Palermo, Sicily — My grandfather grew up in Sicily, and I've been listening to his stories about watching the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia for years. I thought those legendary Gran Tourismo races had long ago gone the way of the dodo, but I thought wrong.
The Targa Florio, it turns out, has been resurrected. As with any corpse that's been disinterred after three decades underground, it's seen better days. But the new version celebrates the historic race with restored versions of the cars that made history at a time when the people in those grainy black and white race photos were still in their prime.
I knew that by hook or by crook, I had to go check it out. So with no real plan other than "go watch the race," I traveled to Sicily, hoping to link up with one of the teams (or anyone with a car, really). Here's what I found.
Like the Olympics, automotive endurance races have always been a proving ground for human advancement. They cover every level of competition from an engineer's careful planning of a cylinder head or track layout to split second decisions made by drivers in those many win-or-lose moments.
The first Targa Florio was held in Sicily in 1906 and by the '20s, had become Europe's most important Gran Tourismo race. The 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Mille Miglia were still brand new, and Grand Prix had yet to enter the limelight. The Targa Florio was a grueling test bed for automotive technology, and varied in length over the years (with the exception of the two world wars, when it wasn't run at all). But it was always a challenging slog through labyrinthine tangles of treacherous mountain roadway in Sicily's stark, stunning interior and along its lush Mediterranean coastline.
By the late '70s, the GT cars running the race had attained horsepower levels unimaginable when Sicily's mule cart roads were designed by Bourbon-era engineers. Safety became a major concern and the race was more or less shut down after a fatal crash in 1977, surviving in name only as part of a rally circuit.
But the 2012 Targa Florio, the second held since authorities pulled the plug on it in the '70s, turns back the clock. The old cars in the race are fast, but they're not 2012 fast. They even make different noises than today's cars. You know the sounds: the clatter of mechanical lifters; the raspy snarl of a pair of pipes sucking in cold air. The smell of unburned hydrocarbons lingering in the air as they buzz by.
Naturally, I showed up at the race on press registration day. It was held at the University of Palermo, on Sicily's north coast. As soon as I arrived, I knew I'd made the right decision in coming. Right at the front gate were a 1954 Maserati A6GCS and a 1957 Alfa Romeo 1900 C Super Sprint. All sexy curves and red-painted sheetmetal, these were cars which had etched their names into history decades before I was born. The din (and the fumes) of all 200 or so of the old cars starting up and revving their engines in preparation for the start is something only a true gearhead can appreciate, but that will make all others take notice.
I had no idea what I was doing, and since the press office lady didn't really seem to have anything to do with anything related to actual journalists, I was left to wander around and chat with wealthy car owners. Not much luck on that first go. The Italian guy who had his mother as co-pilot declined. Even 160 pounds of extra weight would make a difference in his 1100 cc Fiat. The Dutch couple driving the '57 Peugeot 403 were picking up friends along the course and didn't have extra space. I would have been more than willing to slide between the sisters van de Velde in their 1950 Healey Silvestone, but they weren't into it. Several people looked at me as if I'd just crawled out from behind a dumpster and asked them for spare change when I sauntered up to offer salutations.