They are also amazingly helpful. Case in point: In the 2004 Targa, Major-General (Ret.) Lewis Mackenzie, former head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia, had the transmission go south in his Dodge Neon SRT-4 in the town of Gander. (The Gander stage, a succession of 90-degree rights and lefts through a subdivision, is tough on gearboxes.) Calls went out; turns out there were only two SRT-4s on the entire island, one in Corner Brook, the other in St. John's, each about 200 miles away. Both SRT-4 owners were contacted. Both said, "Ye can have mine, b'y! No worries!" Turns out an ambulance was taking a patient back from St. John's to Gander that night. So the St. John's car was cannibalized, the tranny popped under the ambulance stretcher, and it was delivered to the hockey arena where the cars were parked overnight. General Mackenzie took the start the next morning.
I have had the pleasure of competing in every Targa Newfoundland so far. Year one I was co-driving for Doug Mepham in his lovely 1971 Volvo 142 and we made our Targa plate with ease. Year two was driving a BMW Canada-entered MINI Cooper S, which ran like Jack the Bear but suffered from a poor tire choice. One good solid pothole, and both right-side tires had their sidewalls pinched by the rims. So, two flats and one spare, but it didn't matter anyway since we didn't have any tire-changing equipment in the car. Hey, we were new at this thing. This also taught us that cool-looking 40-series Toyos are not what you want on roads for which the term "tarmac" is a gross overstatement. Think your grandfather's 1956 De Soto instead, and big tall sidewalls. The third year we had a brand-new Cooper S with the John Cooper Works Edition package, fettled by FourStar Motorsports in Georgetown, Ontario. This shop, run by perennial North American rally champions Frank and Dan Sprongl, is one of the top rally-prep shops in the game. Other competitors would come up to our car and marvel at the welding beads in the roll cage.
BMW Canada had chosen a Francophone race driver from Quebec as my navigator-makes sense from their perspective to get media coverage in both of the country's official languages. He got off the plane in St. John's wearing an anti-nausea patch behind his ear. Not a good sign. It turned out he's fine when he is driving. He was probably a faster driver than me too, but hey-this was my ride. He was finished by noon on day one, having done all but the very first stage with his head in a plastic bag. Fortunately, the Subaru team had a guy washing wheels for them who had been a four-time provincial rally navigating champion in nearby Nova Scotia. Brian Bourbonniere slotted into my passenger seat, and we finished third in class.
This year, Bourbonniere started-and finished-with me. Subaru had somehow convinced the organizers that a fully race-prepped, purpose-built rally car which had won the 2004 Canadian pro rally championship was somehow a production car, and it was therefore placed in the same class as our box-stock Cooper S JCW. No way could our 208-bhp front-drive econobox compete with a 500-bhp four-wheel-drive road rocket. So we looked at the Unlimited category where the Subes and the Frankenstein cars (old chassis with modern race engines stuffed in) should have been competing, and saw only two factory-entered Chrysler SRT-8s (one a Charger, driven by 300C/Magnum/Charger chief designer Ralph Gilles, the other a 300C with SRT manager Dan Knott behind the wheel), plus two hot Mustangs (one 450 bhp, the other a 600-plus supercharged car), and a new/old 1973 Datsun 510 which was fully race-prepped, but had never turned a wheel prior to this event. We figured we should have been able to beat at least two of those, and an Unlimited category podium finish would be a real coup for our little car. ("We have buoys in the harbor bigger than your car," said a local in Hollyrood.)
Neither Chrysler driver had ever driven in a rally before, although Gilles has lots of showroom-stock racing miles under his helmet. And both were being navigated by auto journalists who were also rookies, so we figured they'd be done by Wednesday. As it turned out, our little MINI was quickest in the category on day one, and was never headed. The Charger was especially fast, and Gilles is a fine helmsman. But he seemed to take more of a racer's attitude towards things, looking for tenths of a second rather than seeing the bigger picture.
Gilles started one in-town stage with what looked to be about a quarter tank of fuel. Not wanting to carry more weight than necessary, he declined his crew's offer to top up. The car ran out part-way through. The penalty for not completing a stage is 30 minutes, 1800 points in an event which was probably going to be decided by tens of points, maybe hundreds, tops. In an event like Targa, you always err on the side of caution. His rally was done. But that didn't stop him from exploring one of Newfoundland's rock-filled ditches the following day, after which the team put the battered car on the trailer.
Knott also had some issues, making a somewhat more leisurely visit to a ditch, but at least completing his run, finishing fourth in the category. Surely his most ignominious moment was having his 425-bhp, Hemi-V8-powered car passed in the Gander town stage by our little MINI. I sure wish our in-car camera hadn't run out of batteries.
"Our objective was to show the cars could be competitive," Knott told me. "We think we did that." The two Mustang teams had both run Targa before, but were plagued by various mechanical glitches. As Dr. Bob Pacione, owner of the silver GT put it, "I can't believe I'm gettin' pounded by a MINI!"The little Datsun was quick, but the father-and-son team of Bob and Chris Esseltine were driving for the plate, taking it easy on the car's first competitive adventure, a wise strategy, but the car suffered a terminal mechanical halfway through. So, our little MINI won the Unlimited category. Thus, a European car ruled. Don't they always?In fact, European cars dominated. Bill Arnold won the Classic division with one of those Frankenstein cars, a 1972 BMW Bavaria with an M3 motor under the hood. The BMW service garage owner from San Rafael, Calif., has never failed to win a category. He took Modern the first year with his road car (an M Coupe), while his Bavaria, built by him specifically for Targa, has three straight Classic wins. He was navigated this year by Alan Ryall of Georgetown, Ontario. Ernie Jakubowski and Bill Comat of Oakville, Ontario, took the Modern category in Jakubowski's 1981 Porsche 911. Brian Crockatt (Toronto, Ontario) and Gail Walker (Lonsdale, Ontario) won Grand Touring Equipped in a 1987 BMW 535i. The brotherly team of Mark (Halton Hills, Ontario) and Lawrence (Toronto) Hacking prevented a European sweep, taking Grand Touring Unequipped in a 2006 Mitsubishi Eclipse.
There were 85 cars in this year's Targa. Every participant has a dozen stories to tell; they're all going to be pissed off if they don't get mentioned here. We don't have the space. But they can, and will, tell their stories to everyone who will listen. And to many who would rather not. Come on out, run the rally, and get some stories of your own.