During that race, Swaters became acquainted with Luigi Chinetti, an established Italian driver in a Ferrari 166 (he won the Spa 24 in 1933 and 1949). As Chinetti passed him, Swaters noticed the roar of the V12 engine, the five-speed gearbox and the look of the new line of cars. Swaters discovered Ferrari for the first time.
“I’m going to drive one of those cars before I die,” Swaters told himself.
Soon, with friends André Pilette, Charles de Tornaco and Roger Laurent, Swaters formed a racing team called Ecurie Belgique.
Swaters later purchased a Talbot-Lago Grand Prix car and continued entering races in 1949, ’50 and ’51. In 1953, he finally ordered his first Ferrari – a Formula 2 Ferrari 500 (Ferrari500F2) – to race in the Grand Prix des Frontières in Chimay, Belgium.
Swaters’ First Ferrari
Swaters traveled to the Ferrari factory in Italy, met Girolamo Gardini – Enzo Ferrari’s assistant – for the first time and waited for his car to be finished. It was being customized and mechanically adjusted for racing while also painted yellow, the official color of Belgium. After three days of waiting, the car was ready to go on a Friday evening. The race Swaters entered was scheduled to take place on that Sunday, and it was too late to load the car into a truck to travel to Belgium.
Young and naïve, Swaters jumped into the driver’s seat and drove the car to Belgium. But driving a race car on the road was not easy. The car had no lights, plates, wipers or insurance. Luckily, the car ran on commercial fuel and Swaters was able to easily fill up the gas tank.
Swaters left Modena, Italy, passed through Milan by night and arrived at the border where the Italian customs officers shouted “Forza Ferrari!” meaning they thought that Ferrari was the fastest and strongest car. Swaters was able to pass through customs to France with the promise he would perform well.
Swaters traveled through all of France in a day and as he approached the Belgium border, he realized the barrier to cross into Belgium was closed. However, the gate was high and Swaters was able to pass underneath the border, finally arriving in Belgium. The journey to the circuit GP des Frontieres located in Chimay, Belgium was more than 1000 kilometers or 500 miles.
Because of this adventure, Enzo Ferrari would always say, “Here in Modena, we have a lot of crazy people, but this one is the craziest of all!”
Over the next 9 years, Swaters raced more than 50 times. He retired from racing in 1957 but competed in two more races between 1957 and 1962, officially ending his racing days 14 years later.
He recalls his greatest victory – in 1953 at the Grand Prix de Berlin. It was the first victory of any Belgian in the Grand Prix de Berlin after World War II during which Swaters participated in the resistance movement against the German. When Swaters won, he stood on a podium at attention in front of 100,000 Germans and listened to the Belgian national anthem.
In 1953, a tragedy took the life of de Tornaco, who was practicing for the Modena Grand Prix when his Ferrari crashed. He suffered head and neck injuries and died on the way to the hospital at age 25.
Swaters learned of the accident from Gardini and has always been haunted by the fact that he was in Belgium at the time and not with his friend in Italy. It was Swaters who informed de Tornaco’s parents of their son’s death.
“It is a horrible memory for me,” Swaters said. “I still do not wish to talk about it.
“It was very hard to continue without him but I had to continue what we began together, and continue on his legacy.”
The Les 24 Heures du Mans and the Grand Prix of Sweden in 1957 were Swaters’ last competitions as a driver before retiring.
“The garage and our team were so successful that I was just too busy to personally compete anymore,” Swaters said. “I was ready at that time to devote all of my time to those.”