"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."
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.