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.
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After WWI, cars were scarce and little had been spent on road repair. So Florio transformed the Targa into a Formula Libra; run what you brung, as they say. He also shortened the total mileage from 651 miles to 268. The new course—called the Media Circuit—was 22.5 miles around. The race was held on November 23, 1919. Twenty-four cars came including Enzo Ferrari in a CMN. There were thousands of spectators from all over Europe. The hotels, bars and restaurants did a land-office business. Andre Boillot won the four-lap race in a Peugeot EXS.
Between the wars, Bugatti dominated for five years (1925-29), then Alfa Romeo for six in a row with Tazio Nuvolari (1931 and 1932) and Achille Varzi (1930 and 1934) winning two each. The 1936 event was run over two laps for 1.5-liter cars and was taken by Constantino Magistri in a Lancia Augusta. Maserati won the last four of the decade—1937 to ’40—with Luigi Villoresi triumphant at the last two.
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Then the world went to war again putting a hiatus on racing. In 1943, the Gestapo put Vincenzo and Lucia Florio in a Rome jail in an effort to persuade Italians to continue the fight. The next Targa wasn’t held until 1948.
Over the years since then, a number of familiar names competed including Umberto Maglioli, Piero Taruffi, Carroll Shelby, Luigi Musso, Oliver Gendebian, Dan Gurney, Jerry Grant, Bob Bondurant and Phil Hill.
Nineteen fifty-five was a tragic year for racing and a significant for the Targa. First, there was the horrific accident at Le Mans where more than 80 people died. In addition, Alberto Ascari, Bill Vukovich, Jack McGrath and James Dean died behind the wheel. Daimler Benz was competing for the World Manufacturers Championship and, for the first time, the Targa was included. Stirling Moss and John Fitch won the Tourist Trophy in September driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, making the Targa in October the deciding event. At that point, Ferrari had 19 point while Mercedes had 16. So Daimler-Benz launched an all-out effort, going to Sicily with eight 300SLRs plus eight trucks with 45 mechanics.
Stirling Moss was teamed with Peter Collins, John Fitch with Desmond Titterington and Juan Manuel Fangio with Carl Kling. On October 16, 72-year-old Vincenzo Florio flagged off 47 competitors at 30-second intervals. According to Fitch, “By the end of the first lap, Stirling had stormed into the lead, having passed the entire pack and broken all records with a lap of 44 minutes averaging 60 mph on the narrow, twisting road where one blind corner followed another.” Castelotti was second in a Ferrari with Fangio close behind. But on the fourth lap, Moss went off the road damaging the car and losing coolant. After a pit stop for repairs, Collins took over and recovered the lost time, then handed back to Stirling who went faster and faster, finally setting a new record of 43 minutes, 7.4 seconds. Moss took the flag followed by Fangio and then the Castelotti Ferrari, thus securing the championship for Daimler-Benz. After 1955, the company retired from racing.
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The following year, Moss drove a Porsche with Graham Hill. They came within 500 yards of winning when the rear axle broke. “It was bitterly disappointing,” Moss remembered, “but that was the Targa all over; triumph one minute and disaster at another and nothing to warn you what was coming next.”
My friend, Brian Redman won one of the last Targas in 1970 driving a Porsche 908/3. The previous year, Brian and Jo Siffert had won Brands Hatch, Spa, Monza, the Nurburgring and Watkins Glen clinching the World Manufacturers Championship for Porsche for the first time. Before the Targa, the Porsche team manager suggested Brian get some practice. “I spent two or three days driving around the 44-mile circuit trying to learn the impossible. In the race, whilst running among the top three, I had a drive-shaft break, so that was that.”
In 1970, Redman was teamed with Jo Siffert, who started, then came in after three laps for a driver change. “I jumped in and managed to close up to the leader, Nino Vaccarella in a Ferrari 512. I tried to pass him three times and three times he was going to push me off the road. Finally, I held my place about 100 yards behind for two laps and then closed right up at the pit stop where we had a faster driver change. So Jo went into the lead and, six and half hours after the start, finished in first place.”
Brian’s final year was 1971. On the first lap when the steering failed, he crashed into a pole; the car caught fire and exploded. “On fire from head to foot, doing a very fair imitation of Joan of Arc and blinded by fire, I staggered across the road and collapsed.” Ferrari entered Redman with Jackie Ickx in 1973, but Jackie crashed on the first lap.
Brian summed up his experiences: “The Targa was something different, the last of the real old-style road races, run in a beautiful, mysterious country with feelings of incipient danger, whether actual ones on the road or those imagined from the unknown, were never far away.”
The record shows that the Targa Florio was the longest-lasting road race, outliving the Mille Miglia by 16 years. It was held 57 times in 67 years. After 1977 it has been run as a rally, but in Europe, rallies as are almost as tough as races.
Notes: I spoke with 94-year-old John Fitch on the phone a few days before writing this. He was at his home near Lime Rock, the same house where he has lived since 1960. In spite of some recent mishaps, Stirling and Susie Moss still live near the Hilton Hotel in London. They went on a cruise this January and he is still active making appearances. At age 80, he retired from vintage racing. Brian Redman is going at a “tour guide” to Italy for the start of the Mille Miglia in May. Next he plans trips to the Goodwood Festival as well as the Revival.