Vic Elford recalls the romance of the Targa Florio’s golden era

As a former winner of the Targa Florio, we could think of no better person than Vic Elford to share some tales from the golden years of the legendary road race, when sports prototypes wailed through picturesque Sicilian towns in a flurry of vibrant colours…

“I loved every moment of my time on the Targa Florio – it was just sensational,” says Elford, who competed in the Sicilian road race for six consecutive years between 1967 and 1972. “Of course, I had a very special relationship with the Nürburgring, but there was nothing like the Targa Florio for its atmosphere and a sense of romance.” In 1968, he famously made up a 17-minute deficit to take the chequered flag in style – and then claimed the fastest lap of the race every year thereafter. Although he now resides in America, Elford developed a special bond with the island and its people during this time, and still returns as often as possible. “Sicily is not Italy – the people there are Sicilians, not Italians, and there is a distinct difference between the two. Italians are known to be passionate and romantic; in Sicily, it’s the same thing, but squared. We simply wouldn’t have won in 1968 without the help of the locals – when I got a puncture early in the race, they literally lifted the car off the ground so I could change the wheel.”

Spirit of Sicily

Elford’s relationship with the Targa Florio began in 1967, when he was sent on a reconnaissance mission ahead of his first race, in which he would share a Porsche 910 with Jochen Neerpasch. “We used Fiat 124 rental cars to start with, then moved up to a 911 and eventually a 906, which was the first real racing car I ever drove. I really didn’t like that at first – it had huge front wings that made it feel like you were permanently driving in a tunnel. As the event drew closer, we switched to the 910 we were using in the race, and I loved that.” Ultimately, the Elford/Neerpasch car finished second, and that gave Quick Vic a taste for the Targa that he’d never lose.

“By 1968, the track was etched into my memory; you could literally have blindfolded me and dropped me somewhere along the route by helicopter, and I could have told you where we were, what the next corner was, and which gear I’d be in. I’m lucky to have been blessed with a photographic memory, which turned out to be rather useful in rallies and road races.” So too did his grasp of the local dialect; although his 1971 team-mate Gérard Larrousse fell foul of the patriotism of the Sicilians, who took a dim view of those who hadn’t bothered to learn the language. “At one point, he had a flat tyre and he couldn’t change the wheel because the locals refused to help a Frenchman in a German car who couldn’t speak Italian. Gérard had a tough time at the Targa: later in that race, he went off the road and crashed through the front gate of a garden in which a wedding reception was taking place. He spent the rest of the afternoon being entertained as one of the guests.”

The legend of Collesano

During Elford’s era, the nationalism of the Sicilians was plain to see in the way they embraced Nino Vaccarella, a former headteacher-turned-racing-driver who lived on the Targa Florio route, along which ‘Forza Nino’ was liberally painted whenever he raced there. But Vaccarella wasn’t the only cult hero in Collesano. Elford also recalls a fateful meeting with the local shoemaker, Ciccio: “In 1968, he came round to all the drivers in the paddock saying he’d like to make a special pair of racing shoes for us. Everyone else was dismissive, but I took pity on him and took him up on his offer. He put a piece of paper on the floor and traced around my feet to get the shape – which was just as well, because most of the big toe on my left foot is missing. When I won the Targa wearing his shoes, Ciccio became an overnight sensation in Italy, and everyone and his dog wanted a pair. Since then, he’s made shoes for almost everybody – but I’m the only person allowed them in red and white.”

When rivalries pay dividends

Another honour eternally preserved for Elford is being the only person ever to drive a Porsche 917 along the Targa Florio. “That came about due to the internal rivalry at the time between Ferdinand Piëch and John Wyer. They often butted heads, but as Piëch’s main driver I often benefitted when he had a point to prove. When we went to the Targa Florio in 1970, we all did our single Friday morning practice laps in the 908/3s we’d be using in the race. Then Piëch said ‘can you do me a favour and do a lap in the 917 we brought along? I want to prove something to Wyer’. It wasn’t set up with the soft suspension you needed for the Targa Florio, so it bounced and rattled its way around the entire 45-mile lap. I set the fifth fastest time overall in practice, but after that single lap I was too physically and mentally exhausted to get out of the car – I had to be lifted out. I could never have used the 917 in the race, but it was certainly an experience… although the road was only two lanes wide, I was probably doing well over 200mph down the seafront straight towards the end of the lap.”

Today, the spirit of the Targa Florio lives on in the form of an historic rally/regularity showcase event, with this year’s 100th edition giving Elford the perfect excuse to return ‘home’. Unlike portions of the roads since lost to Mother Nature, the quaint towns and unbridled enthusiasm of the locals remain largely as they were – but those who experienced the glory years, whether as a competitor or a spectator, will forever romanticise about the Targa Florio in its original form, Quick Vic included.

Photos: Rainer Schlegelmilch via Getty Images / LAT