The Last Great Road Race

We head to Sicily and drive the 45-mile World Championship circuit of the Targa Florio.

Photo: The Last Great Road Race 1
December 7, 2023

I’ve been fascinated by the Targa Florio for years, ever since watching The Speed Merchants, a documentary by Michael Keyser about the 1972 World Sportscar Championship. That was the year a lone Ferrari 312 PB, entered almost as an afterthought, won the legendary open-road race, but during the 57 events run over 67 years, the Targa’s roster of winning drivers and manufacturers is a who’s who of the racing world.

From its inception in 1906 through the mid-1950s, almost all of its winners were Italian—Nazzaro, Varzi, Nuvolari, and Villoresi all won twice pre-war—but a broader spread of nations took on the challenge once the race gained World Championship status in 1953. In 1955, for example, Mercedes-Benz’s winning effort with Britons Sir Stirling Moss and Peter Collins involved eight practice cars and 45 mechanics; Ferrari, in contrast, arrived with just three cars and eight mechanics. Porsche’s first win in ’59 was the first of its record-setting 11 victories, while the Prancing Horse would ultimately claim only seven.

I’d long dreamed of flying into Palermo, renting a Fiat Panda (surely there’s no more Italian car than that?), and driving the Targa Florio route. This past spring, days before my 50th birthday and 50 years since the last World Championship race was run there, I did just that. Before I share my experience, let’s dig deeper into the race’s history.

THE TARGA FLORIO was the brainchild of aristocrat Vincenzo Florio, a keen racing driver who wanted to run an event near his home of Palermo on the island of Sicily. The inaugural race, inspired by the long-distance Gordon Bennett Cup of the early 1900s, took place in May 1906. It consisted of three laps of the 91.3-mile Grande Madoni circuit, all of which was rural roads, most no more than farm tracks. The winning Itala took nine and a half hours to finish, and seven of the 10 entries completed the course.

Photo: The Last Great Road Race 2

From 1912, the original circuit was abandoned due to the poor state of the roads, and the race became a single lap of the coast of Sicily. The first winner, English driver Cyril Snape, took just over 24 hours to finish in his Scat.

World War I stopped play, but the race resumed in 1919 on a shortened version of the original circuit. After some of the poorest sections of road had been cut out, the Medio Madoni measured 67.1 miles, with the start moved to the pits just outside the town of Cerda. For 1932 the circuit was shortened further, to an easier-to-maintain 44.7 miles, with the lower third of the Medio removed by linking Caltavuturo and Scillato; the new route was called the Piccolo Madonie. The Targa was then moved to Palermo for four years before being halted by World War II.

Racing resumed in 1948, with the cars once again lapping the island’s perimeter, but in 1951 the Piccolo Madonie became the Targa’s permanent home. And what a home it was.

With somewhere between 700 and 850 corners, depending on who you ask, and the majority of the circuit either climbing up into the mountains (to the highest point of nearly 2,000 feet at Caltavuturo) or back down again, the Piccolo Madonie was cruel on brakes and gearboxes. The 4-mile Buinfornello Straight—longer than Le Mans’ Mulsanne— along the Mediterranean coast from Campofelice to the pits was the only respite, as well as the only real straight section apart from the main street through Cerda.

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“VV” (for viva) graffiti celebrates Ferrari and driver Nino Vaccarella (in background).

Drivers would arrive in the days leading up to the race and try to learn the course. Official practice was held on Thursday and Friday, but the roads were never actually closed—just imagine the sight of last year’s Le Mans-winning Ferrari dodging Fiat 500s and the occasional sheep as its driver tried desperately to figure out braking points and the locations of the worst bumps.

Local hero Nino Vaccarella, a schoolteacher from Palermo who won the Targa three times, put in two to three laps of practice every day after work. Constant surface repairs and changes along the route made it even trickier in the wet, and drivers painted symbols on the stone road markers lining the track to warn of tricky corners.

Helmut Marko, today best known for his managerial role with the Red Bull Formula 1 team, set the all-time fastest lap of the Piccolo, in 1972. Driving an Alfa Romeo T33/TT/3 spyder, the Austrian covered the course in a barely credible 33 minutes, 41 seconds, an average speed of 79.7 mph.

That wasn’t enough to win, however. Instead, it was Arturo Merzario and Sandro Munari’s 312 PB that covered 11 laps and 492 miles in just under six and a half hours, averaging 76.1 mph and besting the Alfa by 15 seconds.

Photo: The Last Great Road Race 4

For comparison, the fastest lap at Le Mans in 1972 went to ’73 Targa winner Gijs van Lennep in a Lola, at 134.5 mph. While the pre-chicane Le Mans was a much faster track with far fewer corners, the same cars—with different gearing and, in some cases, bodywork—competed at both events. The difference was that, in Sicily, the drivers were braking for the next corner before they’d finished accelerating out of the last one.

The Targa Florio somehow survived well into the 1970s, while the likes of the Mille Miglia, Carrera Panamericana, and Dunrod TT didn’t make it out of the ’50s. This was probably due to a very low rate of fatalities, itself due to the event’s low speeds. But warning bells rang furiously in 1971, when Brian Redman’s Porsche 908/03 crashed and caught fire. It took a medical crew 45 minutes to find the driver, who had rolled down a hill to extinguish his flaming overalls and suffered second-degree burns.

The 1973 event was the last run as part of the World Championship, as the organizers couldn’t meet new safety standards introduced by the FIA for the ’74 season. Nonetheless, the Targa Florio carried on as a non-championship event until 1977.

YOU CAN FLY INTO PALERMO from all across Europe and, for fans of The Godfather, from New York. The airport is just west of the city, and around 56 miles and an hour or so down the autostrada along the coast from the Targa Florio start line.

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Entering Collesano, the race cars followed a hairpin bend around this building.

Most major car-rental services operate out of Palermo airport, although I used to find rates cheaper than at the airport. You’ll definitely want to pay for full rental insurance so that you don’t have to cover any damages; I was told that, without it, any dent or mark larger than two inches would cost €1,000. Doing so online in advance doesn’t cost much.

A few more warnings: If you plan to stay in Palermo, don’t rent a car until you actually need it. Many Palermo parking lots are privately owned, rates vary (try negotiating), and if someone offers to keep an eye on your parked car for a small fee, you’re best off paying. I stayed in Cefalù, just along the coast from the Targa, and parked at its train station for just €6 per 24 hours.

Next, if you plan on driving into the historic sections of Palermo or other cities or towns, watch out for the ZTL low-pollution zones, which are guarded by license-plate recognition cameras. I’ve heard horror stories of tourists receiving fines for hundreds of euros months after inadvertently entering these zones.

Finally, if you haven’t driven in Italy before, understand it’s a complete free-for-all. All of the road markings on the autostrada are faded, but as far as I can tell there are two to three lanes marked—versus four to five lanes of traffic! Cars overtake at will, although everyone slows down for the speed cameras; the picture on the warning signs is a cross between an acorn and British policeman’s helmet. My advice is to latch onto the tail of a local (just look for an old Panda or 500 covered in dents and scrapes and held together with tape or, judging by the old and faded Padre Pio stickers, prayer) and follow their lead. My rental Panda Hybrid is happy to go with the flow, so I head for Buonfornello, turn off onto the SS113, head west towards Cerda, and that’s it: I’m on the Targa Florio.

Photo: The Last Great Road Race 6

Ferrari 312 PBs sit at the front of pit lane in 1973.

The course runs counter-clockwise, and the start line for the original Grande circuit was on this straight. It doesn’t feel like the Targa, though, as all the pictures you’ll see of the race show cars winding through the mountains, not hitting 186 mph—as the fastest ones did in the early ’70s—on this relatively thin road that narrows towards the end.

The road starts to bend away from the coast, and just past the Cerda train station (which, FYI, is nowhere near the town of the same name), I turn left onto the SS120 and find myself in the Targa pit complex. Known to the locals as Floriopoli, it’s a brief section of two-lane road with the whitewashed pits on one side and not-so-happy-looking grandstands on the other.

From here, the race cars were waved off at 15-second intervals, the fairly steep hill making life slightly harder. It’s not long before the road reaches Cerda, a small village with a straight, uphill main road about a half-mile long. It’s lined with houses and shops and very high stone curbs, yet the fastest cars would roar through at 170 mph.

Leaving Cerda towards Caltavuturo, the road surface deteriorates dramatically. It seems some care is given to road maintenance in towns, but out in the countryside it’s a different story. Forget potholes, this is completely ruined tarmac—and in some places, not even that. Warning signs are a regular feature (top tip: frana means landslide) and any thoughts I had of driving the route at speed are quickly dashed. In fact, I end up covering most of the roads at 30 mph or less, which actually works out well given the number of times I encounter oncoming cars in my lane, the white center line apparently being only a suggestion.

Photo: The Last Great Road Race 7

Pit lane and grandstands today.

Subsidence is evident everywhere, from ripples across the tarmac to complete road sections gone missing, and it’s not long before I find myself wishing I’d opted for a Panda 4×4 (or, in another life, a Ferrari Purosangue). Most of the Targa roads started life as farm and cattle tracks, with little if any thought given to engineering, and it feels like very little has been spent repairing them since 1973. Needless to say, I don’t spot a single sports car on this famous circuit, where brown “Targa Florio” signs point the direction at main junctions.

THE SCENERY IS SPECTACULAR, though, the road snaking through mountain foothills, olive groves, and meadows. I don’t see the cattle as much as hear them, every stop accompanied by a background tune of cow (and sheep) bells. Armco barriers run along the road for much of the 44.7-mile lap, and sometimes I encounter the small concrete markers lining the edge of turns. (They wouldn’t have stopped a car from going off, but would certainly have torn bits off as it went on its way.) There’s virtually no traffic outside each town or village, but then there’s not much reason to be out here, just the occasional house or farm between the hairpins, sitting on crests or hiding in folds in the undulating countryside.

Caltavuturo starts to come into sight in the distance, clinging to the base of the imposing Sciara cliff. The course turns left onto Strada Provinciale 24 just before the town, skirts the other side of the rocky outcrop, and heads down towards the village of Scillato. It then drops further down to cross the Grande River beneath the A19 autostrada, but then, as the road skims the edge of the valley, the road deteriorates even more and is finally closed off. A landslide has completely swept away a stretch.

The detour takes me straight down a new road, with a section already closed off due to more frana. But after turning right in Scillato, left onto the SS643, another left onto the SP9bis, and up a steep road with spectacular views to my left (and even more spectacular profits for warning-sign manufacturers), I’m back on the Targa again.

Photo: The Last Great Road Race 8

Nino Vaccarella and Lorenzo Bandini won the ’65 Targa in a Ferrari 275 P2.

How anyone piloted a Porsche 908, Alfa T33, or Ferrari 512 along these roads is almost incomprehensible. With unassisted steering and brakes, wide tires, and so many low-speed corners and accompanying gear changes, it must have been truly exhausting.

What’s more, the mix of cars in the ’73 race saw these prototypes muscling past 911s and Giulias, 1.3-liter Fulvias and Alpines. Yet in places, the road is barely wide enough for two Pandas to pass without exchanging €1,000 of paint.

The Bivio Polizzi—the mountain pits and second-highest part of the course, where the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, and Alfa kept emergency supplies of fuel, tires, parts, and mechanics—are up here somewhere, 24 miles into the lap, but I can’t locate them. Before long I’m heading down into the town of Collesano, past the first “VV Nino” (VV for viva) graffiti daubed on the walls, and turning down the main street to park outside the Targa Florio museum.

The Musello della Targa Florio di Collesano, on Corsa Vittorio Emanuele, is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (almost everything here besides restaurants shuts down for a few hours after 1 p.m.) and admission costs €5. Inside, you’ll find collections of photos, trophies, race suits, bits of car, and all things Targa Florio. It’s well worth a visit but, oddly enough, there’s no gift shop; the fridge magnets, t-shirts, and caps at the end are there purely for show.

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Targa Florio museum.

AFTER VISITING THE MUSEUM, I wander back up the hill for lunch (at the delicious and incredibly inexpensive La Lanterna restaurant on Via Isnello) and spot a ceramic tile picture of Jo Siffert in a 908 being chased by Vaccarella in a Ferrari 512. When I turn around, I realize I’m on the most famous corner of the Targa, the hairpin coming into Collesano. The town is also famous for manufacturing tiles and there are many more tile pictures to be found, some distinctly better than others.

Driving in towns and villages proves just as interesting (and lawless) as everywhere else. Turn signals are for tourists, pedestrians step out into the road expecting drivers to avoid them, and cars pull out at their leisure. Parking is by touch, and drivers appear to park wherever they want.

Later, I head out of Collesano, past more graffiti, back onto the broken roads towards the coast and the town of Campofelice. Beyond the village of Sant’ Agata, the countryside (if not the still-deserted roads) starts to feel more populated and better maintained, with shade trees lining the route. My satnav tried to take me off the SP9 onto a more direct route, but luckily a brown “Targa Florio” sign keeps me on track. When I reach Campofelice I discover the main high street is now one-way in the wrong direction, so for the second time I leave the route, skirting the town to drop back onto the Buinfornello Straight to finish my lap of the Piccolo Madoni.

A few days later at the airport, I reflect on my trip. While I hadn’t been able to drive the Targa Florio route at speed, I came away awestruck at what those racers and their cars had performed all those decades ago. Plus, it was so easy to get to and around Sicily, the locals were so welcoming, the food so good, and the countryside so spectacular that I’ve already decided to return, this time with a bunch of friends. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, just outside the main (and extremely hot) summer season, and it’s so cheap to visit I can’t recommend it highly enough. Just remember to buy that rental-car insurance!

Also from Issue 211

  • 499P Modificata
  • 296 GTS Assetto Fiorano
  • 296 Challenge
  • 512 BBi
  • 250 GT Boano
  • Michele Pignatti-Morano interview
  • F1: Disoriented
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