.....…."is it really over 40 years since we last raced here?”
As it was 40 years since the last World Sportscar Championship round of the Targa Florio race and the 40th anniversary of Porsche last winning the event, I thought it would be a good excuse to get a few of the British drivers together for a trip out to Sicily. I had previously been out there twice last year and got to know some of the very enthusiastic locals, one of whom runs a very interesting museum and comprehensive reference library in Campofelice (a town on the route of the circuit).
I contacted numerous drivers who had driven at the Targa and had quite a good initial response. But, as so often happens, several people dropped out for various reasons and that left us with the final three: Jack Wheeler, Rob Mackie & Peter Jackson.
Jack Wheeler competed at the Targa Florio 8 times (a record for a Brit apart from Jack’s co-driver, Martin Davidson) from 1966 until 1973. They drove Sprites of various configurations from 1966 until 1969 then a 1300cc prototype called Jerboa in 1970 & ’71 and finally a Daren Mk3 with a 2 litre V8 BRM engine in 1972 & ‘73.
Rob Mackie did the Targa in 1967 and 1969 with Dan Margulies and drove Porsche 911s ~ a 911S in 1967 and a lightweight 911T/R in 1969.
Peter Jackson drove his BRM-engined Nomad Mk1 with Clive Baker in 1969.
Rob’s son (and Frogeye Sprite racer) Jim came with us as did Peter’s son Simon. Other motorsport minded friends & wives also joined the ‘party’ and we all arranged to meet up at Gatwick bright and early on Friday 11th October for our flight to Palermo.
After a pleasant flight we started our descent into Palermo, only to feel the aircraft climbing and banking away to the right with the Captain chiming-in saying that we were diverting to Catania due to a severe thunderstorm which had closed Palermo airport. After a 5 hour delay at Catania to allow the storm to pass, we finally arrived at Palermo and collected our pre-arranged hire cars for our onward trip to Cefalu on the north coast.
After a shower and a ‘well-earned’ beer or two in the bar, we set off for a leisurely stroll along the sea front to a very pleasant Sicilian restaurant to sample some delicious antipasti and local dishes.
On the Saturday morning I had arranged to meet Antonino Venturella, the owner of the Museum in Campofelice. Besides a beautiful book about Ferrari that Jack was donating to the Museum, I was carrying with me some parts from an ex-works MGB GT that raced at the Targa Florio in 1968. The current owner of the car had heard of our trip and sent them to be donated to their ‘rightful home’.
At the museum the ladies were presented with a bouquet of flowers each and we were introduced to various locals including Salvatore Sutera, a driver who competed in various Alfa Romeo TZ1s no less than 10 times at the Targa. Before we went to the pits area (‘Floriopolis’ as the locals call it) we walked up the narrow main street between the houses, and Rob was heard to exclaim “we used to drive down here at over 100mph - madness!” Jack recalled, “getting wheelspin” in the Daren as he changed from second to third gear on the polished flag stones in the high street!
Following our visit to Campofelice, we drove along the 7 km Buonfornello straight, the only real straight on the entire 72 kms lap. Jack remembered, “the first half of this straight was not too bad; between 3 and 4 cars wide. You would then come across a type of ‘Bailey bridge’ and the road would suddenly narrow to only 2 cars width and trees would line the road on both sides, which was fine, except you were travelling at 165 /170 mph and those trees seemed like a close-boarded fence!”
At the end of the straight the road would climb slightly and turn away from the sea into a series of sweeping bends, some open, some quite tight. After a few kilometres the road joins the railway track again and there is a junction on the left signposted to Cerda. The cars would sweep left and head up towards the pits and grandstands area – Floriopolis - and every cars’ arrival would be announced by a maroon being let off as they took the bend at the junction.
We pulled over just by the grandstand and as we climbed out of our hire-cars the emotion hit a few of us. You could feel the atmosphere of the place and almost hear the scream of racing engines and smell the Castrol R! Sadly, the buildings at Floriopolis are in serious decline and despite the local enthusiasts’ endeavours to get the land owners to repair and restore the area for future generations and the history of the Targa Florio, nothing is being done. There just doesn’t seem to be any money or desire by the owners to do anything about it.
After our ‘time of reflection’ at the pits, we set off on our lap of the circuit. From the start the road winds its way up 7 kms to the small town of Cerda at 273m elevation, where we stopped for a few minutes to have a look at the old garage, now a small museum, where Alfa Romeo used to keep their race cars during the week prior to the race. After leaving the town of Cerda the circuit rises and falls through the many numerous bends for several kilometres until about 19kms out when it starts to really rise in elevation and the turns get ever sharper with hairpin after hairpin. Just as you think you are getting into a rhythm, the course throws you a few varied corners with a few dips and blind brows for good measure! The next town on (just to the right of) the route is Caltavuturo at 27kms out, a real Sicilian mountain village clinging to the sheer rock-face of the mountain side at 600 m above sea level. From here the road gives you no rest at all as it drops down for the next 8 kms, your arms kept busy by the constant lefts and rights and your eyes kept busy trying to pick out the next braking point and apex. From 35kms the course starts to rise again through yet more hairpins up to 570m elevation, Bivio Polizzi at 39kms, where the ‘Mountain Pits’ were situated. The bigger teams like Ferrari, Porsche, Alfa Romeo and Lancia would have a skeleton team of mechanics armed with churns of fuel, spare wheels and tyres, and if you were lucky, maybe some spare brake pads or suspension components! The lesser teams and ‘mere mortals’ had to wait till they got back to the main pits another 33kms away! A further 10 kms of acceleration, braking and wheel twirling saw us enter the town of Collesano where the race cars would howl through the narrow streets between the stone- walled houses and thousands of spectators who would line the route. We stopped in Collesano for a few minutes for the drivers to get their breath back and to allow the passengers to re-settle their stomachs before the next 11kms of downhill sweeping bends towards Campofelice. As we approached the final town on the lap, I recognised the bend that I stood at taking many photos in 1970 overlooking the azure-blue Tyrrhenian sea; great memories. We then drove through the town of Campofelice and back towards the Buonfornello straight along by the sea that we had left about 1¾ hours previously. No-one except the drivers would believe me when I told them that the lap record was 33mins 11secs.
Towards the end of last year I had been contacted by Michael Keyser who was co-writing a book called ‘Racing Demons - Porsche and the Targa Florio’ and he wanted to use some of my photographs that I had taken in 1970. The book was produced only recently and it was decided that a book launch party was to be arranged in Cefalu for Saturday 12th October. It was purely coincidental, but our Hotel was right next door to where the party was being held; so not far to stagger home!
Our drive around the circuit had left us quite exhilarated and after a quick shower and a change of clothes we were ready for the party. It was quite a grand affair, with approximately 90 guests being invited. We, the British contingent, were greeted very enthusiastically at the door by co-writers, Enzo Manzo, Mark Koense and Michael Keyser whom I had been corresponding with by e-mail for the past 11 months. At the door was also Jonathan Williams and local hero, Nino Vaccarella as well as Ciccio, the famous racing shoe maker from Cefalu.
Jack, Peter & Rob all knew Jonathan Williams quite well from many years ago when they all lived and raced together in the UK. But, maybe not surprisingly, it took quite a few moments for them to recognise each other! Peter also had brought along some amusing photos of himself and Jonathan on a Kart track at Spa taken in the early 1960’s, which caused quite a laugh.
The whole evening was quite a magical affair with a very sumptuous buffet washed down by plenty of fine wines and champagne which made the many and numerous stories of past races highly amusing. Michael had arranged for a copy of the book for each of the guests plus a special poster to commemorate the 11 Porsche victories at the Targa from 1956 until 1973 and we were also presented with a beautiful print of an original painting by local artist Salvo Manuli. My wife and I were one of the last to leave the party, but we left Jack and Jonathan, huddled around yet another bottle of red wine, reminiscing about old times.
The next morning, no one was down for breakfast particularly early, and so we had quite a relaxed drive up into the mountains to explore some villages on the other side of the Madonie range such as Isnello for coffee and then onto Castelbuono for lunch. When we arrived back in Cefalu the Kart race meeting was in full flow and so we watched some of the races which was run around a closed-road circuit in the middle of town. Every year at this time they just close off the roads for the whole weekend and hold a race meeting. Now, why can’t we do the same in the UK?
Our final day in Sicily was occupied by a shopping trip in the quaint old town of Cefalu before saying goodbye to Ciccio in his shoe shop and Michael Keyser, Enzo Manzo and Mark Koense who just happened to pop in as well.
For lunch, I wanted to take everyone to a very nice restaurant at the foot of an old castle that we found during our last year’s visit in a town called Caccamo. Again the food and wine was superb and was a fitting end to our rather brief visit to Sicily. The weather had been very kind to us over the 5 days away (apart from the storm at Palermo) with sunshine and temperatures between 25 and 34 degrees. The people and friends we met were extremely hospitable and very enthusiastic about meeting drivers who knew what it was really like to race at the Targa Florio.
Jack Wheeler & Nino Vaccerella
Jonathan Williams, Rob Mackie & Jack Wheeler
Michael Keyser with Nino Vaccerella
Peter Jackson, Jack Wheeler, Antonino Venturella, Rob Mackie & Salvatore Sutella at the Targa Florio Museum in Campofelice
Peter Jackson & Ciccio, the racing shoemaker.
The 'Floriopolis' pits area
Rob & Enzo Manzo
The Wheeler/Davidson Sprite on the Targa in 1967
Clive Baker examining Peter Jackson's Nomad Mk 1, after it hit a road marker, 1967
Peter pushing the Nomad at the Nurburgring
Targa Florio, 1969:
Rob Mackie in No.100 Porsche, Cerda High Street
Rob overtaking Ignazio Giunti in his troubled Alfa T33
The Jerboa BMC 1300 in 1970:
The Jerboa on the drive down to Sicily
during practice approaching Campofelice (Jack driving)
Jack queued-up waiting to start
Jack during unofficial practice (note no crash helmet!)
The Daren Mk3 BRM in 1973:
Martin Davidson (Twinkle) in practice
Jack in the pits
Martin - High Street, Campofelice
[N.B. Drivers would just take their cars out for a blast
around the circuit when they fancied it on a normal day with all the traffic, donkey carts, sheep etc etc. and no one would bat an eyelid. The
local Police even encouraged it!...those were the days. JP]