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Targa Newfoundland: between The Rock and a hard place

SRT Viper ACR driven by team of Ralph Gilles and Jen Horsey wasn't the only exotic in the Targa field.

jen horsey The Globe and Mail

Newfoundland is a place that buoys the spirit with its beauty. Weatherworn wooden homes stacked into rugged cliff sides and docks loaded with the boats and nets that connect the people to the sea create spectacular vistas, and living at the whimsy of a fickle ocean has created a friendly and supportive culture that warms the heart. It's an unusual place and, for the past 10 years, it has played host to a 2,200-kilometre motorsport contest known as Targa Newfoundland.

Inspired by the storied Targa Florio of Italy, the closed-road time trial sees teams of two – a driver and a co-driver (or navigator) – compete together in a timed contest that pits cars of all styles and eras against one another for five flat-out days. It's a road trip with a 200-km/h speed limit featuring a diverse array of vehicles: classic Camaros, Porsches of all eras, conventional rally-prepped Subarus and our own three-car SRT effort featuring two Dodge Challengers and a Viper.

Although geared more toward weekend warriors and casual racers than pro teams, the contest is incredibly challenging: of the 67 starters who burst out of the gate in downtown St. John's on Sept. 10, only about a third earned the coveted Targa plates awarded for finishing all of the stages in an allotted time.

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This year, for my fourth time in competition at Targa Newfoundland, I partnered as co-driver to Ralph Gilles, SRT CEO and Chrysler design chief, to compete in a growling, 600-plus horsepower SRT Viper ACR. Gilles, a passionate car guy and talented driver, as well as a significant player in the Detroit automotive industry, is a long-time Targa Newfoundland participant. We met in competition in Newfoundland six years ago and 2011 was our first pairing.

The people of Newfoundland are gracious hosts to our travelling automotive circus. Spectators line the course to watch the competition vehicles wheel through their towns and villages, and stream into the local hockey rink each night where the cars park for a nightly show. Lunch breaks typically take place at schools or community centres and are catered by dedicated volunteers from local rotary clubs.

Throughout the week, a driving suit or branded ball cap was all it took to draw an instant fan club. Dodge is a top-selling brand on the island and many fans sought us out. I was regularly astounded to find little girls as young as four or five years old identifying the logos on my racing suit and asking me about "my" Viper – with no apparent prompting.

The Viper seemed at the start like an unlikely choice for Targa Newfoundland. Powerful, low, stiff and built for high speeds on smooth tarmac, there was a general sense of disbelief among our rivals in the field that the car could succeed the tight, twisting and rough roads of the region. But by Day 2 of the five days of competition, the team had discovered a setup that brought the ride-height up to the maximum few inches possible and the car was a joy: nimble through the turns and with so much acceleration produced by the V-10 that the g-forces pressed me into the seat every time driver Gilles hit the gas.

The Viper wasn't the only exotic in the field. A car club from Alberta brought a handful of incredibly rare machines to run a new division known as the "Hot Tour." While most teams raced the clock, Hot Tour participants – including a custom Ferrari Enzo, a Maserati MC 12 and a Ferrari 430 Spyder – were invited to take a controlled run along the route without being subject to any timing or competition.

In a moment that become a viral video hit, the Albertan bad boy driver of the custom Enzo worth about $1.5-million made a miscalculation and spun out into a bay. Neither driver Zahir Rana nor his co-driver was injured and they were able to fish the car out of the water. The team is optimistic they'll be able to get it running again.

When the cars paraded through their ceremonial start under sunny skies in St. John's early last week, Hurricane Maria was looming offshore. She met us late in the week on the Burin Peninsula. There are no rain delays in rally competition, and we gamely raced on. It must have been comical to see many of the cars slip-sliding at slow speed along the course. The Viper looked particularly out of its element. Originally prepared for track competition, it didn't even have windows.

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The competition was fierce throughout the field with many veterans returning for the 10th anniversary. Final results were muddied in a dispute over whose car should have been competing in what class, but our Viper currently stands second in Modern division between the defending champions, a local father-son team of Brian and Matthew Oldford in a Subaru WRX STI, and Tom Collingwood and co-driver Ashley Hollett, who drove their brilliant orange GT3 to a dead-heat tie with the Viper after five days of racing.

Our SRT teammates Rob Pacione and Brian Maxwell of Ontario took the Open division win in their 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8, while local driver Scott Giannou and his Ontario-based navigator Ray Felice took the Classic division win in their 1981 Porsche 911 SC.

The Grand Touring Equipped Division saw Newfoundlanders Justin Crant and Justin Russell return to the top of the podium for a second time.

Victory means recognition from fellow competitors and an inscribed trophy, but the real winners are typically the charities for which many teams compete. Team SRT pledged donations to the province's Autism Foundation and, by Saturday, had raised $26,000.

It is inevitable that fast cars let loose on twisty roads raise concerns about safety and the event works hard to ensure that every competitive kilometre of the stages are carefully secured. However, this year saw the event's first serious incident involving a spectator. One was injured during one of the Thursday stages. The event reacted immediately. Racing was halted and an investigation is ongoing. The latest report is that the victim's condition is improving. It was the first time in the event's 10-year history that a spectator has been hurt.

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