St. John's, Newfoundland – Targa Newfoundland is a week-long rally on the public roads of the friendliest province in Canada. It is a demanding rally, covering over 1,600 kilometres of roads traversing the province through various small towns and communities; the roads are closed and the Targa cars blast through the stages as fast as they possibly can. The premise of a rally is to complete a stage in a faster time than assigned by the rally master for your class of vehicle. Penalty points are awarded to teams that fail to finish a stage within the scheduled time, the premise being the team with the least amount of points by week’s end wins the rally.
Although the official rally is six days (five competitive days plus a practice/prologue day), my adventure was much longer, a full 14 days away from home as we drove from Ottawa to St. John’s and back. Our team was small and consisted of one 1967 CAV GT40 – a near exact replica of the 1967 Ford GT that was a four-time Le Mans winner in 1966, ‘67, ‘68 and ‘69 – our crew chief and head mechanic Christian (Freak) Lalande, driver and car owner Mark McDonald and myself, James Bergeron, as Navigator.
When we arrived in St. John’s and unloaded the GT40, we discovered a problem with the car and it set the tone for the following week as the adventure of the GT40 at Targa Newfoundland unfolded. The rough roads on the journey down seemed to have done some damage to the electrical cut-off switch in the car. As we turned the switch, sometimes the car would start, sometimes it would not – it was a little worrisome as the week would be grueling and to arrive and already have problems was not the warm fuzzy feeling we wanted to have as we prepared for a long week ahead.
Day 0: Registration and Odometer check
Saturday, September 12th – We moved into the Jack Byrne arena in St. John’s, our car was tech inspected with only some minor changes required (tow hook and new belts) and we were confident we could get out and do an odometer check to ensure that our rally computer was in sync with the rally master’s odometer. By 3 pm we were ready to go out and check that odometer and Mark and I were out on the road for our first ride as official Targa Newfoundland competitors for 2015.
We hopped into the GT40 and were ready to go… but it wouldn’t start – no spark. After fiddling with the power cut-off switch for a few minutes she fired up and we headed out of the parking lot. It was then that I noticed that our odometer was no longer working. Oh great, this is not a good start, we had problems with this before we left Ottawa but thought we had solved them. After about 20 minutes of debug and repair we were up and ready to go for our odometer check and off we went down the Trans-Canada highway for a short 20-km loop before returning back to the arena. Halfway back, the car started to sputter and die; we assumed it was the electrical switch and pulled off the highway and played with it for awhile. After a few minutes I commented that the fuel pumps didn’t sound quite right, perhaps we ran out of fuel? An embarrassing moment in our adventure, but now we knew that when the fuel gauge says half a tank it’s really actually empty – good to know….
Day 1: Prologue
Sunday, September 13th – The day started off with sun, unlike any other day in Newfoundland, but it had rained the night before, leaving some of the roads somewhat slick. It’s Prologue day, a day to test the car, test the communication between the driver and co-driver and shake out any cobwebs and nerves. For me it was a day to learn the rally computer in my first real-race scenario and to ensure I could follow the rally notes at the proper pace and provide Mark with a picture of the road ahead well before we arrived.
After working on the electrical switch that night we were fairly confident today was going to be a good day and we could focus on driving and communicating to mesh as a strong team. We headed out of the arena after a driver’s meeting around 11 am. As we leave, Mark stops to say hello to a friend and the car stalls. What was that?
I shrugged it off, thinking he probably slipped his foot off the clutch by accident. It happens, especially in a race car with a clutch that feels like you are pushing on solid block of wood. He starts the car back up and it lurches forward – uh oh… this is not good.
We pull back into the arena. Why is our clutch stuck on? This really is turning out to be a bad, bad start to Targa – did we a bring a lemon to the race? Are we even going to start, let alone finish, this race? Our adrenaline was high and our nerves were up, so we start ripping the car apart – the clutch must binding or the release bearing has let go – this could be bad.
The first thing we check is the pedals, Mark notices a piece of electrical tape near the clutch master cylinder, I crawl under the dash and pull the piece off. That couldn’t be it, could it? Then we notice the bottom to the cup-holder is also missing and so are the contents, that’s not ideal. We fish the cupholder pieces out of the centre console tunnel where wires and hydraulics run, and Mark hits the start button – the clutch is fixed, let’s goooooooooooooooo!
We rush over to the first stage a little out of order but we are okay. Let's get calm, get ready and line up to the start line. I reset the odometer, the countdown begins: 5.... 4... 3... 2... 1... and Mark puts the hammer down and we launch off the line like a scalded cat. I call out 300 meters, square right, Mark yells, I can't hear you, son of a.... In the kerfuffle his headset was no longer plugged in. I started using hand signals and screaming SQUARE RIGHT, 100!!!
Mark hits the brakes, we slow, turn in and on the damp pavement spin around like a top. OH BOY. That's the way to start boys, a 270-degree spin in the first corner of the rally, reel it in and let's push on. Despite the spin we beat our target time by close to two minutes – we got this.
The rest of the day went fairly smoothly – we made all our times and declared the day a good tune-up for us as a team and for the car, which seemed to be difficult to shift now. It turned out the shifter cable had worn down and was no longer tight and straight. This was causing difficulty switching over to the fourth and fifth gear gates. The evening was one of our earliest as we only had to do a nut and bolt check and wire up the shifter cable to hopefully last us five more days.
Day 2: Leg 1
Monday, September 14th – The day started off dry, aren't we a lucky bunch? Upon reflection Leg 1 was the easiest day we had as a team. Everything went like clockwork, we were beating our target times by minutes and were having a blast while the car was running strong, the shifter was working great and we kept her fuelled up as required.
Then the rain came.
On the last stage of the day we were off the condition time for the stage by 7 seconds – not too bad, but not a zero, and we knew going in the rain was going to be a challenge.
Targa Newfoundland has what they call “plate time”, which was our initial goal, and we were way ahead of that time even in the rain, so we were content. The car ran great and we could have an early night and rest up as we expected the days would get longer and more intense going forward.
Day 3: Leg 2
Tuesday, September 15th – We awoke at 6 am, set to be on the road at 7 am, just enough time to grab a snack, fill the car with fuel, do the mandatory breathalyzer and head out to the first stage. It was pouring rain and dark – today might be a miserable day. Standing in the rain sucks. Driving in the rain is not the most fun thing in the world in a regular car – in a 480-hp GT40 that weights in at less than 3000 lb soaking wet with both of us in the car this could get interesting.
We knew we were going to get wet, but we prayed for some clearing later in the day. As it turned out, that didn't happen.
But we are at least dry sitting in the car, right? Unfortunately no, although not as bad as driving a convertible with the top down in the rain, the GT40 is not sealed. Water leaks in through the doors, drips on your feet and within a half hour into the drive, our legs and feet were soaked.
The first few stages went well, we were still making plate time despite the rain. The roads were slick, though, and we were hoping to just limp through the day, hopefully making plate time as Wednesday's weather was looking better.
After stage three of the day, lunch was on the menu, but as we arrived Mark noticed the car was sitting low on his side. We popped the hood and looked. Oh, that's not good, the shock is broken! Well it's been a slice, we thought, but upon closer inspection we noticed that the shock wasn't broken – the shaft un-threaded from the top mounting plate. With no tools onboard the GT40, some other competitors came to the rescue and we worked through lunch. We were able to remove the spring, re-thread the shock into the mount and re-compress the spring using a hammer, a crowbar, a wrench and a ratchet strap. One of the Navigators for another team, Yvan Turcotte, is a suspension engineer – with his advice and help we were back up and running in time to run the stage back the other way and still make our plate time – things were looking up.
Then came “Boat Harbour”. I was looking forward to this stage, a 24-km long stage with some very high-speed sections, we were most likely going to be travelling at 200 km/h (the Targa speed limit) for an extended time. But with the downpour it didn't seem like that was going to be in the cards.
This stage is also the home to the infamous wooden bridge that sits directly after a 90-degree right-hand turn after a long downhill high-speed section. We headed down the hill at speed I called CAUTION WOODEN BRIDGE in 500 m. Mark communicated back that he heard and we were good. I counted down the metres, he slowed down and we made the turn onto the bridge. We hit that bridge at a crawl and were straight and set up for the next instruction. Halfway across the bridge now, I looked up as I called, “no instruction for 2.5 km”. Mark touched the throttle and out of nowhere the car snapped left, then right, and a few expletives later and we hit the guardrail with the front end, spun around and smashed with the rear too.
The adrenaline was flowing.
“Are you okay?”
Followed by jumping out of the tight cockpit in the shortest amount of time possible, grabbing a safety triangle and running around the bend before that 90 degree turn to warn others to slow down – apparently that wooden bridge is even slipperier than we had anticipated.
We spent the next few hours standing in the rain watching the remaining cars zip up and down the road completing the stage, where a few more nearly went off on that same bridge on the return trip.
During our nearly two-hour hiatus we assessed the damage to the car – the front-end fiberglass body was cracked and broken, nothing that would stop us from running again. The radiator was bent and needed replacing for sure, as well as the radiator support bracket and coolant pipes. But the wheels were still straight the chassis wasn't affected in the least, so we were confident we could buff this thing right out and run again soon.
Once the tow truck picked us up and we were on way back to the staging area in Clarenville, we started making phone calls. We were able to secure a radiator from a shop in St. John's and in true Newfoundland spirit they were willing to deliver it to Clarenville (2 hours away) in order to get us up and running. Finding parts for a GT40 in Canada is near impossible, let alone Newfoundland where finding parts even for a Subaru can be a challenge.
But with a radiator out of a Chevy truck, some rubber hoses from a dump truck and some ingenuity by our support crew person, Freak, the ideas were flowing. A local welding shop opened their doors for us and their welder stayed all night as Freak and welder Trevor Blundon worked through the night to design a front radiator support and bracket to re-mount the front end back onto the GT40.
But one problem, the fibreglass body was not only cracked, the structural support was broken right off and mounting it was going to be a challenge and a half. That's when, in true Targa fashion, the support crew and owners of the Jensen Healey entry that was no longer running due to a spun bearing walked up to us and said that they were Marine fiberglass repair technicians. Before we could even thank them, Ron Milligan and John O'Connor from British Columbia had gone out to pick up fibreglass and resin from the local supply store before they closed.
Day 4: Leg 3
Wednesday, September 16th – Mark and I needed some sleep and we headed to bed for a few hours while the boys worked through the night. The radiator was mounted at 5 am, the body put on at 6, we were on the road at 7 am the next day, tired and worried that the car might not last the day. We can't thank Freak (our main crew man) enough, who stayed up not only all night to get the car ready but was there for us at the first service point to make sure we were fuelled up and ready to race for the day.
After a long transit to the first stage of the rally start on Wednesday we were a little more confident as the car was not overheating, it was driving straight and it felt as good as before – despite looking a little less pretty. The organizing committee of Targa put us at the back of the pack, normally reserved for the fastest car, but they and we were worried that our car could fail and it was better for us to be out last then to put us out first and have an incident ruining everyone's fun.
We finished that first stage (on our plate time by the way) and arrived to clapping and cheers – the spirit of Targa and the GT40 lives on for another day!
Day 5: Leg 4
Thursday, September 17th – Thursday is said to be one of the toughest days at Targa. The day is long, the courses are challenging and fatigue really starts to affect the competitors. Fatigue certainly was affecting us as we had been working on the car pretty much every night non-stop since we arrived in Newfoundland the previous Thursday.
However, things were looking up. We were more confident the car would perform as the roads dried up and the initial worries of the radiator and other repairs were going to hold up were already proven the previous day. We concentrated on making our plate times and did well on Thursday despite now being out of the running for a plate due to our crash on Tuesday. For us it was a personal goal to prove we were still out to compete, as well as finish this rally in good spirits.
In the end, Thursday went surprisingly well. We were now really clicking as a team and flowing really well. The car was working spectacularly and, despite the rough roads, the suspension was holding up. We did cringe at every bump and pothole in the road, though. “Mark, try to avoid those bumps,” I yelled over. “James, the road is a bump,” Mark exclaimed back. Yeah, that pretty much sums up the roads in Newfoundland. Be prepared to blow tires, bend rims, and break ball joints, control arms and shocks. The roads in Newfoundland, despite their scenic nature and winding excitement, are anything but smooth and that is part of the challenge of finishing this event.
The roads are so bad, in fact, that one of the teams driving a Lotus Elise had the car shut down after hitting a bump as the computer cut the fuel assuming they had crashed – now that's a bump.
We finished the Thursday stages on a high making our times and the weather was clearing up, finally. As we headed onto the highway to transit back to our Clarenville headquarters we discovered we missing fourth and fifth gear again. As we travelled down the highway in third gear we realized this was not good. Freak to the rescue, we stopped at a local Foodex for a break, Freak fixed our shifter and we headed back to homebase. Then the sun went down and we were caught driving in the dark with one working headlight pointed in the wrong direction – fun times. We made it back in one piece but it certainly was stressful as neither of us could really see where we were going.
Day 6: Leg 5
Friday, September 18th – Does it rain every day in Newfoundland? It certainly seemed like it as Friday rolled around and there was a mist in the air. The last day of Targa, the old girl just had to make it through eight more stages and we could prove to those that said the car wouldn't finish wrong as we (including the car) had persevered through far too many obstacles. With four stages complete by lunch we stopped into the Cupids community centre for a quick bite to eat before heading for the last four stages, which were back-to-back, Cupids-1, Brigus-1, Cupids-2 and finishing up through the quaint and tight town of Brigus once again followed by a parade to the finishing line where we hoped to get our finishing medals.
The last four stages are difficult town stages with many twists and turns, lots of stress for the Navigator to ensure the driver is kept up to date with directions necessary to keep the four wheels on the road and not into a fence, house or ditch. As we jumped into the car I plugged in my headset and couldn't hear myself. Oh crud! A full week of pulling on the cables had caused the microphone to fail! Oh my gawd, why oh why now? As we were rushed to the stage I was sure we were pooched. Just when we were about to start one of the most challenging stages of the week my microphone wasn't working.
Mark pulled the wires apart and with his lighter and was able to strip the tiny wires. With some stray duct tape throughout the car we pieced the headset back together moments before heading on the stage. I collected my thoughts, calmed down and we killed it, ripping up Cupids and putting on a show for the locals.
We quickly transited over to Brigus, only a few kilometres from Cupids and lined up just in time for our departure time. Just as we are about to get onto the start line, steam starts to billow out of the radiator cap, oh boy, NOT NOW! The marshal looks at us, Mark yells – “It's all good” and we drive through Brigus worried we are about to pop the motor. It was a little, nah, a lot distracting staring at the steam billowing out the front of the car.
Only two more stages to go, but the car was choking and coughing like it was fed up, it had had enough and just wanted to crawl into its trailer and ride back home. But she knew we needed to finish, we could not come all this way and not finish this brutal rally. Everyone had gone so far, the help coming from all corners. Come on old girl, you can do this!
Mark opened up the water fill jug – it was burping and popping – the car was severely overheating and we had no rest time to cool her down. He poured in a bunch of water bottles and after a few minutes the burbling stopped and the temperatures started to fall slightly.
We headed into Cupids-2, we got up to speed but drove slowly to cool off the car, coasting through the stage. At this point it was survival, not trophy times. We made it through and now only had 4.65 kilometres of race left before we were done. Of course it was a slow, tight town stage, so we had to take it easy to keep the engine from grenading itself.
As we moved to the start of Brigus for the final time the radiator cap started to whistle, she was really getting close to being finished with this journey. But she had to carry us through, she just had to. The safety marshal once again looked at our car – “You are leaking coolant but I didn't see it…” Thanks, buddy!
We were the last car to drive through the stage, nobody behind us, it was bitter sweet. The crowd was cheering. The photographers were at the ready. People were standing on their balconies and roofs. We rolled through the town, doors open, waving to the crowd, taking in the scenery and the moment, a special moment with a special car.
As we crossed the flying finish, a sigh of relief escaped from the whole team. And as we approach the final finish line, what do we see? The entire field of Targa competitors – who have now become good friends by Day 6 – out of their cars standing, clapping and cheering for team Bad Company Motorsports. We beat the odds and the skeptics and the car gave her all to ensure Mark and I could not only finish one grueling week behind the wheel but to start a great friendship as well.
It is said that cars have a soul and most certainly Mark's GT40 does. Despite starting off with a protest and refusing to get going at times and biting us hard, she was grateful of her rebuild and ensured we finished the demanding race by giving us everything she could at that final stage. We truly did bring the wrong car to a rally, but it finished despite being battered and bruised.
As much as Targa seems to be about the drive, it is more about the people. The volunteers, the competitors and the locals that provide support and allow us into their communities. The people of Newfoundland are like nobody else in our great nation. It certainly is by far the friendliest place I have ever visited and Mark and I were treated like superstars anywhere we arrived with the GT40. Young and old and everyone in between were excited to see Targa come to town; it is the highlight of the year for some of them and it showed.
No, we didn't win any trophies, although we did finish second in our category (Classic Large Displacement). There were ups and there were downs, but the week was an epic journey of friends, cars and racing and I wouldn't trade it for the world. In the end what we won is an experience of a lifetime and a friendship, something far more important than a silver plate.