Targa Tasmania feature story/Carlson

TASMANIA, Australia---It is as if, when they designed Targa Tasmania, the five-day all-out pavement rally around this lovely little island, they decided to throw a marvelous motorsports party, and then made sure they didn't leave anybody out. Or maybe it was more like planning a family reunion, with factions from every branch of the tree, nothing in common except for a love of fast cars: "Yes," I can hear them saying, "we DO want to invite the Smythe-Joneses, but we certainly wouldn't want to leave out---" and then they list the entire phone book.

Thus was born the unique charismatic structure of Targa Tasmania: It is a spectacular run for historic vehicles---yet the overall winner this year drove a brand-new 4WD turbo Porsche 911. It is a fabulous showcase for the ultimate in modern road-going machinery (in '94 Sandro Munari showed up with a 4WD Lamborghini Diablo)---yet the handicap winner this year was Jochen Mass in a 1960 Porsche RS60, fresh from the museum in Stuttgart. It is the only venue where you are likely to find a bugeye Sprite dicing it up with a lightweight twin-turbo Mazda RX-7, a Lancia D24 juxtaposed with a Porsche 968.

In short, Targa Tasmania is a motorsports event as peculiar and fascinating as the animal species unique to the island. But faster. And like the Tasmanian Devil, it can easily bite the unwary: The overall lead as well as all the other internecine clashes saw daily changes as one car or another suffered mechanical difficulties, slid off the wet tarmac, or found the forest too close to the road.

The RS60 Porsche was the star of the show even from the pre-rally display in Launceston's velodrome. This particular car was part of the 1960 factory effort that included wins at Sebring and the Targa Florio---although some would argue that Sebring was a "privateer" win, since both Ferrari and Porsche made a public point of boycotting the event due to conflicting fuel sponsorship; but in what was surely an amazing coincidence, certain Porsches were suddenly sold to certain drivers, who entered the event as casual sportsmen (well, Olivier Gendebien was certainly a sportsman, but hardly casual)!

Indeed, several RS60s were legitimately sold to individuals who raced them later on during the season---Sebring was the opener---but the Targa Tasmania entry can be identified as one of the factory team cars by its built-in driving lights, unique to the factory-raced cars. It also boasts the modifications made later in the season, such as the auxiliary windshield wiper mounted inside the windshield---which would prove quite useful 36 years later, as Jochen Mass and his navigator, motorsports journalist Jeff Hutchinson, had to cope with a very wet Targa Tasmania, one in which it rained nearly every day, sometimes in torrential gully-washers. (Asked how he was doing in the open car on the first day, Mass replied, "Too much water in the bilges!")

As any Sicilian can tell you, "targa" means "plate"; and just as the Florio family established a silver plate as a trophy for the old island races (hence Targa Florio), Targa Tasmania features a Targa Trophy plate awarded to each competitor who finishes every competitive stage---called the Targa stages, of course---without exceeding the maximum time allowed for each. These maximum times vary, becoming increasingly difficult to beat, but the philosophical guidelines underlying the event are based on the concept that about half the entries should be able to win a Targa Trophy. And to make things more competitive, the maximum times are different for cars in the nine different categories, based on the age of the car.

Of course, the race to win a Targa Trophy is a personal-best sort of thing, driving against the clock without much regard to the competition. But there is also fierce rivalry within each of the categories, and these are further divided into stock and modified divisions, each of which is further broken into displacement classes. Thus Targa Tasmania has become the epitome of niche racing, with Mini Coopers and Lotus Elans much more concerned with each others' performance in Category 5 than with the sideways shenanigans of the big spenders with the Porsches and Mazdas in Category 9.

Besides, this year the "quaint old delicate conversation pieces" were not all that far adrift of the leaders. New Zealanders Mark Parsons and Jane Buckman were simply flogging a '78 Triumph TR-8 (called a TR-7 V8 except in the US), keeping it among the top six overall for the first three days of the event---this in a field of 232 entries!---until they put it off backwards and broke an axle. To indicate the spectrum of machinery covered by the "Outright on Handicap" classifications, consider the final handicap results:

1st: Jochen Mass/Jeff Hutchinson, 1960 Porsche RS60

2nd: Robert White/Angus MacLeod, 1965 Sunbeam Tiger

3rd: Tony Bennetto/Richard Dutton, 1960 Austin-Healey Sprite

4th: Terry Daly/Bob Brill, 1965 Ford Mustang

5th: Paul Freestone/Christine Freestone, 1958 Austin Healey BN4

Of course, the handicap results and our focus on the vintage end of things ought to detract in any way from the spectacular driving of Australian NASCAR ace Jim Richards and his navigator, Barry Oliver, in the stunning red 911; it's just that the structure of the event has served to prove nicely that the old and the new can coexist---and even compete, in a way---in the same conditions, over the same roads, with the same spirit of adventure and camaraderie.

Besides, as some of us have become so painfully aware, before we know it, the circle will turn round again, and there we'll be at Targa Tasmania or some other high-speed adventure, and somebody will be firing up a spectacular '96 turbo 911 and blasting off over the tarmac. Only now it will be in some vintage class-and its driver will be having just as much fun as old Jim Richards did, back there in 1996.


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Satch Carlson, PO Box 202967, Anchorage, AK 99520-2967 USA.