"OK, Mr. Mayor-here's the plan:
"We'll race 100 cars, one at a time, 30 seconds apart, starting on Main Street in front of the library. They'll race past city hall, turn right into the mall, by the Piggly-Wiggly, then exit out the back and into the Fernwood Palisades subdivision. Coming out onto Sloughham Road, they'll zip back into town on Main Street South and screech to a stop in the courthouse parking lot. We'll put up TWO thicknesses of 'Police Line-Do Not Cross' yellow tape along the entire route, so everyone will be really safe.
That plan would get you turfed out of any municipal office on the continent. Except in Newfoundland, where it pretty much describes the Targa Newfoundland, a five-day, high-performance rally for vintage and modern cars which completed its fourth iteration last September. Yes, my friends, they not only did it once, they're doing it every year. Targa Newfoundland is patterned after Targa Tasmania, which as you read this will be prepping for its fifteenth annual run. Your humble servant and Belleville, Ontario-based PR consultant Doug Mepham ran "Tas" in 2001, and marvelled not only at the event itself, but at how you'd never be allowed to do something like it in North America.What? Race on public roads? The lawyers would kill you before you began.
Then we started thinking: If you had an Island, like Tasmania, where you could sort of keep control of things; a welcoming population like the Tasmanians; and a place that could use some tourism dollars- well, Targa Newfoundland!Mepham sent the story I wrote on Tas to a friend who used to run Formula Atlantic races through the streets of St. John's, Newfoundland's capital city. He took it to the premier of the province-there are only 500,000 people in the entire province and they all know each other-and he said if it can raise some money for the locals and give them some entertainment, why not? You gotta love this place.
There are actually two events going on simultaneously at Targa Newfoundland. The Grand Touring Division is basically a time-and-distance rally, and can be run by any street-legal car. Cars can run "equipped" with rally computers, or "unequipped"-just you, your calculator, and whatever you can remember from Mrs. Peeble's ninth grade math class.
The Targa Division is the high-speed event, and requires that the cars be fully race-safe, with cages, five-point harnesses, helmets, the whole nine, er, meters (Canada is metric, dontcha know). Like most performance rallies, Targa is divided into high-speed stages (about 530 km), and obey-the-law transits (1,700 km). The cars are grouped into classes based on age, performance potential and degree of modification. These classes are further grouped into categories: Classic (1976 and older), Modern (1977 and newer) and Unlimited (the name says it all).
But unlike most performance rallies, it isn't necessarily fastest-wins. Each stage is given a base time, as fast as the organizers think is humanly possible. Think Petter Solberg in a WRC Subaru. Then a handicap factor is applied for each class. If the base time is, say, 5:00 minutes, a modern stock 2.0-liter car might be given 7:00 minutes to complete the stage, and a 1965 MG B maybe 8:30. The idea is to beat the base time for your class. Do that and you score zero penalty points for that stage. Each second over costs you a point; the fewest points at the end of the week wins the class. Lowest class points within a category means you also get a big trophy. Officially, anyway, there is no overall champion. But the competitors view the car that scores fewest points overall as the Big Dog.
There is another time set for each stage and class, about 30% longer than the base time. Meet or beat your class's so-called "Targa time" for every one of the 40 timed stages and you win a "Targa plate"-something of a redundancy, since targa is Italian for plate. This is you and your car against the task, not necessarily against your competitors. Many teams, especially smarter novices, look at this as their goal for the week. Winning a Targa plate is a reward for consistency, reliability and brainpower, over impetuosity and false bravado.
Bob Giannou is the sweet-talking charmer who took the germ of an idea and turned it into the most amazing motorsport event you have ever imagined, let alone one you can actually run. It truly is the most fun you can have in a car with your clothes on. But safety really is paramount in his mind, and every year he tries to warn drivers that Newfoundland roads can be tricky. "In Newfoundland," he says, a trace of Newfie-Irish lilt in his voice (his French name be damned), "the ditches are where we keep the rocks. You don't want to be visitin' there."
At Leading Tickles, a perfect example of Newfoundland's colorful place names, the locals prepared a lunch featuring moose stew, moose soup, moose chili and mooseburgers. One brave "comefromaway," as Newfoundlanders call visitors, gingerly tasting this delicacy for the first time, commented, "Moose on your plate is a lot better than moose on your car."
Newfoundland is Canada's youngest province, having joined only in 1949. The largely Irish-descended population has survived on fishing and "the pogey'' (unemployment insurance) for much of its history. With the collapse of the cod stocks a few years ago, Newfoundland is now banking on off-shore oil and a slowly developing high-tech industrial sector to re-make itself. Newfies are also, inexplicably, the butt of the sort of ethnic minority jokes that afflict many other parts of the world. (Did you hear about the Newfie who got a pair of water skis for Christmas and spent all summer looking for a lake with a hill in it?) I say inexplicably because Newfies are the warmest, friendliest, funniest, and most giving people it has ever been my pleasure to know.
How do they react to having their local transportation infrastructure devastated for hours at a time? A handful complain; the vast majority love it. They stand on the side of the road to wave at us as we speed by. They turn out by the thousands to see the cars in the parc fermes at the end of each day. It isn't just that they're so happy to see someone they aren't related to. They will likely never get to see cars like these ever again, certainly not all at once, all in one place. As Giannou put it, "They give us their roads, we give them a show."