IN PURSUIT OF THE TARGA FLORIO, SICILY
Motor racing started on public roads before moving to specialised racing tracks and none of those early road circuits conjures up the magic better than Italy ’s ultimate test .
Follow in the speedy tracks of motor-racing royalty on this legendary Sicilian route, the globe’s original racing road
The photograph was taken in 1970 and I had no trouble tracking down its location in Campofelice. The coastal town is an easy drive east of Palermo, on the north coast of Sicily. Campofelice di Roccella has a long beach, an important church, a 14th-century castle, and nearby there are the Greek ruins of Himera, but it’s what’s happening in the street on that Sunday in May that has clearly entranced a large contingent of the local population. Under the building balconies, which I found so easy to identify, the citizens of Campofelice are lining the pavements, leaning out into the street, waving ecstatically, clearly cheering loudly for a local Palermo schoolteacher. The schoolteacher is Nino Vaccarella and he is hurtling towards them, obviously travelling at something approaching warp speed, in a bright-red 600 horsepower Ferrari 512S – and he is in the lead of the Targa Florio. He didn’t go on to win the Targa Florio that year, but he did the following year and again in 1975, when he clinched his third Targa victory. That 1970 photograph summed up what made the Sicilian sports car race so utterly irresistible: the setting, the enthusiasm and the sheer absurdity of it. You simply do not let people stand in the street, totally unprotected, when racing cars are hurtling past. From 1906 to 197 7, however, the world’s oldest sport cars race did exactly that. At first the race was a complete circuit of Sicily, and over the years assorted other routes were tried, but from 1951 the race used the Circuito Piccolo delle Madonie. The Madonie is one of Sicily’s principal mountain ranges, and since piccolo is Italian for ‘little’ this was the small racing track in the mountains. The short one, the little track with more than 700 corners. You went around it 11 times if you were going to win the Targa Florio. And although the long straight that stretches along the
coast towards Palermo might have given Signor Vaccarella the opportunity to push his Ferrari to its maximum speed, all those twisting corners as the circuit climbed up into the hills meant that the fastest anyone ever got around the circuit was an average of just under 80mph (129km/h). Nino Vaccarella, now in his 80s, still turns up at historic motoring events to demonstrate the fire-breathing racing monsters of his heyday. Although he did drive in a handful of Formula 1 Grand Prix races, sports cars were his speciality, when he could get away from his day job: teaching accounting. He won all sorts of races, including the Le Mans 24-Hour-Race, but it was the Targa Florio where he was always the popular favourite. When he crashed his Ferrari into a wall and out of the race in 1966, ‘Viva Nino’ was graffitied on the wall he hit. From Campofelice, where I tracked down that evocative motor racing photograph, it’s about six miles (10km) along the coast to where the track turns sharp left and starts to climb – and twist and turn – from sea level towards the town of Cerda at 272 metres. Cerda was the start and finish point of the Targa Florio; on such a narrow winding track it was impossible to start the cars together so, like the Mountain Circuit Tourist Trophy (T T) motorcycle track on the Isle of Man, the cars started one by one, 15 seconds apart. The starting order was often a confusing jumble, but even if they didn’t all start together there would soon be plenty of racing on the road. The pit counter still stands beside the old starting line, and manufacturers still like to bring their latest creations down to the track to try them out. The
‘In the Targa Florio’s racing days, drivers would practise when the road was open to traffic – donkeys included’
impossibly beautiful countryside with its photogenically perfect driving roads certainly helps. If the road wasn’t already torturous enough, from Cerda it really begins to corkscrew as it hairpins its way up to Caltavuturo, the ‘Fortress of Vultures,’ at 635 metres high. From the coast the track has been running south, but now the route turns north and starts the descent back towards the coast, dropping down through Scillato and Collesano at 468 metres before the final breakneck plunge down towards the sea. Collesano has Greek and Arab historic connections, the remains of a Norman castle and an assortment of interesting churches. It also boasts the official Targa Florio Museum, which features a model of every race winner. Targa simply means ‘plate’ and the plate in question was presented as a prize by Vincenzo Florio, a wealthy Sicilian businessperson, wine merchant and fast car enthusiast. The name lives on in the Targa Tasmania, an annual race around the Australian island state, and in every Porsche 911 Targa to cruise Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles or the King’s Rd in London’s Chelsea. Porsche was a Targa Florio specialist; it won the race 11 times, although that’s only once more than Alfa Romeo. In the Targa Florio’s racing days, drivers would often practise when the road was open to everyday traffic, and dodging wayward donkeys was part of the fun. But with so many corners to memorise, regular racing practice time was clearly inadequate. The Circuito Piccolo delle Madonie is still a wonderful road to drive, although you’re obviously not going to do it in anything like the sub-34 minute lap record. Two hours and seven minutes is the suggestion from Google Maps, an average speed of just over 20mph (35km/h). Given the 700 corners, the twists, the turns, the climbs, the descents… that’s probably quite fast enough.
Clockwise from top: the town of Collesano; central Palermo; Mondello beach, Sicily. Previous page: Luigi Tarramazzo’s Ferrari 250GTO takes a bend in the 1964 Targa Florio