Targa Newfoundland – Real People, Real Cars, Real Roads

Pure escapism. A bucket list event. An annual pilgrimage. For those with petrol in their veins. Beautifully rugged scenery. World-class racing. Extraordinary camaraderie. These are just samples from testimonials given by past Targa Newfoundland competitors. Targa Newfoundland is an annual week long tarmac-based rally race held every September on “The Rock” since 2002, is one of only three internationally-recognized Targa motorsports events in the world, and the only one in the western world and northern hemispheres. It takes the drivers and navigators of classic and contemporary sports and touring cars through 1,400-kilometres, or 870 miles – 440 kilometres, or 273 miles, of closed-road stages where the competition takes place– of challenging twisting roads that cut through a total of 105 large and small east coast communities, not to mention the diverse terrain of Canada’s most easterly and largest island province. If you’re thinking Gumball Rally, you’re on the right track, as it were. Robert Giannou, the president of Targa Newfoundland, spoke with Spotlight on Business in early August from his office in St. John’s.

By David MacDonald

Robert, the Targa events in New Zealand and Tasmania are definitely big bucket list items for motorsports enthusiasts around the world. When did it click for you that Newfoundland was a logical home for this world-famous, world-class racing event?

The first Targa Newfoundland event took place in 2002, and it all came together because of a friend of mine, Doug Mepham, who went off to Targa Tasmania in 2001. He went over there with a Volvo, which had the unlikely name of Margaret after his mother, and he took Jim Kenzie of the Toronto Star, an automobile reporter and one of the co-founders of Targa Newfoundland alongside myself and Doug, with him as a navigator. He came back and he phoned me and said that he had sent me a package and that I had to go read it. It was an article by Kenzie in the Toronto Star about their adventures at Targa Tasmania.

I read the story and called Doug back and said, ‘What the hell is going on, anyway?’ Then he described the event himself and what he had in mind.

Now I’ve been racing cars a long time; I started racing cars before the beginning of time, but suffice it to say it was about 1960 when I first started racing cars – actually it was ’59. I raced cars until the 80s, until I decided I had to make a living for myself. I took-up sailboat racing for a while, but I got tired freezing to death and dealing with too much wind or not enough wind or too much rain. I was reluctant to go back to racing cars because honestly what made me lose interest was how puerile racing was getting. You know: the perfect tracks and the perfect cars. Good racing is the old Trans Am days.

What drew me to Tasmania, what made me fall in love with the event, was simple: It was about real roads, and real cars; it was people fulfilling a dream.

Anyway, long story short, I got myself together and went off to Tasmania because it woke something up in me. I spent about three weeks there and basically came back with the event.

I purchased the rights, brought it back here, and the next year we had our first event.

What was that first year like for Targa Newfoundland, Robert?

How we ever ran it I don’t know and I haven’t a clue because of all the rules. There are literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of rules and regulations and they’re written only in a way that Australians can write – and I say this with a light heart: If we can’t say it in 100 words, we’ll say it in a thousand. It was a lot to learn in a short time to say the least – but we knew it was worth it in every way. In Tasmania, they’e built the event into a 20 million dollar industry annually. It’s now the biggest sporting event in Tasmania and one of the biggest in all of Australia. The Australian federal and state and municipal governments really get it. They sit down together and they say, ‘OK, we like this, how can we get together and make this better?’ They’ve really grown the event.

Did the provincial government in Newfoundland see the same potential in the event?

When I got back here from Tasmania in 2001, I went to Premier Roger Grimes and spoke to him about the whole thing. He looked at it and more or less said, ‘Everyone needs an income; maybe this can bring some money in and generate some general revenue for the people of Newfoundland.’ I remember explaining to him that Tasmania was very much a picture of Newfoundland in that they had a decimated fishery and declining population as a result and that Targa turned things around for a lot of local businesses there.

From that point on, we have put somewhere in the neighbourhood of – and this depends on how you count it – about 90 million dollars into the province of Newfoundland.

This is our 16th year – we call it the Sweet Sixteen. We had our 15th anniversary last year, which was a big year, so this year’s event will be a little smaller, we think. But what’s interesting to think about this year is we have eight different nations coming to compete. We have people from Belgium, Monaco, Switzerland, Turks and Caicos, the U.S., and more. Nearly 90 percent of our competitors come in from outside Newfoundland. Over the years, we’ve had as many as 700 different teams here.

We’ve covered a lot of roads and a lot of places. I believe that over the years, we’ve run some 690 stages at Targa Newfoundland.

“Targa is about people who want to persevere with life.”

Unfortunately, we receive absolutely no assistance or support whatsoever from the government here in Newfoundland – totally nothing. I realize it is a tough time for the province, but we are a contributing event in that we bring new ‘found money’ into the province. Businesses that do that should be encouraged and supported. However, it is what it is and despite that we have with everyone’s passion kept the event alive.

How many stages are there, Robert, and is there something, a tour, for drivers who are new to rally racing?

Well, the first thing I’d like to say to anyone who has concerns is that we are actually sponsored by our insurance company – which is really good.  It says a lot about the safety record at Targa Newfoundland.

We even run a two-day optional motorsports school before the various tours start. That’s taking place September 7 th and 8 th in Flatrock.

We’ve created different ways for people to experience Targa Newfoundland like Grand Touring. We have to be inclusive simply because there are a lot of people who don’t want to tear up their cars by putting roll cages in them – these are drivers who just want to complete the run. The Grand Touring Division is a time-speed- distance rally that runs the same course, the same closed-roads at slower speeds as the day goes on.

Over the years, we’ve also had a whole bunch of people who started showing up in super cars, so we created the Fast Tour Division. These drivers just get to run and it’s getting more and more popular each year. We define the speed parameters, but these competitors get to drive their cars the way they were meant to be driven. There’s also another branch of the Fast Tour: the Quick Tour Division. This is great for people who want to know what it’s like to race in Targa without staying for the full seven days. Quick Tour drivers can participate for one to three days.

“What made me lose interest was how puerile racing was getting. You know: the perfect tracks  and the perfect glasses. Good racing is the old Trans Am days.”

The full-Targa Division means your car is completely prepared with safety equipment like roll cages and includes a Classic, Modern, and Open class.

If you’re going the Quick Tour way, you won’t be experiencing all five legs of Targa Newfoundland. The stages take drivers through the Avalon Peninsula, the North Burin Peninsula, and South and North Bonavista Peninsula.

Well it sounds like a dream come true for anyone with gas in their veins.

It is. We have really three groups of people: There are those who want to have fun in their dream car and the Fast Tour Division is pretty much for the Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini owners. The Grand Tour Division is for people who really understand and enjoy math and accuracy – and there are a lot of racers out there like that. The Targa Division is one for your pure-blooded racers. You have everything from sophisticated cars in that group to backyard specials. Everyone says, you know, boy oh boy, you’ve got to have enough money to run Targa.

Every group of people who come to Targa Newfoundland is a tremendous group.

We have teams who come here and they arrive with seven cars to race against one another as a group.

They compete viciously and have the time of their lives.

I’ve had guys call me up from a taxi cab in New York City and say, ‘Get me in; sign me up.’

It’s interesting, Robert, that the three internationally-recognized Targa events all take place on islands: Newfoundland, New Zealand, and Tasmania.

Well, it’s a perfect event for Newfoundland. For purists like me, its big selling point is that we take the secondary and tertiary roads in their natural state. We have looked at a number of events that are in the Southern United States that border on Mexico and Texas in particular. They end the run much faster and they don’t have the view.

The Tasmania event runs out of the countryside and into the highlands of Tasmania, which in a lot of ways is similar to Targa Newfoundland.

New Zealand, which created theirs in 1995, I believe, theirs runs on both the North and South Islands and is smaller, much like ours, and very local.

Most racers must go for the week-long, full experience so I imagine they come to Newfoundland on the ferry with a lot of gear in tow, Robert.

Yes, people come in with big car trailers that are privately owned. Some people have spare engines and even spare cars. Unfortunately, these competitors get a commercial rate and this is the first year that we really noticed that people are getting fed up. And it does hurt us; there is no question about that.

If some racers aren’t making Targa Newfoundland an annual event for themselves, that must trickle- down and affect the 105 communities throughout the province that look forward to the yearly revenue boost, right?

You got that. And there’s something that you have to consider: Years and years of difficult times in business has developed into an attitude of “What are you going to do for me?” not “What can I do for you?”, and that’s a real shame.

The communities that we have to deal with are fabulous.

Last year, for example, we got a lot more pressure to do a smaller event for local communities and the local people. That event is held on the Burin Peninsula and we call it the Bambina. A friend of mine down that way passed away just last year so the event is named after him: The Tom Hollett Memorial Bambina. It’s a tough little bugger. Targa is an endurance race, there’s no question about that, but the Bambina is a hard, fast, sudden race. There are less stages per day – and it’s three days – and it’s over before you start.

The Bambina is about 90 percent local entry, but the word is starting to spread about this event, too. We’re seeing more and more people come from all over Atlantic Canada and Quebec – in fact, teams from Quebec have won the event for the last few years. That annual event was held this year over the Canada Day long weekend and it brought a lot of business to the Burin Peninsula.

We’re trying an experiment this year that resulted from the Bambina, which is a very short condensed event. Sponsors love when we’re in the more populated areas, but we’re usually off in rural areas where the roads are better. This year, we got together with two communities, Carbonear and Harbour Grace and created two repetitive town stages. We’ll be spending a whole day running four stages in each town. We’ll start in the morning and do the runs in Harbour Grace and then off to Carbonear. We’ll have a big car show at lunchtime and then after that we’ll run them all in reverse again. So it’s going to be an opportunity for that town to have a real festive day around motorsports. It all happened because of a new business in Carbonear. Some years ago, Mr. Bruce Branan, who’s since become a friend of Targa, came to Carbonear and bought an old stone building and restored it into a pub called The Stone Jug a US$5.2 million project which created a spectacular facility which attracts people from all over the world. The whole event that day will surround that establishment. It’s really a gorgeous restaurant and a fabulous entertainment centre all wrapped up in one stunning facility.

We go into some of the older historic communities like Brigus, where my family hails from and it always becomes a really wonderful community event everywhere we go. We’re sort of like the Santa Claus parade now – we happen but we are in September of each year.

I understand that nearly a whole army of volunteers makes Targa Newfoundland a possibility, Robert. Can you say a few things about how this comes together?

We use about six or seven hundred volunteers for Targa. We recruit all winter long and organize our stages well in advance. The beauty of Targa is that there’s no charge for the communities. We bring the safety vests, the timing equipment – whatever it is, it’s supplied for them. It’s all done in each community in a total of two to three hours. We do the whole dog and pony show. And we don’t have trouble finding people. People everywhere on the East Coast are pretty quick to lend a helping hand.

Robert, I’m sure the Spotlight on Business readership would love a story or two of races gone by.

There’s more of those than God’s seven angels would create. We have some really amazing people at Targa. One of the Chaps is a guy who used to own Island Records, he came all the way from Ireland with his son to race here. I remember him saying once that there are places in Newfoundland that are more Irish than Ireland.

We have a guy from Nova Scotia by the name of Ralph Saulnier who is our photographer. And Ralph writes books on Targa Newfoundland, descriptive picture books. For the last four or five events, he gets on his motorcycle in Halifax and comes to Newfoundland and spends the whole event racing around on his motorcycle and creating this photo journal. He’s able to get some incredible shots from that vantage point. It’s become a work of love for him. There’s even a racing team from Toronto that hires him to take pictures of them during the race.

We’ve also been able to raise over $1.6 million for charities.

Our competitors are often representing various causes, like a team out of Toronto that sponsors MS research, Heart & Stroke, some support blood services, children services like the Show A Child You Care Foundation and the Children’s Wish Foundation. We also work with the Easter Seals and the Autism Society. We’re pretty all-encompassing and we support as much as we can when our competitors want us to chip-in.

We’ve had a lot of very interesting competitors show up here over the years. We had a team out of Indiana: Jack Rogers and a lady by the name of CJ Strupp. CJ and Jack would come here every year in an old Mustang and enjoy it thoroughly. Three years ago, CJ was diagnosed with cancer and she showed up at Targa with no hair – nothing. She still did the run. Her only complaint was that because she had no hair, there was no traction on the helmet. The next year, she came back with a full head of hair and a clear bill of health. They did really well, too. They did so well, in fact, that they were in second place in the last stage. They then barrel-rolled the car, landed safely, and drove over the finish line to great applause.

Targa is about people who want to persevere with life; people who recognize that life is very special that it has its dangers and that you might as well live it for all you’re worth. That’s what it’s about.

“But what’s interesting to think about this year is we have eight different nations coming to compete. We have people from Belgium, Monaco, Switzerland, Turks and Caicos, the U.S., and more.”

Before Targa officially starts, we have a meet and greet followed by the week of Targa which culminating in a black-tie dinner. I tell people there that there are three promises we make everyone at Targa: Number one; You will meet some of the most special people in the world. Number two; You’re going to be hooked on the event. Number three; It will change your life in a positive way.

To sign up as a competitor or volunteer for Targa Newfoundland 2017, or for more information, please visit Targanfld.com.