It is an event unlike any other in North America, a no-holds-barred rally over paved, public roads -- more than 2,000 kilometres stretching along the Atlantic coast and into the heart of Newfoundland, the island portion of Canada's most easterly province.
Sprinkled over that distance is the real reason that over 80 teams signed on for Targa Newfoundland 2004: some 500 kilometres of special stages, closed thanks to government support and patrolled by local officers looking not for speed demons, but for those who might get in their way. Sweet.
Targa Newfoundland traces its heritage to Italy's famous Targa Florio, a high-speed favourite run through the streets of Sicily not long after the dawn of the 20th century. For inspiration, it looks to the Targas run in Tasmania and New Zealand. But for excitement, challenge, scenery and culture, it stands alone.
For many, the adventure began on 11 September when they rolled off the ferry at Argentia. The former US military base was the famous site of an offshore meeting in August 1941, when Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter and set the stage for the US to enter WWII.
In nearby Placentia, the competitors and crews were met for breakfast by members of the local car club - and a couple of wild moose. A two-hour transit put the group in the province's capital, St. John's, for registration, scrutineering and the first of a week of car shows that invited the public from each of the event's stopover towns to meet the owners and see some very interesting cars.
And interesting cars there were among the 85 that started the demonstration runs around the home of the Confederation Building, the province's legislature, on 12 September. Crowd favourites included four Corvettes, in particular a black, steroid-pumped '61 that rumbled its evil intent with not a jot of humility.
Richard Paterson's 1959 Austin Mini, wearing proper Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo-winning colours, could be found by looking for the knot of spectators, as could the two modern offspring BMW brought to the party.
All three cars packed plenty of "cute" power, but some of us just wanted to get closer to the hand-fabricated fuel injection system Paterson had designed for his little classic.
The modern Minis had relatives from the other side of the family, too.
Geoff Corlett and Scott Lamb piloted the rare 1974 Bimmer 2002 Turbo, while Bill Arnold returned with his highly modified '72 Bavaria to defend the Classic crown he brought home to California last year. A couple of others rounded out the Modern classes.
Scattered throughout the roster were the Porsches. Targas. Carreras. A 944 Turbo club racer. A 356 Coupe. Eleven in all.
Two events in one
Targa Newfoundland is really two events in one. The Targa competition is focused on velocity, limited by a 80 mph average and a 125 mph top speed. Times are set for each category, growing tougher each day, which the 47 teams could not exceed on threat of penalty points. There are no penalties for finishing a closed stage too early.
The Touring class is run to tighter time-speed-distance rules, although times are set a little lower on the closed stages to give this year's 38 teams a chance to enjoy the roads at more-fun-than-legal speeds. Transits are run under the same rules for both, on open roads following the laws of the land.
The weather has been a part of the story for the past two Targas, surprising visitors and shocking locals with sunny days and record high temperatures. The hurricanes which tend to flatten the Caribbean and southern United States actually benefit this Atlantic island, pushing the tropical climate and the occasional confused exotic bird well north of familiar territory.
Closed stage runs began Monday, one in the morning and another after lunch used to set the starting order for Tuesday, when the Targa caravan really hit the road.
Lunch was hosted by a local school, a Targa tradition about which all competitors rave. This year, the students of Cape St. Francis elementary school lined the parking lot, lifting ear-splitting cheers for each vehicle that passed through the time check, waving hand-painted posters and collecting autographs from anyone with a pen.
Tuesday was the busiest driving day, with nine closed stages, the bulk of which were held on the streets and alleys of co-operative communities. It is a part of the charm and wonder of the event that so many of Newfoundland's towns will willingly shut down their municipal thoroughfares for as much as four hours at a time. Residents whoop and wave as Cadillacs, Hondas and Chryslers hop their bridges, roar past their houses and throw stones on their lawns.
On a transit through Dildo (yes, that's the town's name), five girls lifted their shirts to display the letters T-A-R-G-A on their bellies.
How willing are they? One driver, Maj.-Gen. Lewis Mackenzie (Ret'd) of the Canadian Armed Forces, side-swiped a five-metre section of picket fence on Leg 5 in Placentia, former French capital of the colony in the 18th century. At lunch, the owner's son and grandchildren approached Mackenzie -- carrying left-behind pieces of the Dodge SRT-4 for the general to sign.
Mackenzie also experienced another tradition of Targa; the generosity of the local people.
When he blew a second-gear synchro ring on Leg 2, a replacement was found, several thousand miles away in Quebec. However, the owners of the only two other SRTs in Newfoundland stepped up. Both offered to pull their transmissions -- a friendly loan. One offer was accepted and the little blue Dodge finished the race.
Such stories may seem incredible, until one begins to collect them from all the participants: fully equipped garages thrown open for the night, parts delivered with pizzas, rare bits pulled from farmers' fields to get one-of-a-kind vehicles back in the hunt. Darrian T9 owner Tom Lambert of Holyport, UK, was beside himself with praise when an aluminium welder did an aircraft-quality repair to his snapped alternator bracket.
Of course, that kind of support is vital, because Targa Newfoundland offers routes that are challenging not only to drivers and navigators but to the machinery. Some of these roads are real car breakers.
At the end of Leg 3, the second night in Gander, once the refuelling hub for transatlantic air traffic, the evening's car show was sparsely attended.
The townspeople showed up, all right, their admission fees going to local charity, but the majority of the cars were outside, in the parking lot with support crews working frantically to unbend vital bits, reseal oozing hoses or pans. Or they were on rented or loaned lifts, undergoing significantly more major surgery.
There were many offs, but only one car couldn't recover. A 1989 Honda CRX may have been salvageable after slipping down a four-metre embankment and rolling onto its roof, if a '99 Mustang GT had not followed its path and punted the little racer from the ditch where it had stopped.
The efforts of Rob Pacione's crew to get the Mustang back in the race won it the Spirit of Targa award, because, as the event grows, that never-say-die attitude is proving to be the spirit that permeates all participants.
In the end, back in St. John's, Arnold and his co-driver Tamara Hull did defend his Classic crown, taking the category by five seconds over Ontario's Jud Buchanan and Peter Wright in their Canadian-issue '67 Acadian Canso Coupe.
In the Modern division, the American team of Roy Hopkins and Adrienne Hughes claimed the top spot by seven seconds in their '89 BMW M3.
Canadians swept the touring equipped competition. Finishing at the top was Jean-Francois Drolet of Neuville, Quebec, and Rejean Beaulieu of St. Agapit, Quebec, in a 2004 Infiniti G35 Coupe. In second was Kevin Young of Georgetown, Ontario, and Stephen Rodger of Limehouse, Ontario, in a 2004 Nissan 350Z.
In touring unequipped, two local teams competing in their first Targa Newfoundland claimed the top spots. Finishing first were St. John's residents Chris Collingwood and Sean Longhi in a 2004 Subaru WRX STi. Brad Melandy and Graham Tweedie, both of Gander, drove a 1988 Chevrolet SS Monte Carlo to a second place finish.
Targa Newfoundland 2005 is scheduled to begin on 10 September. More here.