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.
Luckily, I met Benno Heer, a Kaiser Partner HR guy who was driving Fritz Kaiser's support car. Not only was Fritz Kaiser's company one of the major sponsors of the race (their name was plastered on the side of every car), but it just so happened that he had one of the most beautiful, and rarest cars known to man: a 1955 Lancia Aurelia Spyder America. According to Kaiser, it's one of only about 150 left on the planet. Lancia didn't make too many to begin with, then, allegedly, a shipment of them sank with the Andrea Doria, the Genovese liner that went down off the coast of Nantucket in 1956.
But there it was, in all its curvy red, dual-Webered glory; a real Aurelia Spyder. Heer and I followed it in a new Volvo V60 turbo diesel which, in all honesty is probably a much faster (and safer) car. But the sound that thing made was incredible. Whichever Italian genius was in charge of designing the exhaust system (the tubo di scappamento, if you will) must have been a fan of opera, because those two pipes sounded like a pair of sopranos singing an aria at Palermo's Teatro Massimo.
There's something about these vintage car races to which I've already alluded. The people who do them are, for the most part, fabulously wealthy. That's not much of a departure from the days when Vincenzo Florio and his cohort of princes and noblemen tried out the first race cars on the original course. From a journalist's perspective what that means is that if the rich guys don't offer to foot your bill, finding an affordable hotel at the blingy stage stops can be a problem.
Sorry, but this reporter cannot afford to lay his weary bones in a five-star in resort towns that have been playing host to Italian nobility since before Italy was Italy (this part used to be called the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies). Hell, even the cheaper hotels are out of reach. The last time I stayed in Taormina, I booked a room at the Jolly Hotel in Catania, an hour's drive to the south.
So I did what any resourceful lad would do. I put my computer in a plastic bag and slept under the stars like a hobo. Skillfully avoiding the probing questions of people who wanted to know which hotel I was staying in, I deployed the "over there" tactic enough times to escape, then found suitable places to sleep. Taormina's fabulous seaside/mountainside opulence coughed up the best option: a rooftop that was easily accessible because the building it covered was on a steep hillside. Not only did that mean that the sun would great me at 6:30 a.m. — precluding the need for an alarm — but I could take solace in the fact that Joseph, Mary, and little baby Jesus slept on the roof, too (I'm pretty sure that's what they told us in Sunday school, anyway).
But during the day, there was too much driving on the docket to worry about anything but driving. Meals, when they could be had, were provided by the man. They were lush, and served in vineyards and ancient stone castles and the like, so even if they'd given me horsemeat, I would have been too dazzled by the romantic setting to have been the wiser. I even got to dine with a wheelchair-bound Frenchman who was kicking ass in a hand control-operated 1955 Porsche 356 Speedster.
The scenery was fantastic; something like what Southern California would be like if it wasn't choked with smog-belching freeways and its hilltops were dotted with medieval hamlets. Dry valleys gave way to green mountains as we made our way to the aquamarine Mediterranean, and almost every town we passed through seemed to have a bronzed old man leaning on a fence by the road, most often with a cigarette dangling from his lips, staring blankly as the cars (and everything else) passed by. Oh, there were lots of really excited, screaming Sicilian children, too.
The horse I'd hitched my wagon to (rather, the one that allowed me to hop on his cart), didn't fare too badly. Pretty solid middle-of-the-pack performance, really, and not bad considering the Aurelia Spyder had some steering issues along the way. He and his wife/co-driver Birgit came in 73rd.
It sounds like the organizers are going to run this race again, and I for one would love to be there for it. But seeing as how being a hobo camp follower is getting a little old, I see a couple of options. I can a) enter a life of crime so that I can make enough money to buy a '54 Lancia Aurelia B20 GT (fantastic cars, those, and I've always wanted to be one of those Pink Panther-esque cat burglars), or b) offer to drive a support car for one of the teams. I wonder if my uncle Enzo will let me borrow his Peugeot 208 for a weekend?
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston