Doug Nye: Retracing the Targa Florio

14th June 2016
doug_nye_headshot.jpg Doug Nye

Back in the late 1940s when motor racing began at our Motor Circuit, races were run very much upon along Brooklands lines. This was largely because the average British racing car, and I doubt there were more than 30-40 purebred genuine Racing Cars in the entire country at the time, was really rather unreliable. Therefore a 3-lap or 5-lap race was not unusual at Goodwood. A feature race could be 12-laps. Glory be, a 15-lap race would be something really quite significant.


Our old friend Denis Jenkinson (‘DSJ’ or ‘Jenks’) of Motor Sport magazine fame used to think this was a great hoot. He spent most of his time in 1949-50 based in Brussels, motorcycle racing on solos and sidecars. He enjoyed tremendous exposure to the great Continental road circuits of the period, and to him mere aerodrome racing back home on British soil was merely ‘playing at it’ – not serious racing at all.

When I really got to read ‘DSJ’ in depth during the 1950s I picked up the same mind-set, as a wide-eyed school kid will. When I got to know him during the early-to-mid 1960s I found his attitudes and opinions pretty much unchanged. Then there was one day when, standing on a hilltop above the right-hander through which the Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit turns towards the famous Karussel hairpin loop, and looking back along the course Jenks pointed out that we could probably see as much race circuit as comprised the entire length of Brands Hatch and Mallory Park combined…

Now last week I spent four days in Sicily, revisiting the old Madonie mountain-road circuits on which the epic Targa Florio race was run from as early as 1906, right up to 1977. Jenks was a great fan of ‘the Targa’, as was our photographer colleague Geoff Goddard with whom I worked closely for around 40 years. Geoff covered 11 consecutive Targa Florio races, from 1963-1973 inclusive. He took some of the most famous photographs ever to depict the great Sicilian road race, and he adored it for its geography, for its village architecture, and for the predictable unpredictability of the local mountain people…

The post-Second World War Targas, from 1951-77, were run on the Piccolo Madonie road circuit, which is a mere 44 miles to the lap. Its immediate predecessor had been the Medio Madonie road circuit, which encompassed 67 miles of the Madonie mountain range. And before World War 1 the Targa had actually started in 1906 on the Grande Madonie road circuit – which had a lap length of some 92 miles. When you roll in the fact that the Sicilian roads have never been billiard-table smooth, and that many sections for many years were merely gravel-surfaced goat tracks, you can’t fail to be amazed at the sheer chutzpah of the event’s much-adored founder, Count Vincenzo Florio. He had established the event originally by digging deep into his own pocket to fund it, intending to publicise and promote not only his own family businesses, but to benefit the down-trodden and too-often overlooked people of his home region, the island of Sicily itself.


Now when one thinks of the historic old Targa itself one will most probably picture the 44-mile Piccolo Madonie circuit, as used 1951-77. Most enthusiasts will be aware of its challenging and twisty nature – more like a rally special stage than a circuit-race venue. Having just visited – for only the second time since I reported the last World Championship-qualifying Targa there in 1973 – it’s remarkable how well one remembers sections of it. The problem is that there are intervening sections which you probably won’t recall, and they’re the ones that can bite – hard…

On the day we were leaving for Palermo, Richard Attwood told me how he and Brian Redman were dispatched there in 1969 for a ten-day pre-race recce. “We had a 911R each and were told to learn the circuit. We set off in convoy, but Porsche hadn’t even given us a map, so when we got to the first road junction we just stopped, scratched our heads, and then had to wait for a local to come by. We flagged him down and asked ‘Il circuito della Targa Florio?’ – in terrible dog-Italian – and he laughed and pointed the way, and so we found out for ourselves where the road went…”.

They ended up studying the course section by section, but Richard also told me how “When we came back for the race, the Porsche 908 was so much quicker than the recce 911s that almost everything looked entirely different. There was one section I recall which went left-right, left-right, left-right – and the last right-hander opened out onto one of the very rare straights, so you really had to commit into that corner, because your exit speed there would determine your speed along the straight, and you could either gain some time there – or lose a lot of it.  Well first time round in the 908 I thought ‘Left-right, then another left-right, then the straight…and of course I was a left-right short. I really committed to what I thought was the final right, only to find another left-right instead of that darned straight.  And I so nearly went straight off into the trees or down the mountainside. It really steadied me. But I remembered ever after it was a succession of three left-rights ­– not just two…”.


Cars for the Targa would be geared commonly with a close cluster for 1-2-3-4 (in a 5-speed gearbox) but then have a huge gap to an immensely long overdrive-style top gear. This was specifically for the coastal Buonfornello Straight – where one aimed direct at the bulk of Monte San Calogero, and ran flat-strap for 3-miles – the big sports-prototypes such as the Ferrari P3/4s, Ford GT40s, the Chaparral 2F (in 1967) and the Lola T70GTs or T280s reaching beyond 180mph towards 200mph along there.

Last Thursday, there we were at the start of the Buonfornello, the entire lap length of Silverstone stretching arrow-straight before us. At one point up in the mountains, one could gaze out across the vast valley of the Himera river, and see as much one-time race circuit as Goodwood, Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and probably Silverstone all in one sweep.

This wasn’t just a gorgeous, sun-soaked, vegetation-rich landscape spread out before us – it is in reality a vast motor sporting shrine, a stage so drivingly rich in racing history I feel it should qualify on its automotive merits alone as a world heritage site.

Some of the local enthusiasts would heartily concur. The Piccolo Madonie course runs through three small towns or villages.  One is Cerda, the second is Collesano, and the third Campofelice di Rocella. In the days when Jenks and Geoff and Pete Coltrin, Henry N. Manney III and so many other race reporting stars covered Sports Car World Championship racing here, the local village policeman in Campofelice was named Ernesto Venturella. ‘Ernest the Policeman’ had been a PoW during the war, in a camp near Birmingham. He’d learned English with a Brummy accent, which overlaid upon his Sicilian-Italian twang was a pretty unusual mixture. His oppo in the Campofelice force was Piero Parisi, and both appear in the background of numerous Goddard Targa photos – both were always suggesting (invariably hair-raising) vantage points from which they reckoned he should take “immagine fantastic”.

‘Ernesto the Policeman’s son Nini today runs a delightful little Targa museum in Campofelice, just beside the town piazza in front of the church which – again – became a famous feature of Targa photos. His pal Antonio Catanzaro runs a similarly personal but delightfully jam-packed little Targa museum in the village of Cerda, just a few miles into the lap after the surviving startling pits and grandstand area of ‘Floriopoli’. And then there’s the official community Targa museum which is in a side-street in Collesano – beautifully put together, and again displaying some really special items – from Maria Teresa de Filippis’s driving slacks, shirt and crash helmet to local hero and multiple Targa winner Nino Vaccarella’s, and some truly wonderful photography.

There is a downside however. The Madonie range in places seems to have a particularly unstable covering of shale and clay. Weathering occasionally separates the topsoil from its solid-rock sub-strate. Considerable sections of the old Piccolo Madonie roadway are cracked, split, heaved, slipped and distorted. Long sections are notionally barred to traffic. We ignored the signs – “tourists, you know” – and (gingerly) drove on. We found we could quite happily make the long climb from a point above Cerda to the road junction near Sclafani Bagni, after which two memorial stones flank the road – one to Fulvio Tandoi, killed in his Alpine-Renault here in the 1971 Targa, and the other to twice-winner (1921 and 1922) Count Giulio Masetti, who rolled his Delage V12 at this spot in 1926. 


The roadway proceeds to a 180-degree turn over a valley-head bridge just below the township of Caltavuturo – a real mountain-top ‘brigands lair’ – then you take a left-turn to dive down into a blind right-hander around a rocky bluff. Straight ahead, now hidden from view by a reassuring stone wall, is what amounts to ‘a high fly’ into empty space.

The roadside is hundreds of feet above a vast, gaping valley about five miles wide. In 1958 Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins christened this corner ‘Back to Britain in a Box’. Which says it all…

The road then swerves and curves, descending quite steeply into the valley. An Autostrada now follows the Himera river through the valley bottom. But as we swept down towards it, past the spot where Brian Redman was burned in a fiery crash in his Gulf-Porsche 908/3 in 1971, we rounded a right-hand turn to find the road ahead totally blocked by tipped rubble and a dayglo-orange road works fence.

This forced us to retrace our route, turn south at Caltavuturo, then follow the pre-war Medio Madonie course looping round eastwards to another mountain-top village in Polizzi Generosa, then back down to the other side of the Himera valley. We dived down to the old Bivio La Manna bridge over which the modern Autostrada passes on the Viadotto Himera… and just beyond it we found the reason for the race-direction barricade. 


Last Christmas, an entire section of the mountainside slid down here, knocking away several of the Autostrada viaduct supports, and causing some 280 metres of the southbound section to topple sideways, to lean drunkenly against its northbound sister.  

While the damaged section has since been blown-up and demolished – traffic taking a lengthy diversion – the old Piccolo Madonie roadway up on the mountainside above is likewise completely obliterated; stone retaining walls, asphalt surface, hardcore foundation all scattered in fragments down the slope.  

We were told by long-faced local Sicilians, with real regret, that there is little realistic prospect of any early repair.  

So I now value my prior experience of complete laps of the Piccolo course even more highly than ever before. As I said, it puts all British motor race venues into proper perspective.  Much as I admire Goodwood, and happy as I am with what we do here, and much as I enjoy the Nurburgring Nordschleife, Count Florio’s Sicilian circuit is – for me – the motor sporting Magnum Opus. 

And if you ever get the chance – or feel the need – to visit it, do not (for one scintilla) hesitate… It really is the racing enthusiasts’ dream.

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