Tale of Driving in the oldest continuous motor race in the world, the original Targa Florio.

When I was racing the ex Vic Elford porsche 911 race car under the banner of Porsche Cars GB Ltd I was offered the chance to drive in this legendry race.  Alan Smith was the company accountant and his ambition was to drive in this amazing race as a privateer around the mountains of Sicily and because I was driving for his company he asked me if I would like to join him. That didn't take much time to respond to as you can imagine, and the answer was immediately "yes".  This race required intense concentration and knowledge of the circuit as each lap was 45 miles around the mountains and through the villages of Sicily, and there was only one 3 mile straight parallel with the sea towards the end of the lap. I decided that I would drive down from the UK in my little Porsche 356 and learn the circuit during the 5 or 6 days before the race. The journey down through Europe was a beautiful trip across France and over the Alps and down along the Italian Autostrada as far as Naples. From that point on they had not completed the road down through the mountains of Calabria to the tip of Italy so it was very tortuous and time consuming following the contours of the mountains, and it was even more frustrating because we could see the massive construction of bridges and tunnels diving under and over the mountains and valleys of the grand landscape around us. It seemed to take for ever and a day to finally reach the ferry over the straights to Sicily. But there was this enormous vision of Mount Etna in front of us quietly bubbling away and throwing out little puffs of steam. We followed the road along the northwest coast down towards Palermo.
On arrival at Cerda where the famous old pits are we decided to drive a few hundred meters up the road to a convenient lay-by and join the truck that had transported the Triumph TR5 down from England. A good solid Bedford TK21 example was obtained by Alan to achieve this job. So we pitched tent and set up camp for the week.
This was certainly a daunting challenge, to set about learning the circuit. The scenery is spectacular with beautiful mountaineous backdrops. So the next morning we set off around the circuit climbing quite sharply in places to explore the legendary circuit. The crash barriers had markings on them to tell the drivers of different teams what sharpness all the bends were, fast medium slow and hairpin. But I was determined to memorise the track, this was certainly a mamouth task, setting about learning the circuit. Even more difficult because whenever we entered a village or town we were accosted by enthusiastic locals who were keen to meet “il piloto". In one village on every reconnaissance lap we were constantly met by a dark haired, thin faced man in Ferrari red overalls, who filled the air with the smell of garlic, inviting us to stop at his local hostelry. We nicknamed him Firestone Fred as he had Firestone badges on his Ferrari overalls. He said to me "coma meeta mi daughter, she speeka da inglish"!!
At the crack of dawn every morning the works teams would set off before any traffic or animals were let out, to do their practice laps.  To hear the cars echoing round the mountains was music to the ears.
After managing 20 laps in the spare days that we had before the race, I could truly say that I had learnt every corner on the circuit. I am fortunate in having a photographic memory which for the Targa Florio is a huge asset, so when it came to the race I managed several minutes a lap faster than Alan as he could not entrust his memory to reality. There were several corners which you approached with similar mountaineous backdrops that had identical shepherds huts on the apex, but some were virtually flatout and others were hairpins. By the day of the race the locals had changed the markings on the crash barriers so one's memory was essential!
Also the scenery up in the mountains on each corner on the track was completely different as many the locals were sitting on the bridge parapets or standing on the side of the track, and hundreds of Fiat 500s and other Italian cars were parked at crazy attitudes on the grass verges all along the trackside They had arrived overnight from all parts of Sicily and Italy with all their camping gear to soak up and enjoy this unique colourful spectacle, and loyally followed anything noisy and red that moved and which created an adrenilin rush. It was almost akin to the  atmosphere of a football crowd. The race still had World Championship status but in reality it was like a tarmac rally with the parting of the crowds as the noise of the racing cars approached. Our problem was only realised when we started the actual race only to find that the spectators had not heard the TR5 approaching and only at the last minute did they just lift their legs as we dived round the bridge parapets under them at high speed.
Everywhere was painted VIVA VIVA Ferrari, Abarth, Alfa Romeo or mostly Vacarella the local school teacher who became a Targa legend and who won the event more than once. The fervour for anything painted red was frenetic.
The night before the race we decided to all of us go into the local town into the square and have a meal in a local cafe. Unfortunately one of the team drove over one of the young local's toes as he was parking his car and he was most angry. Our friend for some reason did not understand the seriousness of upsetting the young local mafiosa and within minutes of us sitting down for our meal a young group had surrounded the exit and were pressing their faces against the windows in a very threatening way. So he thought it would be best to go outside and apologise. But the boss said that in no circumstances should any of us go outside as they would kill us!! Frightening stuff, as coming from UK one would not expect such a dramatic reaction. So the boss called the police as the young kids would not enter another villager's place and break the unwritten law of respect to other villagers. They were going to wait for us to come out and then sort us out. So the police came in force and when we were finished they formed a barrier between us and the kids and we were escorted to our cars. I remember driving away like I was in the actual race with pounding heart, really quite frightening and a lesson to learn that there were very different cultures out there that we as Brits needed to respect.
The race was over 6 hours and the winner was the car to have completed the most distance in the time. We duly set off at 1 minute intervals and I watched Alan disappear up the road into the mountains. It seemed like an eternity until he arrived back at the pits for a driver change 2 laps later. I set off full of eagerness and winding through my memory as the course unfolded before me. It was almost etherial as I got into a great rhythm. The road surface was treacherous compared to the practice days as they had come along with tar and chippings filling any holes that they deemed necessary. It was a boiling hot May day in bright sunshine and when going at speed through the little towns and villages some of the tarmac had melted and had no more grip than ice on some of the tight narrow bends winding through the buildings. I was aware of hundreds of people hiding in doorways and hanging over balconies and the odd policeman keeping watch on the pavements. It was truly an experience that I had not appreciated at the time that would die for ever in a very few years hence(1973) The joy of the freedom of the open winding road for 75 kilometers at a time driving as hard as one could is impossible to describe.Sometimes in my motoring career only having a live passenger aboard can make people really understand the feeling and the thrill of such an experience.  My first lap I later learned equalled the time set by Moss in the 300SLR in 1955, in a virtually standard TR5. The huge advantage of memorising the whole circuit was obviously a massive advantage over "rallying" the course, and I am blessed with this phenomenon
We put a limited slip differential on the gearbox to prevent the inside wheel lifting and the wheels trying to "clap hands"! and we ran the latest Dunlop R7 tyres. That was pretty much the extent of race preparation for this World Championship race!
The roads were very narrow all around the circuit and in places I needed to be very aware of this, as when drifting the TR it could have well hit the bollards at one end and the wall at the other! We could top 130 mph along the straight but when I saw a fast red car in my mirror I had to go down into the bottom of the highly cambered road to let the faster cars go by without easing off the speed! All new experiences for me. I was astounded how I was able to catch and pass some of the red Italian sports racers like Abarths in the mountains. So I passed the pits at the end of my first lap and we were leading our class (albeit there were only 3 cars from memory in the class!) I was feeling very confident by then and the car was responding to my every command, but right up in the mountains I forgot that I did not have enough room to allow the car to drift too much out of line on opposite lock and I hit the concrete bollard with the underside of the sill at the front and hit the back against the wall, it shot the car down a concrete gully and it came to rest in an orange orchard several feet down. Now if I had understood and realized the future historical importance of my current position I would have commandeered the help which appeared from nowhere and got the crowd to push it back up onto the road, as there was only a couple of small dents and it had not been rendered undriveable. Instead I accepted the hospitality of a local farmer who invited me into his old farm house for a spot of local wine and lunch, and watched the race from there until the finish. It was then pushed back on to the road and I drove it back to pits. Of course nobody had seen the car as it was down a gully and the only report that got back to poor Alan was that there was a wreck of a car near to where I had escaped the race, and that had burnt out !!
To this day this is one of my biggest regrets not to have finished the race and not to have realised the significance of the real live part I was playing in motor racing history. Sadly the last Real Targa was in 1973 so I never got another chance to compete in a competitive car as I know that this race had my name all over it. It was always my dream to win this one as I had the huge advantage and asset of a photographic memory for the entire course, and to this day couls probably remember most of the corners as a “déjà vu” situation.
The following day the truck packed up and we left for the UK in my 356 Porsche. When we were driving through the mountains again on mainland Italy back up to the Autostrada in Naples when the throttle cable broke. We were only sitting by the side of the road a few minutes when Dennis Jenkinson, the legenary journalist who accompanied Stirling Moss to victory in the Mille Miglia of 1955, appeared around the corner and stopped to help. I told him the problem and being familiar with 356 Porsche he said "have you got a wire shirt or jacket hanger" as he could join the 2 ends of the cable together to get me home. It was a fairly common piece of mens luggage in those days and I happened to have one, so very soon we set off set again with our thanks to the little bearded wizard. The throttle worked so well I never bothered to change the temporary fix and later sold the car in perfect working order!