We traveled to the most Northeastern edge of North America, tagging along with Bill Caswell as he set out to drive an event most gearhead track junkies would put on their bucket list.
In case you're unfamiliar with Targa Newfoundland, its a rally that takes place on public roads that are temporarily closed during stages. Every year for six days in September, Newfoundland's poorly weathered tarmac is home to a group of maniacs in everything from road-going 930 Porsche 911s and Ford Escort RS1800s to rally-spec Mitsubishi Evos.
The rally is divided into two main groups, Grand Touring and Targa, with individual classes in each. In Grand Touring, relatively stock cars aim to finish each stage in a predetermined time, which would be achievable without breaking the law. Running a faster time means penalties, as does running slower.
The Targa class is more like a traditional rally. There's a minimum time but running faster isn't penalized.
The three main classes are Classic, Modern and Open. Classic is open to any car built before 1982, with Modern being anything after '82, while Open is for highly modified cars.
The raw numbers for this rally are: six days; 42 competitive stages; 1375 stage and transit miles; 62 competitors. And above all, everybody is so friendly. Other teams will lend you tools, while the guy with room to spare in his pickup will drive through the night to grab the only spare E30 M3 windshield on the island for another team down on its luck.
This camaraderie might seem cliched when talking about gents and their racecars, and it wasn't what you'd expect from people ponying up the $5895 entry fee. And that's without at least seven nights of hotel accommodation, transportation for your car and crew, flights, gas, spare parts and beer.
Targa Newfoundland isn't a cheap week, by any means. When all is said and done, you're looking at around $15000 if you don't have any big accidents.
We'd be following Bill Caswell on the event. He's a suit-n-tie financier turned self-taught racing driver, mechanic and automotive writer. He's made an unusual journey but remains a loudmouth with nothing to lose and everything to gain, who quite frankly can drive.
Bill sparked his online following after entering a $500 BMW from Craigslist in the 2010 World Rally Championship in Mexico, where he finished on the podium in his class with no crew or previous experience.
Next was VR Performance based in Sterling Heights, MI. Co-owner, Horst Reinhardt Jr, used his pristine E46 M3 for ten years of daily duty with some light track time before he grew bored of it. He then decided, against everybody's advice, to allow it to live its later years as a lightly modified but extremely capable racecar.
After an encounter with Bill at a track day he decided to transform the M3, enter Targa Newfoundland, toss the keys over to Caswell and try his hand at co-driving. "We didn't go with very high expectations," recalled Reinhardt. "We didn't want to embarrass ourselves and did much better than we expected."
In most situations, this formula would only bring disaster, but somehow the first-time co-driver and amateur racer were a good combination, and the tame M3 was faster than almost everything in the rally.
"Targa Newfoundland is a special event," said Caswell. "Not because of the bizarre timing system, but because of the island and its small towns that give permission for us to drive flat-out through their backyards, around their high schools and churches. It's these people and their roads who make the event worth running."
Targa Newfoundland's motto is "It's about the drive." As cheesy as that might sound, these novices love driving as much as you and I, except they have more seat time and possibly a healthier disposable income.
As spectators, attending the rally was possibly one of the coolest things we've done. The people of Newfoundland are amazing: no judgment is passed, no moment skipped in favor of superfluous distractions. It's a union of people who year-round look forward to seeing cars rip through their neighborhood. And the whole family turns out: toddlers, kids, grandparents; they all love it.
Driving between stages in a Suzuki rental car, sometimes up to two hours at a time, it was nearly impossible to capture every stage. After the first few days, we figured out it was better to skip a stage or two and hike a few miles, perch on somebody's lawn, stealing apples or just chatting, until the first car flew by.
Despite the unfortunate timing of this year's Targa that saw a hurricane sweep through on Tuesday, the race was still on. We sprinted up a stage road, minutes before the first car went out, and snuck into an under-construction garage, assuming the owners weren't home...
Shivering and wet, I held my camera awaiting the cars when I heard something behind me. This was it; my Newfoundland experience would end in a splatter of brains across exposed brick.
I turned around to find a couple with their dog. In the man's hand was a cup of steaming cocoa and fresh-from-the-oven muffins, along with a pair of gloves and a towel. This is why the Targa rally is special: never before have we been so rewarded for breaking and entering!
By day four it had become apparent that the newbie team was doing exceptionally well. Other competitors were starting to notice the mostly stock but incredibly loud M3. It had previously been underestimated but bear in mind, these guys didn't even have a rally computer. They were using a Garmin GPS device purchased from Best Buy and suctioned to the windshield, along with some poorly written, vague road notes. Hell, the car still had air conditioning, which was blasted during almost every stage.
Expected to win the event overall was pro rally driver Andrew Comrie-Picard. As a Canadian and veteran of the rally, it was no surprise when ACP took top honors. What was a surprise, though, was to find Bill and Horst only 1min 46sec behind. This gave the rookies second in class and third overall in a road/race M3. They also ran faster than every car in the Open class, didn't have a single accident and broke nothing. That's one checked off the bucket list for sure.
2012 Final Results: Modern class
|1||805||Comrie-Picard/O'Kane||Mitsubishi Evo 9||0:00:26|
|3||803||Mepham/Solecki||Mini Cooper S JCW||0:05:48|
|4||21||Deshaies/Bouchard||Kia Forte Koup SX||0:08:16|
|5||27||Martin Jr/Martin III||BMW M3||0:08:57|