will have nothing to do with us, ever!”
Curious rather than resentful, the 88-year-old Dino still wonders how his life would have changed if only he had called back if he would have become an official Ferrari race-driver. In the end, he didn’t call back just because he didn’t want to disturb Mr. Ferrari; he wasn’t being difficult.
Dino’s life went on; he had his job (he owned a furnace) and his races. He lost Ferrari, but he received many offers: the World F1 Champion Juan Manuel Fangio wanted him in Argentina for the Temporada. He went but he missed his little town too much, so quickly came home.
So he raced on the De Sanctis Formula Junior, the Bandini Sport, the Lotus Formula 3, the Cooper Formula Junior, the new 5300 GT Strada designed by Ingegner Bizzarrini, and Karl Abarth wanted him on his car to race the Trento-Bondone: even in this last case, the relationship with the boss was not “peaceful.”
A poker match the night before the race finished too late and he could not be bothered to wake up at 4 am to test the track, as the Austrian Mr. Abarth had ordered. A disaster.
Karl Abarth was so upset with Govoni that he ordered his mechanics to replace the 2 liters engine of his car with a smaller 1 liter; but despite this, to add insult to injury, Dino ended in 2nd place overall just a couple of seconds behind the Porsche, 2000.
With the right engine, he would have won hands down. For sure. Abarth was furious at himself for being too spiteful; Dino wasn’t: he had already won the Trento-Bondone hillclimb quite a few times.
“He lost one race, and then went on to win others: such a crazy horse!”
Dino even tasted the Formula 1 a few times, but work was his main priority, and racing in the maximum category would have been too demanding for him.
So, in the mid-1960s he decided to stop racing until, a few years later, he came across a brand new De Tomaso Pantera, the last car created in Modena which kindled an ancient flame in his soul: he wanted to race, everywhere, as long as it was racing.
Powerful but heavy, that Pantera was so different from his past Maseratis: with that car of modern conception he achieved good results not only on track but even on hill-climbs.
“With a De Tomaso Pantera GTS, Dino ended the 1974 edition of the Giro d’Italia in 3rd position overall”
During the 70’s Dino used both the Italian GT and a Porsche 911 ST, a loyal companion in every situation as the great Giro d’Italia, a competition which merged races on track with special stages on closed roads: it was something particularly suitable for the skills of the eclectic Odoardo Govoni.
He took part in many editions of the Targa Florio, so raced the European and World Makes Championship with the Lancia LC1 and ― finally ― with the coveted Ferrari, a 512BB Le Mans, used in the early ’80s. He drove this car at the “1000km di Monza” in 1982, the last race of his career as a professional driver.
After thirty years to the fore, 7 Italian championships, 1 European championship (though others were revoked, and it was never quite clear why – perhaps payback from Ferrari), tens of overall victories and many records were broken, Dino, a true driver at heart, still conveys his passion and his experience. He has “driven” his life as he drove his cars, prancing with grit up to finish line ― albeit horseless.