Being allowed to race on public roads is a pretty rare thing these days. We speed freaks are mostly confined to purpose-built circuits, drag strips, and empty parking lots now, but this wasn’t always the case. Back in the good old days, before lawyers and insurance companies killed the fun, open-road rallies were all the rage, Targa Florio on the Italian island of Sicily being the grand daddy of them all and one of the most important motorcar races in Europe from its inception in 1906 until its demise in 1977 when two spectators were killed.
The ethos of Targa Florio lives on, though, thanks to three week-long tarmac rallies – Targa Tasmania, Targa New Zealand, and Targa Newfoundland – that have somehow found ways to navigate the countless political and legal challenges associated with temporarily closing public roads so a bunch of yahoos in fast cars can ignore the posted speed limit and drive flat-out. And hopefully not into the woods. Or the ocean, as a certain YouTube-famous Ferrari did a few years ago in Newfoundland. For Peter and I (both former magazine editors) Targa Newfoundland has been on our bucket list for a very long time.
We’ve been trying for the better part of a decade to find an OEM partner with the stones to provide a car we could modify and race in Newfoundland, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that Scion Canada and Scion Racing signed off on our proposal to build a FR-S, allowing us to finally live out our dream of blitzing fishing villages and flying over blind crests at 180km/h.
Our agreement with Scion was simple: they’d provide a modest travel budget and a hand-me-down chassis that was used in a past FR-S Tuner Challenge program but had been returned to more-or-less stock condition, and we’d do the rest. The rest, as it turned out, included replacing a rollcage that was ill-suited to our needs and upgrading key safety and performance components (seats, harnesses, suspension, brakes, and bolt-on power adders among them) so that we had a reliable and hopefully competitive package for what tuned out to be a far greater test of mechanical and physical endurance than we ever imagined.
We arrived in Newfoundland in mid September with a relatively untested package, having only made it to two test days prior to shipping the car to this rugged north Atlantic island populated by some of the friendliest folks we’ve ever met. We’d partnered with many of the best names in the performance aftermarket, though, including KW for a set of their Clubsport coilovers, RAYS for a set of their Volk Racing CE28RT wheels, and Yokohama for a set of their extra sticky Advan AD08 R tires, so we were feeling good about our chances of making it to the end of the week in one piece.
Keep in mind, though, that you don’t show up for the first time to an event like Targa Newfoundland expecting to win. Learning how to properly use the course notes along with a lack of local road knowledge tends to put first-timers at a big disadvantage.
So we showed up with one goal in mind: get to the finish. In other words, we did not want to be one of those newbie teams that roll in with a shiny new car and immediately stuffs it into a house on Day 1 of a five-day rally. Plus we knew that about 30 per cent of teams don’t actually even make it to the finish, so a ‘slow and steady’ start to the rally was always going to be our best chance of a competitive finish.Resisting Red Mist
Day 1 began with me in the driver’s seat. The plan was for me to drive the morning stages and Peter the afternoon stages all week, since we wanted to split driving duties and my motion sickness as a passenger meant it made more sense for me to drive before eating one of the delicious local lunches put on by each town we raced through. Turned out my motion sickness was far less of a problem than my total inability to read the course notes at the right time, but more on that later.
There was rain on the first stage, which meant the target time we’d need to beat to avoid taking any penalty time would be made easier. Not that we had a clue what the target time was, so we just went for a rip in the rain and hoped for the best.
At the end of Day 1 we were in for a bit of a wake-up call. We’d taken a 13-second penalty on that first stage and Peter took another 6 seconds on his first stage of the day, despite having been told the target times would be easy to achieve on the first few days of the rally. Clearly our definition of easy wasn’t inline with the organizers, but at least this clued us in to the fact that we needed to write down our start time and finish time on each stage and calculate our total time if we wanted to keep better track of our progress and get a better sense of the pace we’d need to run at.
Feeling a bit discouraged by our 7th position out of 9 teams in Modern Division, we kept telling ourselves there was a lot of racing to go and that our only goal was to get to the end. But being competitive by nature, we did push a little harder on Day 2, moving up to 5th in class but not without a cost.
On the last stage of the day, Peter noticed a clunking noise coming from the rear end. I told him the tools or jack strapped in the trunk had probably just come loose and to keep pushing, but then the rear end stepped out hard in a braking zone and we knew something wasn’t right. The clunking was getting worse so we nursed the car across the finish line, miraculously avoiding any penalty time on the stage (target times vary a lot from stage to stage, some being quite easy to clear and others being damn near impossible to clear, so we caught a break by having a mechanical problem on a stage with a rather forgiving target time).
Once we got a look under the car, the problem was obvious. The bracket that locates the leading mounting point for the rear lower control arm had sheered off the subframe. This was allowing the wheel to toe in and out wildly, which explains why it was trying to swap ends under braking. But as luck would have it, the bracket broke off cleanly enough that we were able, with the help of a local shop, to weld it back to the subframe and further reinforce it for a little added insurance. The bracket on the other side was showing signs of fatigue too, the rust in the stress cracks suggested the problem started before we inherited the car, so we welded it up as well.
We started Day 3 feeling a bit uneasy about how well the car would hold together the rest of the way, and as if to further test our resolve, the roads were horrendously rough on the first stage of the day (North Harbour), which we ran four times. Typically stages are run in both directions, but because the following stage had to be cancelled, this apocalyptic opening stage was run in and out twice.
Our subframe repair held up, though, and Peter’s first stage of the day was the amazing Trinity in/out, which was the first of the really tight town stages, this one into the historic village of Trinity, one of the oldest settlements in North America.
The FR-S proved to be a great fit here, where hairpins and 90-degree lefts and rights in quick succession down narrow alleyways lined by white picket fences made for a surreal racing experience. One small problem, though: Peter forgot to put up his window at the start, so we took a 10-second penalty. Whoops!
Then the afternoon stages were more of the rough stuff, this time Peter having to tip-toe his way through the minefield of potholes so as not to risk bending a rim or worse. As frustrating as it was to go slow here, when we knew the top teams with their more rally-prepped machines were going flat-out, seeing a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X on its roof during the stage-out run confirmed that our strategy still had merit. But because we played it safe and preserved the car, we dropped back a spot to 6th in class by the end of Day 3. We were feeling kind of down, to be honest, because we went backwards in the order and really didn’t enjoy dodging all those potholes.
Town stages like Trinity and fast and flowing stages with huge elevation changes and endless ocean views like Boat Harbour have a way of washing away any anxiety about potholes or rules infractions, though. And since team tech Andrew DeLaCour gave the FR-S two thumbs up after a complete nut and bolt check Wednesday night, we decided it was time to man up and push hard.On The Hunt
We picked the perfect day to turn up the heat, too, since the Day 4 stages were exactly the sort we’d dreamed of. We’re talking ballsy-fast country roads with tons of elevation changes and warnings about moose potentially being on the course, to town stages where we were chirping the 1st to 2nd shift while blasting through people’s backyards. Despite disturbing the peace in this glorious fashion, the locals in every town we raced through seemed genuinely thrilled to see us. Below is a complete stage run of Peter tearing it up through Trinity Bay North, just to give you a feel for the action in our FR-S fun-machine.
Many other teams appeared to be pushing harder now too, several ending up with bent cars parked deep in the woods, and one of the fastest cars in our class, a Lotus Exige, literally had its engine fall onto its axles. All this carnage and our improved pace meant we were just 34 seconds out of 3rd in class and 6th overall. Incredible what a difference a day can make!
Day 5 started out a bit slow for us, with what felt like a sub-par drive on my part, but I still took 10-seconds out of the 3rd place team in our class, a MINI Cooper S JCW driven by Targa veteran Doug Mepham.
I amped up the aggression on the out stage from Hodges Cove, feeling like I hadn’t done enough on the way in, which resulted in a further 19-seconds being cut from the MINI’s hold on 3rd in class. Below is a complete in-car look at the Hodges Cove out stage, which left us just 5 seconds behind that podium finish in the Modern division.
Now it was Pete’s time to shine, and since he’d been killing it all week in the town stages and the rally ended in Brigus, the tightest and most technical of all the town stages, we felt like we were perfectly positioned to finish strong. We had been told that it was very hard to make up any time in Brigus and not to expect too much, but if there was ever a time to throw caution to the wind and just drive like it was your last day on Earth, it was now.
And really, from the passenger seat, I can say that Pete held absolutely nothing back, banging through the gears and sliding the tail around the countless hairpins with total commitment. Brigus actually felt a bit like a gymkhana course it changes directions so rapidly, and as the navigator I had to just shut up and hold on since I couldn’t read the course notes fast enough.
The way Targa timing works, you don’t know what your competitors have done until they post the results on the website an hour or two after the stage, so we crossed the finish line for the last time in Brigus not knowing if we’d done enough to leapfrog into 3rd in class or if we’d secured the manufacturer’s cup for Scion.
After high fiving, chest-bumping and bro-hugging with all the other teams – and there really is a huge sense of accomplishment and relief when you complete every stage at an endurance testing rally like Targa – we jumped back in the FR-S and headed for St. John’s for the ceremonial finish line crossing and some hard-earned celebrations. That’s when we got the call from Team Manager Vinh Pham that we had indeed finished 3rd in class and won the manufacturer’s cup for Scion, along with finishing 6th overall.
Peter kept his stoic Polish act going, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a little when the news came in. From there it was selfie time with our medals, trophies and plates, and then the harsh reality that life would soon be returning to normal.
All in all, our week in Newfoundland really couldn’t have gone any better, and as a bucket list adventure it’s absolutely worth the effort to get there. In fact, I now understand why so many teams return year after year, because the roads and the sense of camaraderie as you travel with this racing circus for a week is really like nothing else in the world. Except for Targa Tasmania. Or Targa New Zealand.
Whether you live in the northern hemisphere or southern, you need to put a Targa event on your ‘things to do before I’m too old to go fast’ list. Do it, and do in soon, because who knows how much longer these kinds of open-road rallies will survive. But just in case you need a little added inspiration, here’s a documentary style video on our Targa adventure…
Dave Pratte & Peter Tarach
Photos by Daniel Olivares & Raulph Saulnier