What do you think was the toughest and most difficult race ever? After reading my September 2011 history column, you might say the New York to Paris. Then there was the 1950-54 La Carrera Panamericana. But these were short-lived point-to-point contests. How about a closed circuit race? In the opinion of many who competed there, it was the Targa Florio. The first was in 1906; the last in 1977.
I am fortunate to know quite a few who were there. Three of them—Sitrling Moss, John Fitch and Brian Redman—are friends who have shared their experiences with us. Moss won in 1955 with Fitch fourth; Redman won in 1970. Why was it so tough? According to Brian, “One 44 mile lap had 710 corners, not to mention unforgiving poles, stone walls, dogs, spectators and farm animals. Surfaces ranged from bad to worse. A missed turn might mean a horrific drop down the side of a mountain.”
The first Targa was organized by wealthy Italian aficionado Vincenzo Florio on May 6, 1906. Florio (1883-1959), from a prominent Sicilian family, had previously initiated the Coppa Florio, a race first run in 1900. The first Targa was three laps over the 92.7-mile Grande Circuit. Each lap was an ordeal as the roads weren’t designed for cars. Drivers encountered both domestic and wild animals as well as bandits. Entries had to be production cars of which ten had been made. Other than that, there were no rules. Vincenzo Lancia organized the betting, common at auto races in those days.
Thirty cars entered, but a dock strike in Genoa hampered travel, so only ten made it to the start. Each car was sent off from Campofelice every ten minutes. First away was bookie Lancia in his Fiat followed by Jacques Le Blon in a Hotchkiss with his riding-mechanic wife. To the dismay of those who had money on him, Lancia retired due to mechanical failure. Le Blond suffered a number of tire punctures; Mrs. Le Blon had to help changing them. Alessandro Cagno in an Itala 35/40 HP won in 9 1/2 hours averaging 29 mph. Carlo Graziani was second in another Italia while Paul Bablot in a Berliet was third.
In 1907, some regulations regarding engine specifications and weight were instituted. With dock workers loading cargo, 50 cars entered. Vincenzo Florio’s former chauffeur, Felice Nazzaro, won in a Fiat with Lancia second, also in a Fiat and Maurice Fabry third in an Italia. Vincenzo Trucco in a Fiat won the 1908 contest, but 1909 experienced a severe earthquake near Messina, killing hundreds. Consequently only 11 cars showed up. Francesco won in a SPA.