The last true Targa

It is 40 years since the lanes of Sicily last echoed to the full-blooded wail of a world championship race. A privileged spectator back then, Richard Williams recently retraced his steps

Somewhere on the N120 between Buonfornello and Cerda, as the narrow road wound inland through rolling countryside, an old man in farm worker's clothes stood on the high grass bank, waving at me. Or that's what I thought as I chugged towards him in a rented Fiat 500. I was about to wave back through the open sunroof when, in the space of a couple of seconds, the world changed: a scream of flat-12 engine, a low red blur beside me and barely enough time, as the Ferrari 312P abruptly chopped across and squeezed the apex of the left-hand bend just ahead, to spot the black helmet of Jacky Ickx. Now I understood the old man's gestures.

That's how it was on an unofficial practice day in the week leading up to the Targa Florio in 1973, the last time the race was held as part of the sports car world championship. The last proper Targa, really, although it survived for a while as a national event and eventually became a sort of rally. But that race 40 years ago was effectively the final staging of the event as it had been invented by Vincente Florio in 1906, at the very dawn of motor racing. And in the intervening decades, not much had changed.

Even before Ickx swept past me that morning, I'd had a taste of the Targa. Leaving our hotel after breakfast, looking for the legendary Piccolo Madonie circuit, I'd taken the wrong turning off the coast road that runs between Cefaln and Palermo. The first I knew about the mistake was when I was about to coax the little white Fiat into a blind right-hander, only to be confronted by the sight of Andrea de Adamich at full chat in a scarlet Alfa Romeo 33TT12, coming straight at me and occupying the entire width of the road. I didn't have the time or the reflexes to react. It was de Adamich whose flick of the wheel prevented us from turning into two very contrasting piles of junk.

We were in Sicily that week because I'd read of the CSI's decision, taken on the grounds of safety, to omit the race from the following year's championship schedule. An era was coming to an end, the age of racing on virtually unmodified public roads, and I wanted to catch as many of the last glimmers of its light as possible. The prospect of the final Targa, as I gently informed my companion, was unmissable. For her it was a chance of a week's holiday in the Sicilian sun; for me, it represented the opportunity to watch cars being raced over roads largely shaped by nature, without the Armco barriers that had already invaded Formula 1.

Neither of us had been to Sicily before. I studied the map and chose, on the basis of its proximity to both sea and circuit, the Hotel Baia del Capitano in the hamlet of Mezzaforno. A few kilometres to the east lay Cefaln, which had yet to achieve the fame bestowed upon it by Giuseppe Tornatore's Oscar-winning Cinema Paradiso. In 1973 it was still a small fishing village with a curving beach, dominated by a rocky headland and a 12th century cathedral.

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The hotel turned out to be fine, with one unadvertised asset: the presence, as fellow guests, of four Americans who had arrived with a white Lotus Europa, for which they had secured a race entry. The car's owner, and one of its drivers, was Anatoly Arutunoff, an auto-racing nut whose parents had fled the Russian revolution and ended up in the Oklahoma oil fields, where the father's invention of a particular kind of pump had made them rich. The young Arutunoff had spent much of his youth in Hollywood and started his own long amateur racing career with a Porsche Carrera Speedster in the '50s before going home to become a dealer in Ferraris and other imported vehicles, including Lotuses.

Arutunoff drove the little Europa from Tulsa to New York, where he put it on a boat to Palermo, while he and the rest of the party flew in via Rome. His co-drivers, Brian Goellnicht and Allan Girdler, were club racers, the former seven years into a competition career that had started with a Frogeye Sprite in Los Angeles in the mid-60s, the latter a journalist planning to write a magazine story about their experiences. Their mechanic, Peter Law, was a veteran of Roger Penske's Can-Am team.

Forty years later I was delighted to get Goellnicht to the phone at his home outside Atlanta, Georgia, and to hear him say that although their trip did not end in success, it remained the highlight of almost 40 years behind the wheel of racing cars.

"We just took a regular twin-cam Europa right off the floor and brought it up to spec — we did the fuel cell and the roll cage and very minimal modifications," he told me. "Toly [Arutunoff] had put together a deal with BF Goodrich for their new radial T/A tyres, which they sent over to Palermo. They must have weighed about 25 to 301b each and they just did not work. On the first day of unofficial practice I took it out and within three or four turns I was thinking, 'This is ridiculous — it's like driving on ice.' So we bought some Klebers instead. I took it out the next day and the car came alive."

But Goellnicht quickly found himself coming to a halt. "What an introduction that was. I hadn't gone a couple of miles when I looked ahead and saw black billowing smoke. Here was a car, in the middle of the track, burning to the ground. Everybody had to pull over and wait until this thing had burnt itself out and they could lug it to the side of the road. This went on for maybe 45 minutes. While we were waiting, some of the local farmers came over, with a couple of good-looking chicks, and we started making a little conversation with sign language. I asked one of the girls, 'Do you want to go for a ride in the car?' I'm kidding with her. And then they said we could start the cars and I thought, 'How cool would that be, to go out on the first practice run and come back to the pits with a girlfriend passenger?' So I went ahead and asked her. But just as we were getting ready to go, a couple of the guys come over and one of them gives me the old sign with the finger across the throat. 'Don't even think about that, buddy — you're in Sicily now.' So I abandoned that idea. I was going to bring her back..."

Part of Goellnicht's early racing experience had involved the illegal street races that took place on Mulholland Drive in the hills above Hollywood in the 1960s. "I was a two, three times a week regular on Mulholland, so I had a lot of practice at mountain racing and it came kind of natural to me. But still the Targa was a wake-up call. Using people's kneecaps as the apex of a turn is pretty mind-blowing. But after two or three runs I was thinking, 'Hey, if I get loose and go into the crowd here, I guess they're used to it'."

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While the Americans were getting to grips with the Targa experience, we watched practice from a variety of locations. At the bivio Polizzi, a crossroads up in the hills near Polizzi Generosa, you could hear and see the cars approaching from a considerable distance; a group of locals had gathered there, competing to guess the identity of each machine from its engine note. Near Collesano, on the return leg of the circuit, we stopped to take photographs of a little stone hut on which someone had painted the name NINO — for Nino Vaccarella, the local hero, of course. In Campofelice we passed the battered Martini Porsche Carrera RSR of Giulio Pucci and Gunther Steckkonig, which had rolled on to its roof while flattening a small tree by the side of the road leading down to the town centre.

On race day we got up early, wished the Americans luck and drove to Collesano, where there were several good vantage points, including the high bank above a hairpin flanked by houses, famous from countless photographs. It didn't turn out to be a classic race, by any means. The two Ferraris, shared by Ickx/Brian Redman and Vaccarella/Arturo Merzario, lasted barely an hour, the first going out after Ickx put a wheel in a gutter and hit a wall, the second after Merzario broke a half-shaft. Only one of the big Alfas started the race, Clay Regazzoni having destroyed the other in practice; the car of de Adamich and Rolf Stommelen was leading the Ferraris when the Italian driver hit a slower car and retired. That left Herbie Muller and Gijs van Lennep to win in the first of the three Martini Carrera RSRs, having been able to cruise for most of the 11 laps and 792km, ahead of Sandro Munari and Jean-Claude Andruet in the Marlboro Lancia Stratos.

The Lotus didn't finish. It had qualified poorly, towards the back of a class containing a couple of dozen assorted Alfa GTAs, Lancia Fulvia HFs and Alpine-Renault A110s. Goellnicht took the start, but not before a spectating Mike Parkes, then attached to the Scuderia Filipinetti, had wandered over to impart a piece of wisdom: "He said, `Whatever you've been doing, throttle it back at least 15 per cent at the start because that track is going to get greasy and there are many accidents on the first lap.' Am I glad he gave me that advice. I'm heading into Cerda, the first town, and it was like they'd scattered sand over the track. There were cars everywhere. I got through the first lap and passed quite a few cars but then, going into a sharp right-hander at the start of the second lap, I lost the brakes. There was the sky on one side and the mountain on the other and I go for the brakes and absolutely nothing happens. I hit the kill switch and I thought, `If I'm going off, I'm going off backwards'. I bang it down a couple of gears and miraculously spin around the turn. It must have been one of the few places you could put a wheel off and still come back on the track. So I make it back to the pits with no brakes, through these towns packed with people.

"It might have been in Campofelice that I'm coming downhill with no brakes, semi-out of control, flashing my lights to tell the crowd to give me some room. I thought, 'I'm going to mow down a bunch of people.' And as I turn, making the left-right corner, I hear the sound of their hands on the car. Apparently the cool thing at the Targa was to touch the car as it went past. Pure insanity." He reached the pits, but the officials refused to let them restart after a repair that would have left the car with brakes on only three wheels.

They left Sicily with their memories, and so did I. Of them all, perhaps the most vivid is that of driving the Cinquecento back along the coast road in the dusk at the end of one of the practice days and finding myself following the two 312Ps, driven by brown-overalled, bare-headed mechanics as they made their way back to base, a garage near Cefaln. This was motor racing as it had been for most of the century and would soon be no longer.

I went back there last spring, to drive the course again and visit the museums in Cerda and Campofelice. Outside Collesano that little stone hut was still standing, the painted NINO clearly legible.