Sylvia Oberti
courtesy of Sylvia Oberti

That Thing That She Does: Race-car driver, cancer activist, disability analyst

In 1996, five of Sylvia Oberti’s friends, ranging in age from 35 to 44, were diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was frustrated and had no idea what to do,” writes Oberti, “so I embarked on a ‘mad as hell’ journey.” The 48-year-old American had already distinguished herself as the first woman to solo and finish Italy’s Mille Miglia, a 1000-mile vintage auto race. (She has also raced in Japan, Argentina, France and the United States.) She’s since turned her driving hobby into a driving crusade against cancer, raising more than $500,000 in direct donations to hospitals and cancer research organizations (she asks people to donate directly to their favorite cancer hospital). Using her celebrity racing profile and access to the press, she spreads an important message about cancer: Early detection and treatment save lives.

To commemorate those who have fought cancer, Oberti has worn her bright red “suit of names” in seven races. The suit contains some deeply personal stories. “My friend Gail Wagner and her daughters lost their husband and father suddenly to brain cancer last year. Gail had always been supportive of my efforts, and then it happened to her. She informed me of this by starting a message to me with the words: “Sylvia, could you please add Michael’s name to your suit?” He was young, and it devastated everyone,” Oberti writes. “My heart cannot heal the pain of so many, but my effort is just an attempt to put honor in the place of loss whenever we can.”

This past January, Oberti took a two-year sabbatical from her Oakland, California–based practice as a disability analyst working with victims of traumatic experiences. She moved to Florence, where she is studying Italian, learning digital filmmaking, and preparing for May’s Mille Miglia. She accomplishes all this, generally, with no sponsor. She donates most of her time and expenses and gives all of the funds raised to hospitals, clinics and cancer research/education facilities (though American Express, in 1996, picked up $5,000 of the total $25,000 race costs). Her most celebrated supporter, though, is Pope John Paul II, who met with Oberti after she faxed the Vatican about her cancer-education plan. “He embraced me and said, ‘One person has the ability to change the world.’ It still sends chills up and down my spine,” writes Oberti. “There is a photo of us nose to nose, which every Italian thinks is pretty incredible.”

Word from Sylvia

What’s next? The Mille Miglia 1000-mile marathon race on May 17-19, 2001, where I will raise money for a regional hospital that has several units that assist children and their families with cancer diagnosis, treatment, housing, and even a camp for the children. I am in the midst of organizing the fundraiser. I am arranging to bring the race car to the hospital for patients and family to see while we distribute our hats and other mementos to the children. My hope is that people will get a medical exam following the Mille Miglia.

The second part of the project is to continue to honor the lives of the truly brave and courageous people who have fought or who are fighting cancer. This has been an ongoing project since 1997, where names of individuals from over 17 countries are written on the red race suit. Thus far, approximately 2,000 names have been added. It gives friends and family the opportunity to think again of the bravery of their loved ones. I have worn the “suit of names” in seven races in several countries and will once again wear it in the Mille Miglia. Some day we hope to auction it to raise additional money for a hospital or worthwhile organization. It may be just cloth, but it has an amazing spirit and an awesome power that is felt when racing.

Should anyone wish to have a name added before I embark on the next race, just write the full name of the person and the country or U.S. state where the person is from. You can send the name in an email or mail the information to Sylvia Oberti; Corso dei Tintori, 13; 50122 Florence, Italy.

How She Shakes Off a Bad Day: After 48 years, you would think I’d have this one down, but it is always a tough one. The truth is that if it’s a really bad day, I wallow in it and stay in bed for a longer time than usual, and then I take action. First, I visualize my favorite peaceful place. Then I visualize children playing with pure joy and when I can almost hear their giggles, the journey out of the rut is near. Second, I eat chocolate — anything chocolate. Third, I drive in rain or shine with the wind in my face. It is a fantastic feeling to drive a car exposed to the rain, although other drivers do give you looks that are surely meant to say “You are crazy!” But I feel alive and free! What bad day?

Her Favorite Way to Travel: Is this a trick question? I love to travel solo and take all the time I want to do nothing or everything. In Paris, I first experienced “suspended time” when stopping to watch a painter on an early misty morning on the banks of the river. I was on my way to the Louvre and decided to stop for just a moment. I stood quietly watching the painter, and in a short period I anticipated his next brush stroke and guessed the color he would choose. It was fascinating! When I was ready to move on, I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see that over an hour had passed. NEVER would I have experienced “suspended time” when traveling with friends because of the need to speak or stay on a schedule. I do love to see friends along the way when traveling, but I enjoy savoring long periods on my own.

Modes of transportation I most enjoy: slow boats; fast cars; trains that wind up the Alps; and one foot in front of the other!

Coordinates: Italy

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