Understandably, we mourn the loss of a racing driver. After May 1st 1994, we would never see Ayrton Senna race again. The same can be said after May 8th 1982; no longer would we watch in amazement as Gilles Villeneuve drifted a Formula One car through a flat-out corner, probably with a wheel missing or something. Following a crash nobody mourns the car; we’ll see one identical to it once the team have built a new one. Races though, there’s reason to mourn the loss of a few of those.
I never saw Senna race, I was just four when he died and worse still, my parents hadn’t even met when Gilles was killed. It’s equally painful that I never witnessed first hand the great open road races – the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Panamericana and the Targa Florio. Health, safety and common sense killed those long before I was born. Of course, in the real world, the loss of a life isn’t comparable to the loss of a simple sporting event but like the loss of Senna, Villeneuve and others, the death of the great open road races was to the real detriment of motor sport.
The Carrera Panamericana was wildly considered the most dangerous race in the world; it was a border-to-border race along the spine of Mexico to celebrate the opening of the Pan-American highway in 1950. The conditions – both road and atmospheric – were often considered suicidal and would have to be endured for over 2000 miles. As a result it was a test of a cars durability and driver’s stamina more than speed and talent; for all five races held, the winner would be whoever could finish, let alone complete the mammoth task in the quickest time. As remarkable as some of the tales of the Carrera Panamericana are, durability and stamina simply aren’t as interesting as flat-out driving skill.
The Mille Miglia was – as the Italian name suggests – a thousand mile race. Starting in Brescia, competitors would depart in two minute intervals, racing south to Rome and back to Brescia again. Simply, the fastest to do so was declared the winner. I’ve driven some of the roads leaving Brescia – having visited the spectacular Mille Miglia museum – and the thought of seeing a racing car tear along the narrow Italian streets both terrified and excited me.
While I consider Stirling Moss’ record-breaking victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia to be one of the greatest racing triumphs of all time, it’s the Targa Florio that interests me the most. It served to entertain and thrill longer than any other; from 1906 to 1977 the serene Sicilian hills – home to goats, cattle and vineyards – were interrupted with flashes of noise and colour as exotic racing machinery ripped through the countryside like an arrow.
Originally, the idea of holding a motor race around the mountains of Sicily must have appeared to be born out of insanity. The madcap idea came from Vincenzo Florio, a wealthy pioneer race driver and car enthusiast whose idea for a race around the island became one of the toughest races in Europe. What’s more, the Targa was born a remarkable 44 years before Formula One, 17 years before the famous Le Mans 24 hour race and even 5 years before the Indy 500.
Over it’s 71 year life, the Targa used six course variations, ranging from a 45 mile circuit to the monstrous island tour of 670 miles with each corner and every straight littered with danger. While race day of the Targa saw the roads closed to the public, practice days leading up to the race were not. A driver could expect to have to negotiate road cars, horse-drawn carts and all manner of daily Sicilian traffic whilst learning the course at immense speed. Race day’s relatively empty roads were dangerous enough; tight hairpins, blind crests, concrete walls, houses and churches were all part of the scenery, flashing by at terrifying speed.
It was of course a race that rewarded experience; to know the roads of Sicily were a great advantage and nobody knew the roads better than local hero and amazingly, local teacher, Nino Vaccerella. The 1968 Targa winner Vic Elford said that Vaccerella ‘knew the roads of Sicily like the back of his hand’, and he proved it by winning the Targa in 1965 and again in 1971. Not bad for a teacher.
Open road racing was of course staggeringly dangerous; drivers would race through the valleys in the shadow of death, but the Targa’s longevity could perhaps be down to a relative lack of fatal accidents. Only 9 people – including spectators – died at the Targa over it’s 71 year and 61 race history. Compared to the Mille Miglia’s 56 deaths over 30 years, 24 races and the Carrera Panamericana’s 25 over 5 years and 5 races, the Targa’s death toll is remarkably low.
There’s something about the open road races of yesteryear – the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Panamericana and the Targa – that evoke a nostalgic desire for motor racing to return to those days when it was simply man, machine and road. No politics, no money, just simple, pure, racing. Of course, in the latter days of the Targa those pesky elements of modern motor sport were beginning to play a larger part but the image of a fiery, loud racing car tearing through rustic Sicilian villages and out past sun-torched hills was one of pure motor racing joy. It allowed fans, drivers and spectators perched on stony walls to forget the bullshit and simply enjoy the scream of an engine, the smell of burnt rubber and the sight of an artist behind the wheel. ‘Poetry in motion’ is a bit of a motor racing cliché but when the likes of Stirling Moss, Vic Elford and Nino Vaccerella weaved their cars along the twisting contours of Sicily’s roads, they were creating something special, like a poet writing a prose or a painter creating a masterpiece.
With the death of the Targa in 1977, motor racing not only lost an inspiring spectacle but it lost – perhaps forever – an ingredient that often went unnoticed. The open road races offered a certain romance. Burly heroic men would race powerful, exotic cars across naturally beautiful scenes; it was a pure love affair between driver, car and the open road and it inspired a generation.
Rallying is as close as we get nowadays but it’s an altogether tamer beast. As a result, I for one, mourn the loss of the great open road races.