A father, a son, a souped-up Subaru, and a 1,000-mile crash-filled rally across Newfoundland
Author Eric Benson Photography Yana Paskova
The red light flicked to yellow, and the yellow light meant that we were close—10 seconds. I looked ahead. The road wound gently past a squat white house and a dilapidated fishing shack before curving out of view. Gusts blew in from the sea, thrashing a Canadian flag that years of North Atlantic storms had reduced to a fluttering rag. It was a classic Newfoundland scene—a few stout structures hanging on against the howl and crash of the wind and the waves. The voice of my co-driver, who happened to be my father, broke my meditation. It was time to drive.
“Five,” Dad said. “Four. Three. Two. One. Go!”
I stomped on the gas pedal, and our souped-up Subaru BRZ coupe shot off from the village of Tickle Cove. Soon we were soaring above it, spruce forest to our left, the rocky coast plummeting to our right. The engine wailed, rising in pitch and volume, until it was on the verge of a gut-busting aria. When it hit 7,000 RPM, I shifted into second gear.
“In 300 meters, you’re going to have a medium left after a crest,” Dad read aloud from the route book in his lap.
We rose up a hill, I threw the car into the turn, and our innards felt a vertiginous kick. The curve softened into a straightaway. The G-forces abated, and we drove onward.
“In 500 meters, you have a hard right, then a medium left,” Dad said a minute later.
The distance was shrinking fast, but all I could make out was that the road didn’t continue straight.
“This is your hard right!” Dad called out.
I saw the turn, but I was going too fast.
I slammed the brakes, and the car responded unhappily, locking up its wheels and swerving onto the shoulder. For a brief moment, we were suspended in that weightless, slow-motion state that greets a car before a crash. I could see into the future: the backside of the Subaru crumpling against the jagged rocks looming a few feet away. But then, just as quickly as I’d lost control, I regained it. We swung back into the middle of the road and roared onward. There was a little dirt on the tires, but not so much as a scratch on the paint. Three minutes of near total silence later, we crossed the finish line of the stage.
My father is not prone to speechifying, nor is he an eager disciplinarian. Still, he isn’t categorically opposed to the odd word of chastisement, especially when it involves the sometimes frisky driving of his sons. I braced myself for a terse schooling that would come down with the crack of a bull whip, not something I’d wanted to hear back when I was 16, much less now that I’m 30.
“That was a fun run,” Dad said.
My father and I had come to one of the most far-flung regions of North America to compete in Targa Newfoundland—a 14-year-old amateur car rally that cuts across 1,000 miles of this remote, sparsely populated, perpetually windswept Canadian island. We weren’t “car guys,” as Dad would constantly remind our fellow drivers. In fact, we’d never so much as taken a half-day performance driving school, much less raced in a five-day competition. But we both had a taste for adventure, and the act of driving had always brought us together. Why wouldn’t we take a flier on racing as co-drivers in a place both of us had, since our respective boyhoods, stared at on the world map and wondered, “What is there?”
Targa Newfoundland isn’t your average race. If drag-racing is a 100-meter dash, and contests like NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and Formula 1’s U.S. Grand Prix are like marathons, then a rally like Targa Newfoundland is the Tour de France. It takes place entirely on closed public roads that run through 17th-century villages and far older forests. It rewards mental endurance and physical prudence. And the hazards are numerous: Cars drive past sheer rock precipices and stone walls that encroach on the road, and spectators (a group that includes not only reckless teenagers but the occasional 800-pound moose) sometimes decide to run into the middle of the course. The race has an excellent safety record—no one has been critically injured—but as you’re roaring down narrow town roads past white-picket fences the entire premise of the event seems delightfully mad.
It all began with Vincenzo Florio. A flamboyant Palermo wine merchant and painter, Florio had gotten into automobile racing as soon as there were automobiles to race. In 1906, he decided to start a particularly grueling competition, the spiritual ancestor of Targa Newfoundland. It would run a single 92-mile lap through his native Sicily, traversing perilous mountain passes, negotiating a frenzied clutter of medieval cities, and skirting awfully close to cliffs that lined the Mediterranean’s turquoise waters. The race, which he called Targa Florio (“The Florio Shield”), was a dangerous undertaking with proto-Futurist values that privileged the liberating power of machines over the physical safety of men. Almost immediately, Europe’s top automakers—among them Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes, and Porsche—entered their vehicles into Targa Florio. If a manufacturer could build a car that prevailed over the terrain of Sicily, then its cars were worth your hard-earned cash.
In 1955, Targa Florio became part of the World Sports Car Championship, but as horsepower increased and the Sicilian roads remained rustic at best, the motorsports community began to question the wisdom of the race. By the mid-1970s, neither the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile nor the Italian government had the stomach for the deadly accidents, and Targa Florio was canceled. But Targa-style rally racing continued elsewhere. In 1992, an Australian motorsports devotee named John Large started a safer and saner amateur Targa on the island of Tasmania, and it wasn’t long before ralliers from all over the world were landing in Hobart to test their mettle across the rugged terrain. Among these pilgrims were the Canadian automotive journalist Jim Kenzie and his friend Doug Mepham, a Toronto-area PR consultant. After completing the 2001 race, they were beginning their journey back on the ferry to Melbourne when they hit upon an idea. If Targa could thrive in Sicily, Tasmania, and New Zealand (where a race had begun in 1995), why couldn’t there be a Targa on an island far closer to home?
Fourteen years later, my father and I sat in the middle of Jack Byrne Arena, near Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital of St. John’s, listening to Robert Giannou, Targa Newfoundland’s president and, along with Kenzie and Mepham, one of the race’s founders. It was the morning of the race’s two practice rounds—the official start of the event—and the silver-haired Giannou was lecturing the 41 pairs of drivers and navigators on what to expect.
“In town stages, you can only see one to two seconds ahead,” Giannou said, “so make sure you listen to your navigators. Yes, we have arrows before turns, but we also have evil little kids in some communities that will switch them to point in the wrong direction. And if I haven’t mentioned it, wooden bridges are like greased lightning in the rain.”
A few veteran competitors snickered. They’d heard this performance before.
“Day 1 is a ball,” Giannou said. “Day 3 is when arrogance seeps in. Day 4 is when we see accidents. And remember, to finish first, you must first—”
“Finish,” everyone responded in unison.
It was an amateur contest with no prize other than pride, but some of our fellow competitors seemed quasi-professional. A Turks and Caicos–based resort developer arrived with two Lotus Exiges and a uniformed Formula 1–ready crew. The man who had generously lent us our car, an Ontario Subaru dealer named Mike Davenport, had won the race’s open division two years in a row and looked ready to dominate once again. A French-Canadian cosmetic surgeon named Jean Luc Bergeron brought decades of experience that included top finishes on the BMW club-racing circuit, and was touted as an early race favorite. But looking around the room, it was clear that there were plenty of less-seasoned and less-equipped racers. One pair, for instance, had cobbled together the $6,495 team entry fee with the help of a local pizza-joint sponsorship.
Giannou was wrapping up his pre-race pep talk, and we were nearly out of our seats when he announced that there would be one final speaker. Toward the back of the room, a man with long graying hair and matching beard stood up and began walking through the crowd. He was the Reverend Edison Wiltshire, and he had risen to deliver his own brand of fare-thee-well benediction.
“Our Father in Heaven,” Wiltshire began. “We thank you for the organizers of Targa and every competitor and volunteer that facilitates this race and who have collectively helped place Newfoundland and Labrador on the world racing map.” He paused. “We thank you for the drivers and co-drivers, their equipment, and for the adrenaline that will flow to fill this event with unbelievable excitement.”
A few chuckles broke out across the room. The slightest grin formed on Wiltshire’s face.
“And now, Heavenly Father, we pray: Let the screeching of tires begin. Let the stench of burned rubber sting our nostrils. And may this week satisfy our desire for rally excitement.”
The drivers and navigators hopped up from their seats and scattered across the floor of the arena, where their cars were waiting. Wiltshire followed in close pursuit. He wasn’t only preaching to this flock—he was part of it. He had raced in all 13 previous Targa Newfoundland events, branding himself the “Faster Pastor” and enlisting his wife, Marg-o, as his navigator. In the early days, the couple had raced in a series of overmatched Citroëns, he told me, but a friend of the ministry had donated a 1979 Porsche 911 to better facilitate the pastor’s spirited racing habit. “I told him not to expect any brownie points with God,” Wiltshire said.
The 14th annual running of Targa Newfoundland got off to a rough start. The practice rounds were completed without issue, but on the opening day of the competition cars began to drop off. On the day’s first stage, a Mitsubishi with a huge, drag-race-ready spoiler struck a rut just wrong and came to a halt with its front tires facing in a new direction. Less than an hour later, a Connecticut businessman who’d spent time on the Ferrari gentlemen’s racing circuit sped his Subaru WRX off a crest and into a rock-filled ditch. He was followed a few moments later by a father-and-son team from Toronto, who launched off the same crest at an even greater speed, flying over the ditch and smashing hood-first into a grassy field. The car flipped end over end three times before clattering to rest on its side. By the end of the first day, three more cars—an antique Porsche, one of the space-age Lotuses, and a 1975 Jensen-Healey—had broken down and would either exit the race for good or need significant work to return.
The next morning inaugurated a period of relative calm. The crashes mostly stopped. Drizzle and fog descended over the island, giving the scenery a desolate, enchanted air. It was on these more placid days that we got used to the waiting. War, the old adage goes, is boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and rally racing moves to a similar rhythm. We would push our cars for five unrelentingly intense minutes. Then we would line up in the small, sparsely populated seaside villages that often greeted us after the finish line, and wait in the chilly mist, making small talk.
Occasionally, we’d encounter a local. In Harbour Mille, I ended up talking with the fire chief, who was also the town’s leading Targa volunteer. Like most of the so-called outports—towns that had been accessible only by boat for most of their history—Harbour Mille had once been a self-sustaining fishing village. Newfoundland didn’t become part of Canada until 1949, and as a distant British colony, its rural citizens were very much on their own. (Outport Newfoundlanders—especially the older ones—tend to speak with an accent that’s much closer to an Irish brogue than to anything from mainland English-speaking Canada.) But over the last several decades, the chief told me, the cod fishery had collapsed, and now the young people left town as soon as possible to work the Alberta tar sands or the Hibernia and White Rose oil fields offshore.
“It’s a real pretty town,” I told him. The scenery of rocky, glacier-cut bluffs tumbling into dark waters could have appeared on the cover of any Newfoundland tourism brochure. The chief barely looked up. “We don’t think it is,” he said. There’s a reason Newfoundlanders call their home “The Rock.” There’s a reason the Vikings—who enshrined the island as “Vinland” in their sagas—didn’t stay. It may have looked like a magical island to the Come From Aways—as some locals referred to outsiders like me—but for the people who lived there, it was an awfully hard place.
From the morning we had arrived in Newfoundland, we heard no place discussed more than Brigus, a pristine bayside village that was settled in 1612. When experienced competitors spoke of it, they gave respect to its multitudinous twists and turns and whispered about those past races when the championship was won and lost in its mazelike streets. Brigus is the final stage of the race. It is the spiritual home of the race. It is also, in the words of Jim Kenzie, “the Bermuda Triangle” of the race. “If something is going to go wrong, it’s going to happen in Brigus,” he explained.
In the days leading up to Brigus, nothing had gone wrong for me and my father, but, growing more confident and, perhaps, a little more heedless, we’d had a few close calls. There was the near spin-out on the road back from Tickle Cove. There was the tricky right turn in the town of Bonavista, where I’d brought our car to an unexpected halt about six inches shy of plowing into a metal pole. There was an even trickier left turn later that day, where I jumped our car off the asphalt and into a grassy field.
Dad had been the more cautious driver. Still, he was showing signs that the testosterone-fueled racing condition known as the “red mist” was beginning to cloud his mind as well. The morning before we were to attack the Brigus course, he buried the needle on the speedometer, which was duly captured by a radar gun–wielding race official.
Such bravado would get you into trouble very fast in Brigus. Over the course’s 4.5 kilometers, there were 27 different turns and obstacles, and the instructions in the accompanying route book tended toward the extreme. There were hairpin lefts and hairpin rights, followed immediately by warnings of steep downhills and wet bridges. If you weren’t careful when approaching any of these, you were likely to end up flattening a white picket fence or flattening yourself against a 19th-century stone wall.
Now, we were at the beginning of the course, and I saw that familiar red light flicking to yellow. It was time.
“Five,” Dad said. “Four. Three. Two. One. Go!”
I pressed the pedal to the floor and listened to the engine roar past 7,000 RPM.
“Crest into slight right,” Dad called out.
We zoomed up the crest and swooped elegantly into the turn. Bermuda Triangle? I thought. This was simple stuff. Targa stages tend to reveal their true character only once you’re a kilometer or two into them. Some runs early in the week started with twisty, broken roads, and we figured we were done for. Then they’d soften into high-speed scenic drives. Other runs would lure you in with a few easy turns and then transform into labyrinths. Before the end, you would be steeling yourself for a wreck.
There were subtle signs when a racing stage was about to undergo such a metamorphosis. The first was that I would hear a touch of panic rippling across my father’s voice. The next was that my father would stop telling me the distances between the turns. They were simply coming too fast. If things were going to get really bad, there was a final sign. Dad would call out “Turn!” not “Right” or “Left,” just “Turn!” This invariably meant that he’d lost his place in the route book and was now looking out the window.
“An immediate square left!” Dad yelled over the engine as we plunged into the center of Brigus. Our car screeched and I pushed it violently to the side. “An immediate square right!” he called one second later. I swung the car to the right, barely avoiding one of those immaculately layered stone walls. “Right!” he said. “Left! Right!” Then I heard the dreaded word. “Turn!” I have a recurring dream that I’m driving very fast down a freeway, feeling deeply unsettled. My view is mostly obstructed, and I have to stretch and contort my body just to reach the wheel and the pedals. The reason is that I’m driving from the backseat. That dream came flooding back into my mind as we crossed the finish line in Brigus, because that’s what Targa feels like. You’re right at the edge of control. You’re concentrating like a Zen monk. Trying to remember the blur of turns and passing fences and skirted cliffs is like trying to recapture a dream. I think that’s why people return to Targa, and why one day we may, too—because driving it is the only way to feel that mastery over speed and asphalt and Earth once again.
Eric Benson is an Austin-based journalist who writes for Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone. Credit to his father for teaching him the finer points of clutch technique.