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Targa Tasmania

Prestige Wheels

by Jim Kenzie

HOBART Tasmania - The organizers call the Targa Tasmania "the ultimate tarmac rally".

How could you argue?

2,176 kilometres of rallying, over six days, across some of the world's most spectacular roads.

510 km of that comprises 54 "Targa" stages, using public roads closed for up to five hours, so 284 race-prepped rally cars can go as fast as they want.

Holy overhead camshafts...

The very first stage was the "Prologue", a 4.13 km warm-up sprint through the streets of George Town, Tasmania.

Since the car I was competing in had been built in Georgetown Ontario, we took that as a good sign.

I tried to imagine walking in to the Town Hall in Georgetown Ontario and saying to the politicians, "OK guys - here's the deal. We'll run 'Police Line - Do Not Cross' tape down both sides of Main Street, through the shopping mall, and past the public school. Then we'll send 284 cars over this course, 30 seconds apart, at speed of up to 200 km/h! Whaddya say??!?"

I could not say what they'd say, not in a family newspaper.

Only in Tasmania...

Pity.

Four separate competitions take place simultaneously in the Targa - Historic (pre-1946), Touring Classic (pre-1965), Classic (pre-1981), and Modern (pre-tomorrow) cars compete for their own prizes.

The Historic and Touring Classic cars follow a less onerous route, the objective being exercise but not exertion.

Included were such worthies as a pair of Bugatti Type 35Bs (yes, two of them!) and a 1916 Model T Ford racer, built for board-track racing.

Like velodrome racing bikes, this vehicle originally had no wheel brakes at all - just a transmission "parking" brake.

Not the thing for road-going rally use.

So the owners rigged up a pair of disc brakes on the rear axle, motivated by a cable operated by a hand lever. Now, I HAVE seen everything...

The Classics make up by far the largest group, with everything from MGBs to Minis to Datsuns to Porsches to Australian Falcons, evolved from the original American Falcon of the early '60s, to Holdens, products of General Motors' Australian arm.

A surprising contingent of real DEE-troit iron too - Chevy Corvettes, Pontiac Firebirds, a supercharged 1964 Ford Galaxie with 550 horsepower (!) and several Ford Mustangs, including a Cobra GT 350.

Plus one lovely 1970 American Motors Javelin. (You knew I'd work that in.)

The most popular model among the Moderns is the Porsche 911, because they've won seven of the ten Targas so far. This year, the Stuttgart squadron included factory-fresh GT-3 and Turbo four-wheel drive 911s.

Also on hand - Toyota Supra, Nissan 300ZX, Nissan Skyline, Mazda RX-7 Turbo, new Chevrolet Corvette, and Dodge Viper.

In fact, just about every high-performance car you could imagine, and a few you couldn't - ever heard of a Giocattolo Group B, or an Amaroo Clubman? Didn't think so.

To give all these disparate cars a chance to win something, a byzantine set of categories, classes, and handicaps has been established, based on past years' results.

These rules take up an entire page of small print in the official regulations; suffice it to say that as a spectator, you don't really care what class some magnificent car is in when it goes roaring by you at full chat.

Scoring is equally complicated. "Base" times are established for each stage - meet or beat this time and you incur no penalty points. However, going faster than the base time earns no benefit.

Handicaps - extra time to complete the stage - are granted to older and/or slower cars.

Then, there are the so-called "Trophy" times - even longer bogeys, set for each stage, and again, adjusted for the cars' age and performance potential. These times can generally be achieved by anyone with a modicum of talent, driving briskly but not stupidly, and lucky enough to suffer no mechanical or crash damage.

If you meet or beat the Trophy times on each of the qualifying Targa stages, which this year meant all stages except those run on Day Five (don't ask...) you earn a "Targa Trophy", which is the objective of all but the most serious competitors.

Most entries come, not surprisingly, from Australia, with New Zealand the next most popular origin. Indonesia, Japan, Monaco, and Switzerland were all represented, as was the United States in the form of a massive 1964 Ford Falcon Sprint, of the type that ran in the Monte Carlo rallies of that era.

The Maple Leaf flag was proudly carried by the 1971 Volvo 142S, belonging to Doug Mepham of Toronto. I was fortunate enough to be what he called his "Naviguesser".

Our car was beautifully prepped by the Sprongl brothers, perpetual Canadian and North American rally champions, and garnered all sorts of compliments from spectators and competitors alike. It may have looked like a brick, but other than re-engineering the turn signal after a little contretemps on Day Three, and replacing a frayed throttle cable after Day Five, it was reliable as a brick too.

Executing an event of this complexity takes more organization than the Normandy invasion. Over 3,000 "Tassies" volunteer to run the check points, marshal the crowds, provide the lunches, tally the results - any of the million and one details that need detailing.

Most of them are not even motorsport fans - the Targa is simply THE event in Tasmania, and the locals look at this as their opportunity to do their bit. And to get close to the most fabulous parade of automobiles they - or anyone else - is ever likely to see.

The Targa also brings in some $10 million in tourist revenue, so it's a Big Deal for this economically-struggling state.

There is some local opposition - letters to the editor of local papers complaining about "glorifying speed on public roads" - "I couldn't get my kelpie to the groomer because the road was closed" - the expected sort of thing.

One complainer still deigned to congratulate the police (who monitor the event extremely closely) for random breath-testing at the start of each day.

Prior to the Prologue, an officer handed the machine to ME. I blew into it, he nodded, and waved us on - never noticing that I didn't have a steering wheel in my hands... A left-hand drive car in a right-hand drive world.

Still, a sober naviguesser is a good thing too, I suppose.

Your time in the Prologue establishes your starting order for the rally itself. Unlike most rallies, the slowest cars go first in the Targa, so the 'crocodile' of 284 cars gradually compresses as each day wears on, rather than expands. Thus, the roads need to be closed for the minimum amount of time.

Doug had been warned that the weather is invariably wet for at least some of the Targa. Since you are limited to six tires in total, it only makes sense to lean towards wet-weather performance in tire selection. He was clever enough to enlist the aid of Nokian Tires in Canada; our Nokian NRVs were probably the best rubber of any car in the field in the wet, yet they performed well in the dry too.

Nokians aren't sold in Australia yet, but on the basis of our run alone, we could have sold about 30 sets ourselves...

Actually, we were hoping for snow. We reckoned that'd move the Canadians to the top of the form chart.

It rained on Prologue day, so the tires got an early test. We slipped and slid a little, but finished in good shape.

Not the Falcon. He missed a corner, jumped a curb, and ended up on a local's lawn.

If he'd been a bit quicker, he'd have ended up in the local's breakfast nook.

He also smashed a wheel, bent the suspension, and the rear bumper.

He wasn't alone - the parking garage that night resonated to the sound of hammers, files, cell phone calls in search of rare parts, and the curses of exhausted mechanics.

Fix what needs fixing, get the car out the next morning, no worries, mate!

The first two rally days were loops around the city of Launceston, in the north of the island.

Each night, we'd return the cars to the Velodrome, where the residents could get a closer look at the machinery. I've never parked a car on a beautifully-polished wooden floor before.

Day Three took us to Burnie, on the north-west coast. Day Four ran down the western shore, where the rain forest was uncharacteristically dry, then across the central plateau to the Tasmania capital of Hobart, at the southern tip of the island. The gum trees looked like apparitions in a George Lucas movie.

Days Five and Six were loops around Hobart, which was uncharacteristically wet - thanks again to those Nokian tires. The folks in the open cars, especially the Historics, were looking distinctly bedraggled.

(Memo: If you're going to do the Targa, do it in a coupe or sedan...).

Doug and I were not using pace notes - corner-by-corner descriptions that allow the serious ralliers to know what's coming over the hill, and whether they need to slow down. But pace notes prepared by someone else can be dangerous; what might be a "3" to you (the corners are graded according to how sharp they are) might be a "5" to me.

"My plan is to 'drive the road', drive what we see," said Mepham beforehand. "Stay under control, drive to finish."

Made my life easier - all I had to do was call out the cautions that were highlighted in the supplied route notes. One single corner was identified as "Large's Loss", "Schenken’s Schemozzle", "Bartlett's Blunder", "Kobayashi's Katastrophe", and "Gigney’s Graunch", each label commemorating a major "off" from previous years.

We had no desire to christen any corner either "Mepham's Madness" or "Kenzie's Frenzy"...

I also had to make sure Doug turned right instead of left. "No No, the OTHER right! We’re on the other side of the world, remember? Keep LEFT after the roundabout!"

Celebrity drivers have always played a role in promoting the Targa Tasmania. Such luminaries as racing greats Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and Denny Hulme, plus rally wizards Walter Roehrl and Sandro Munari, have all competed here.

For 2001, it was the turn of the bikeys. Australia-born Mick Doohan and Aussie resident Barrie Sheene, both multi-time World Motorcycle champions, were outfitted with AMG Mercedes-Benzes for this year's competition.

On Day Three, Doohan threw his CLK 55 into the woods; the barrel roll with a half-twist, degree of difficulty 2.7 (4.6 from the Russian judge) wrapped it up into a tight little ball. Probably got confused by that extra pair of wheels.

Sheene managed to finish, but said driving his ML-55 - the world’s fastest SUV - was like "driving a block of flats". In "our" English, that means like "driving an apartment building".

Not quite the P. R. spin Mercedes-Benz was looking for...

The clear fan favourite was Peter Brock. Not the American who designed the Cobra Daytona coupe, but Australia’s most famous sedan racer.

He was entered in a brand-new Holden "ute". Anyone old enough to remember the Ford Ranchero and Chevy El Camino will know what a "ute" is - a sedan/pick-up truck hybrid. It is Australia’s unique contribution to the world of automotive design.

You can’t get more Australian than Peter Brock driving a ute. "BROCKIE!" and "Utes rule!" were the most common signs we saw along the road, held up by thousands of fans who line the route to witness the passing parade.

Sure, there were the dignitaries, the officials, the local mayors and their wives.

Most impressive were the kids, mostly gorgeous, mostly blond-haired - the Vikings must have discovered Tasmania too...

Despite his local fame, Brock was just another racer. As we were lined up to parade to Hobart’s Wrest Point Casino for the "official" finish, we ended up beside him in the line. He rolled his window down, signalled us to do the same, and asked brightly, "So, how’d your run go, mates!?"

"It was a ripper!!" we replied, in our best Aussie slang, quite thrilled that he’d make the effort to say hello to a couple of foreigners when he clearly didn’t have to. A classy move.

There were crashes. We survived a minor "off" on the famous South Riana stage. We had just acknowledged another car which had run out of fuel. The next corner was an uphill right-hander, right into the sun.

Rule Number One for Targa Tasmania - don’t let the boy scouts wash your windshield. The smeared glass blinded Doug's vision, he got onto the gravel on the shoulder, locked up the brakes, and we slid gently into an earthen embankment.

Doug is meticulous in all things. Any other driver would have roared backwards, slammed it into first, and rocketed on up the road.

Not Doug; he wanted to ensure the wheel wasn't damaged.

So I ran down the hill to place the warning triangles 50 and 100 metres from our car, as the rules require. I had just placed the first one when Doug drove the car out - it was OK!

Grab the triangle. Run back up the hill.

Wait! The fender is rubbing against the wheel!

Back down the hill, re-position the triangle.

Back UP the hill, hammer on the fender with a tire iron. There; that should do it... Back down the hill to retrieve the triangle. Where’d we put that oxygen bottle?

(I found out later - nobody bothers retrieving their triangles; they're too cheap to worry about.)

Back into the car, a 47-point turn to get going the right way again, and off we went.

Missed our Trophy time by a measly 31 seconds.

Rats.

But we were lucky. We finished.

Unlike one Nissan Skyline GT-R, which ended up in a tree. Not just hitting a tree - IN a tree. Missed a down-hill corner, and ended up in the branches.

A BMW M-Coupe centre-punched another tree, which tried to exact its revenge by falling and almost crushing a couple of rescuers.

One guy in an old Escort, who has developed something of a reputation over the years, missed a right-hander, flew off a 12-metre cliff, and landed on the beach. If it’d been high tide, he’d have been in the ocean.

Results? Well, you’ve never heard of any of these guys, but they’ve never heard of you either. New Zealand-born Melbourne resident Jim Richards and Tasmania’s own Barry Oliver won the Modern competition in a 2000 Porsche 911 Turbo four-wheel drive. It was Richards' fifth win, and he has two second place finishes in ten events. The guy is scary.

Nick Cocks of North Adelaide and Stephen Fong of Sydney took the Historic competition in one of those fabulous Bugatti Type 35Bs - the yellow one.

The Touring Classic prize went to the Tasmanian crew of Philip Nichols and Phillip Blake, in an absolutely beautiful 1958 Austin Healey Sprite.

The Classic winners were Paul Stuart of Brighton Victoria Australia, and Mark Connolly of North Melbourne, in a 1974 Porsche 911 Carrera 2.7.

We finished 57th in the Classic competition, out of 185 cars. We’ll settle for that.

Even though we missed one Targa stage (by that lousy 31 seconds!) they still gave us a Targa Trophy anyway. It's lovely.

Ours is but one of 284 stories in this event. Every car and every team is worthy of a two-page story. I wish I had the space.

All of them - without exception - were remarkably friendly and helpful to a couple of Canadians who didn't know their bums from Page One as far as this event was concerned.

As Doug says, "After twenty minutes, there are no strangers in the Targa Tasmania."

We thank them all.

On the ferry ride back to Melbourne, Doug and I were trying to figure out where else in the world you could run an event like this.

First, you’d need friendly locals who'd be prepared to put in the effort. It wouldn’t hurt if the place needed some tourism bucks, and had a government with the guts to try something different.

You often find such tendencies on an island - like Tasmania - because the isolation often engenders lateral thinking.

Hmm-mm. Can you say, "Targa Newfoundland", boys and girls?

Watch this space.

Until that happens, especially if it doesn’t, car enthusiasts the world over should immediately put the Targa Tasmania on their "Do before you Die" list.

For more information on the Targa Tasmania, check out www.targa.org.au.

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