Palermo, Sicily — The Targa Florio was one of the world's first car races, and even though it took a nap for a few decades, it's back. Only now, little old ladies and white haired old men can compete in cars that were racing the course when they were young.
Every legendary marque from Ferrari and Maserati to Aston Martin and Jaguar was represented at the 2012 Targa Florio, a resurrection of the event that gained fame a century ago as one of Europe's most important endurance races. But the victor of the grueling, 700-mile trek through California-esque twisties was a modest Fiat 1100/103E. It's something like a souped-up Datsun 510, and this particular car's crew had everyone smiling.
The No. 103 Fiat's driver, Giordano Mozzi, had his mother, Irene Guarnieri, behind him the whole way. But not from the sidelines; she was his co-pilot.
It goes without saying that Mozzi's mom is a typical sweet little Italian mamma with big glasses and a kindly smile, and looked like she was going to pop out of the car with a bowl of pasta and some biscotti for everyone, or make us all go to mass on Sunday or something. She didn't do any of that, but but as their big win proved, she was a hell of a navigator for her boy.
Many people may not realize this, but the second position in a race like the Targa Florio is of utmost importance. Without someone calling out the directions in a mapbook the size of an Italian municipal regulations register (which is to say, huge), most drivers would get hopelessly lost in Sicily's labyrinthine tangle of roundabouts and curvy mountain tracks.
The actual Targa Florio ran from 1906 until the late '70s, and is one of the world's oldest races, even if hasn't retained the importance of competitions like 24 Hours of Le Mans. But the tribute event turned out to be a good way for classic car owners whose cars once raced the famous course (before they were born) to show what they're made of once again.
This year's race left Palermo on Thursday afternoon for its official start in the mountains outside of the Sicilian capital, winding down into the interior toward Donnafugata, the castle that served as a backdrop for Il Gattopardo (the Leopard), Giusseppe di Lampedusa's classic tale of Sicily's Bourbon nobles.
The next day, racers pushed through to Syracuse, and up the coast to a 19th century resort town called Toarmina, turning back into the interior the next morning for some more technical mountain driving. By the middle of the third day, drivers were headed toward the island's north coast for the final stretch.
Luckily, most of the race enjoyed a police escort — national police driving 3-series BMW sport wagons. Italians cops seem to like driving fast (and in all honesty, the Bimmers could probably blow the doors off of a lot of the older cars), so delays weren't too much of a problem.
Porsche 356 Speedsters, Maserati A6GCSs, Bugatti Type 44s, and everything in between made the trek, which was punctuated by the tedium of time control stops at specific intervals. But forget about Ferraris, Maseratis, and Porsches. The top five finishes were made in Mozzi's Fiat, a '53 Jaguar XK 120, a '54 Triumph TR2, a '34Fiat 508, and a '75 BMW 2002 Tii.
But as far as knowing when to drive fast and when to drive slow, mother knows best, and Mozzi apparently listened to his (or ate a lot of her meatballs to gain strength for the long drive). That's gotta be how he beat a bunch of Ferraris in a little Fiat sedan.
Gone are the days when drivers like Mario and Franco Bornigia manhandled an Alfa Romeo 8C 2500 through the island tour in 1950, finishing in 12:26:33.00 and averaging speeds of nearly 54 mph (if you saw how treacherous some of these roads are, you'd understand that this is very fast). They set the record that year, and although no one broke it last weekend, some of the same cars that competed in 1950 were on the roster.
The simplicity of the cars and the smoky pall of unburned hydrocarbons were a constant reminder of how much has changed in motorsports over the years. But one thing hasn't changed, and that's that Targa Florio is a great course; mamma-approved.
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston