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Kristin Armstrong on Car Racing in Europe and Finding the Joy in Being Both Rugged and Refined

"Sometimes it is about finding the beauty in the grit... the shining moment in the mess or chaos"

Kristin Armstrong – large photo

After a disappointing ending to our 2022 Mille Miglia vintage car race (our car broke down on the final day!), we returned to Italy this summer for another try. Not many people know about the Mille Miglia, unless you happen to be Italian or a vintage car aficionado. The race started in 1927 and spans over 1,000 miles all over Italy on an open road course.

This means driving at top speed through major cities and tiny cobblestoned villages, often threading the needle in an imaginary narrow “third lane” through the center line. Tiny race cars weave and vie for placement between large trucks, cyclists and little old nonnas tugging shopping trolleys in crosswalks. Vintage Alpha Romeos, gullwing Mercedes, Porsche speedsters, Ferraris and other magnificent creations all log jam at roundabouts, trying to cut the traffic lines and each other, with ensuing honking, fist shaking and the fanfare of gathered spectators.

Last year I had naïve, misconstrued ideas of being glamorous in a convertible and tooling romantically with my beloved around the Italian countryside. The reality and rigors quickly cured me of that. This year Mark and I knew to expect long, grueling, sweaty days; little sleep; runny scrambled eggs at bad hotel breakfast buffets and, most of all, to expect the unexpected. And we got that.

We had intense heat again. We had a broken convertible top held together with a zip tie during a slanting rainstorm, two flat tires, a night of no headlights blindly following the car in front of us or holding a flashlight and a mishap regarding diesel fuel in an unleaded tank. Not good. But our sassy little blue and white 1956 Austin Healey was as badass as she was beautiful, complete with vintage Texas plates on the back.

We were undeterred by sweat-soaked backsides, 15 hours of driving in a day, sooty-grimy faces and fingernails, perilous mountain switchbacks, hotels with no hot water left, late nights and early mornings. We knew to savor certain moments — the gorgeous sunsets over Tuscan vineyard-lined hillsides that looked like painted tapestries, the cold beer at the end of a long-ass day, the smell of blooming jasmine along the route, the contrast of brightly colored cars set against ancient stone walls and arches and the brief interludes of calm to hold hands between shifting gears.

We wore headsets this year, so I didn’t have to scream directions at him as his navigator. In addition to calling out every upcoming turn (“In 2K at the next roundabout, you will take the third exit towards nine o’clock,” etc.) we also made a point to call out other notable things such as, “Beauty alert! Stunner valley to your right.” We made a point to notice and savor, not just endure.

Kristin Armstrong Column September 2023

We got to drive around the Colosseum in Rome at night, watched the lights of the Duomo flicker on at sunset in Milan, and line up on the red carpet of cars in the piazza in Siena. Best of all, we got to cross the finish line in Brescia, our friends springing out of the crowds to hand us two aperol spritzes to toast to our completion. Then we got our medals, a boxed trophy of local wine and were sprayed with Champagne by our fabulous teammates. The ride, and our redemption, were very sweet.

Afterwards, we headed to Lake Garda for a few days of relaxation in a gorgeous castle estate converted to a boutique hotel. I traded in my dirty race polos and ball caps, and opened my compression packing zip bag full of dresses, which exploded with color and femininity. We sat by the pool, had dinners by the water, joined friends for a day on a Riva yacht, and had champagne breakfast on the patio. I slow-danced with my co-driver, my lover, my best friend, my soon-to-be husband, on the empty upstairs terrace at night under a disco ball of stars.

Decadence and fashion are lovely, don’t get me wrong. I was so happy to be surrounded by the timeless sophistication of Italian architecture and the elegance of well-dressed European couples. But I also realized something else about fashion — just like love, it isn’t just about what is pretty. Sometimes it is about finding the beauty in the grit, about the contrast between the rugged and the refined, the old and the new, the work and the pleasure, the softness and the strength, the shining moment in the mess or chaos. It’s about the specific balance that makes you feel authentic and beautiful. It’s about first fully inhabiting yourself — and then getting dressed to go live your adventure.

About Kristin Armstrong

Kristin Armstrong is the author of eight books including: Happily Ever After, Strength for the ClimbWork in Progress:  An Unfinished Woman’s Guide to Grace, Heart of my Heart, Mile Markers: The 26.2 Most Important Reasons Why Women RunTies that Bind and YES.  She is a regular columnist for Tribeza magazine and a regular contributor to Living Faith.  Her freelance work has appeared in publications such as USA TodayGlamour, O – The Oprah Magazine, ParentsThe Huffington Post, and the Austin American-Statesman.   Her work has led to appearances on Oprah, The Rachel Ray Show, NPR, Good Morning America and The Today Show.  Kristin went back to school alongside her kids and got a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health and started her own company, Kristin Armstrong Consulting, where she specializes in helping people through life transition zones in career, relationships, parenting, and purpose.  Her happy place is helping people find theirs.

Kristin has three amazing grown children and feathers a never-empty-nest in Austin, Texas and Santa Barbara, California.