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Leg One - Tuesday, September 17, 2002; St. John’s / Clarenville

 

Adrenaline and wet, unfamiliar roads make a dangerous combination.

And the Targa Newfoundland proved early on that it would be an intolerant master.

It was probably a bad omen when Tuesday dawned, or, in truth, didn’t... We “come from aways’‘ hoped that it was just fog, but it proved to be heavy clouds and rain.

The first full day of rallying claimed no fewer than three competitors’ cars, and one course car - all on the very first timed stage called “Marine Drive North”.

Before any competitors take a run at a “closed roads” stage, a senior course marshal runs the route in a “course opening” car - in this case, a lovely red Jaguar X-Type four-wheel drive sedan, supplied by the local Jaguar dealer.

This car was not outfitted with a proper rally “trip meter”, a big, digital device that tells the navigator to the hundredth of a kilometre exactly where, relative to the route instructions, the car is. So this particular navigator had to guess, giving the driver less than perfect co-ordinates.

About one-quarter of the way into the stage, a set of bends which looked to the navigator to be a series of “esses”, in fact began with a hard right, which caught the driver out. The car skidded and whacked a ditch, fiending the front suspension.

The competitors were delayed until the Jag could be moved to a safer location and the course cleared by another vehicle.

It didn’t take long before disaster struck again. The seventh car out, a gorgeous red 1970 Volvo P1800E coupe, operated by the father and son team of John and Stephen McCrory, and which had been purchased in Florida specifically for this rally, lost it in a most comprehensive way about halfway through the stage. The car was heavily damaged, and ended up across the road. The McCrorys were scrambling around trying to set up warning triangles to alert following competitors, but this sort of thing takes time, especially if you’ve never done it before.

They were too late.

The breathtakingly beautiful and extremely rare 1955 Austin Healey 100S of Michael Salter and Richard Paterson couldn’t avoid the stranded Volvo, and centre-punched it off into the ditch.

According to Targa rules, the next car arriving on the scene of a crash has to stop to give aid; the second-next carries on to the next radio reporting location, to warn the officials of the problem. If everything goes according to plan, the other competitors can proceed with caution through the incident area, then continue with their stage.

After seeing the damage, few of us really had the heart - the Healey and the Volvo were two of the prettiest cars in the event.

From where we sat as we drove past, the Volvo appeared to be a “seats-and-radio” thing - a complete write-off.

The Healey looked fixable, although the way Michael Salter described the car’s unique oil cooler to me the day before, I doubt there’d be a replacement on the island. Still, the Healey was a basic, simple car, and may be repairable, although it would be beyond heroic if it returned for any of the rest of this event.

McCrory Senior had some internal aches; at this writing, the nature and extent of his injuries is unknown, but he didn’t appear to be seriously hurt. The other three competitors were unhurt, a testimony to the safety equipment required of all Targa cars.

But Marine Drive North wasn’t done collecting its toll. Ken Batstone and Adams Sparkes, two self-acknowledged local street racers, in a very hot “fast and furious” Honda Civic, had a major “off’” at the same corner as the course-opening Jaguar, smacked a pole, took off most of the rear body work, and did the front suspension no good whatsoever in the process.

No-one was ready to be too harsh on these brash young kids - all the other incidents over the past three days had been the handiwork of mature and/or experienced drivers.

Besides, Newfoundland youth has nowhere to experience the thrills of motorsport in a sanctioned environment; one of the goals of the Targa Newfoundland is to create a safer way for youngsters to grow with this sport.

The lads rounded up the parts and a posse of their pals, an all-nighter is being conducted as I type, and they may be back tomorrow.

That too would be heroic.

“That’s racing” (or, in our case, “That’s rallying”) is the phrase that keeps us all going at times like these; as the road wound alongside the sea near Holyrood and the sun came out, we remembered why we’re so enamoured of it.

So are Newfoundlanders. At every intersection, in every school yard, at the end of every driveway, even along stretches of road where there is no sign of civilization for miles, the local populace - car enthusiasts and the merely curious alike - stand there waving, giving the thumbs-up, honking their horns, grinning like assassins.

And at the lunch stops and end-of-day displays, we are inundated with curious car enthusiasts - young and old alike - wanting to know more about the cars and the event.

Incidentally, I get recognized from my role in “Kenzie’s Korner” on TSN’s Motoring 2003 TV show more in Newfoundland than any other place I travel...

Everything you’ve ever heard about Newfoundland hospitality is true, in spades; what you may not have heard about is how spectacularly beautiful the scenery is.

Too bad in a sense that we’re rushing by it so quickly...

For Doug Mepham, the owner/driver of the 1971 Volvo 142S for which I am acting as “naviguessor” in this event, and myself, it was a good day. After adjustments for scoring anomalies, we expect we’ll be tied for first overall with about eight other cars with zero penalty points.

We have no illusions - the stage times will get faster as the event wears on; we won’t. But Doug will keep it on the island, and apart from a malfunctioning ignition switch, the mis-diagnosis of which cost us a new battery and about four hours of otherwise-this-would-be-dinner-and-sleep time, the Volvo is as strong as, well, a Volvo. It will get us to the end on Saturday.

And that will come too soon.

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