The Road Race That Ran Its Course

With a safer new circuit to be built in Sicily there will always be a Targa Florio, but last year's run ended an era of special daring and danger when cars tore through town and country in the grand old manner
June 23, 1974

A Bottle of Wine, Loaf of Bread And Lots of Luck

They began arriving Saturday afternoon, happy clusters of them in holiday moods, settling down alongside the road and uncorking the wine. The good spots were always taken first—good meaning those old hand-built stone walls where they perched on the edge and dangled their feet out over the racing cars. By dark thousands more had assembled, and by midnight, when the road was officially closed to traffic, there were perhaps half a million, all poised for Sunday.

The sight of so many people pressed so close to the road never failed to unnerve new drivers; there was no crowd control, no fences as at Indianapolis or Daytona Speedways. There was only that two-lane blacktop snaking through the gantlet of cheering Sicilians, all of them with their toes hanging over the edges. And, after the combination of wine and sun took effect, many of them succumbed to the urge to play matador. Darting out, performing sweeping, tipsy verónicas, they would pass the cars by to the cheers of the throng. Occasionally a red-checked tablecloth doubled as cape, and death was but a fender flick away for both spectator and driver. Last year one driver entered his first Targa and wheeled his sleek Porsche 911 the entire length of the race with his lights on and horn blasting away. Throughout the ordeal he looked terrified.

This was the Targa Florio, the oldest and greatest road race of them all, an event peculiarly attuned to Sicily, where the mood and topography seem to invite daring. Officially, the Targa was one in a series called the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile Championship of Makes, 10 or so races each year in which manufacturers parade their products. And while the name goes on, the race henceforth will be greatly modified. One by one, the classic road races have diminished, the victims, variously, of prudence and progress, of the moves to new closed tracks, energy crises and growing concerns for safety. In Sicily a more manageable course was proposed for the hills above Cerda and a stripped-down Targa was run this year; the daredevil days are gone forever.

The event had started about as boldly as it ended: wealthy young Sicilian Vincenzo Florio went off to France and returned with an absolute passion for cars and racing, and what better place to race than around the dirt roads of his home island? He launched the first Targa in 1906 as a contest among gentleman drivers (Targa translates roughly into "license plate," which in turn translates roughly into the shape of the plaque traditionally awarded to winners; Florio is for the founder). That first year the race was won by Alesandro Cagno, who brought his Itala skidding and whooping in at an astonishing 29.1-mph average. While young Florio never won his own race, the affair took on more glamour with each year.

The old Piccolo Circuito Madonie ran 11 laps around a 44.6-mile course that started at the Cerda train station just above the sea. The racecars roared up into the little village and blasted down the main street where, in calmer times, old men still sit at sidewalk tables playing cards and drinking espresso. From Cerda the road twists 2,000 feet up into the Madonie mountains, through dark-green olive groves and alongside fields of spring beans and tiny artichokes, passing through more picturesque old villages—Caltavuturo, Scillato, Collesano. Then it swoops down through vineyards to the sea at Campofelice. On the final leg back to the Cerda station the only straightaway of any consequence on the course was run flat out for 8 km. paralleling the Mediterranean.

No wonder Italians dominated the race down the years. Learning the course was tricky and practice time limited. High in the mountains fiercely loyal partisans honored local hero Nino Vaccarella by painting huge NINO signs on fences and walls, and in one race not long ago one American explained the course to another by saying, "You get up in the hills and turn left at the Nino."

The last Targa was typical of all the others: 78 cars started and only six finished the full 492.03 miles, the winning Porsche averaging 71.2 mph. As always in the Targa, the stars suffered equally with the tyros. Jacky Ickx ran into a rock in the early going and broke his Ferrari; Andrea de Adamich ran his Alfa into a slow-moving Lancia; and poor Vaccarella never even got to race his Ferrari 312P. His co-driver finished off the car on the third lap, and Nino, an elegant man with a fine Sicilian nose, spent the day wandering about, chatting with his disappointed fans. By the end of that Sunday there were cars in ditches, gullies and a few trees, some still trapped in the middle of flocks of sheep. But despite the fact that the race was over, 42 of the casualties were patched up enough to limp and clank back to the tribuna. In this oldtime race, just to cross the finish line was excellence indeed.

PHOTOTONY TRIOLORight from the start, the Targa stirs a special holiday atmosphere. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOSome come to see and others come to be seen. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOPerched atop the action, intrepid spectators flirt with disaster. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOPlotting race: Jean-Claude Andruet and aide. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOThe bridges present special perils. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOJug of wine helps pass the time. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOOldest driver: Girolamo Capra. PHOTOFiat partisans gather at their sign. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOLeaving Cerda, an Alfa heads for the hills. PHOTOTONY TRIOLODriver survived smashup; his car did not. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOFor townspeople, balconies serve as exclusive boxes. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOBubbling over, G. Van Lennep and Herbert Muller. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOExtolling local hero Vaccarella, huge "Nino" graffiti show the way. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOWheeling home after 11 grueling laps, victorious Porsche crosses the line.