Targa NZ is, of course, the five-day special stage rally held on tarmac back roads that is justifiably famous for providing amazing driving experiences for both competitors (Road Race) and noncompetitors (Targa Tour). My Targa involvement started way back in 1998 when I entered the very first Targa Tour with a friend, Brian Smart, in his Jaguar XJ-S. We had great fun and it motivated me to enter the event as a competitor in 2000 with my classic 1973 Ford Escort Mexico race car.
After some preparatory work on the car by Mal Clark at By-Gone Autos, and with Austin-Healey Club friend Harold Church as service crew, Tony Watkins and I managed to complete our first Targa, and what an adventure it was! After a few years of competition in both the full five-day event and the shorter twoday Targa Bambina, we decided to relax and enjoy the experience a little more and joined the expanding Targa Tour group, where you get to drive the special stages in loose convoy behind a tour leader. So, in more recent years I have been a “Tourist”, initially in my 1963 Austin-Healey 3000 and, when that got too valuable, my 1963 Austin-Healey Sprite, or whatever daily driver I had at the time.
In the intervening years, I also volunteered as a tour official on various occasions until ill health stopped all that in 2018.
THE VCC TIME TRIAL
This a relatively new venture, held in conjunction with the Targa and using exactly the same route book. Jointly organised by Peter Martin and Victoria Main of the Ultimate Rally Group (URG), and Rod and Anne Corbett of the Vintage Car Club (VCC), the trial runs on the road immediately before the Targa competitors and is designed to suit VCC eligible vehicles.
Instead of driving each special stage at high speed in order to beat your competition by doing a better time, in the Time Trial you are given an achievable average speed and time to complete the stage. For every second that you are early/ late at the finish you lose a point. Thanks to modern GPS technology, in every stage there is also a hidden spot where you are checked, and seconds gained or lost at this point are added to your finishing error. The winner of the stage is the competitor with the lowest points, or the ultimate – zero points.
Targa 2021 finally ran in May 2022. The Time Trialists had a choice of five day or two day entries. Frank Karl and I entered the five day event in my Austin-Healey Sprite, with Frank as driver and myself navigator/ co-driver. Having competed in regularity events on the track for some years in the Auckland Classic Trials series, I was keen to see how we might do on the equivalent closed-road special stages.
A weather forecast showed a large slow moving high pressure bubble approaching, which proved correct (thanks guys). This arrived at the start of scrutineering and documentation on the Monday and Tuesday and stayed for the entire week, providing us with clear blue skies and nice dry road conditions, apart from early morning damp patches. Frosty starts were the order of the week as typically the time trial left the start time-control between 7am and 8am each morning!
On Monday we arrived at the Holden Museum just out of New Plymouth and were quickly passed through vehicle scrutineering, then fitted our livery (Targa and VCC signage) whilst waiting to have our mandatory Rally Safe unit installed. The Rally Safe uses GPS and cellular technology to track vehicles and control all aspects of the rally throughout the event. It even provides you with start line countdowns from two minutes on all special stages.
Following afternoon tea, we visited the Holden Museum (very impressive), then went and calibrated our Brantz Rally Meter to match the Rally Safe odometer. This was trimmed further once we were on the event with our first route book. Tuesday morning was spent at documentation and driver’s briefing, followed by a free afternoon.
AN EARLY START
Wednesday saw us heading north out of New Plymouth with full fuel tanks for a long drive to the first stage just north of Awakino through to Marakopa. This would be our first test at maintaining an average speed as closely as possible and finishing the stage within the exact time specified. This is quite challenging and we did improve slowly as the event progressed.
Basically it is a matter of maintaining the prescribed speed and checking the time at a number of pre-selected spots along the road to see how many seconds early or late you are, then compensating accordingly. You are not allowed to exceed 130kph or go under 30kph, all tracked by the Rally Safe.
How you achieve this with minimum penalties is up to each team. Suffice to say, the top teams were able to incur typically less than 10 penalty points per stage. More often than not the winning team accumulated zero to one or two points. We completed five special stages on the first day, as far north as the Waitomo Caves, with a lunch stop in Te Kuiti. Another early start on Thursday had us heading for the infamous ‘Inglewood Jumps’ stage not far out of New Plymouth. Another local stage at Ratapiko, then we were on our way up the famous Forgotten World Highway from Stratford. The 39km stage of Whangamomona 1 exercised our timekeeping, then it was touring through to the ghost town of Ohura via the worst 10km of gravel you are ever likely to strike on a public highway in New Zealand.
At least one of our group, a 1990 Mercedes-Benz SL500 suffered broken suspension here and had to be carried out by recovery truck! Another stage from Ohura back towards Taumarunui followed by a fuel stop then a touring loop back to the republic of Whangamomona for a (very) late lunch. The last stage of the day was the 39km Whangamomona Saddle in reverse, and by this time it was so late that only the Time Trial group got through before the road had to be reopened due to the onset of darkness. We were very tired on arrival back in New Plymouth after 6pm!
Friday saw us again departing New Plymouth for a number of short sharp stages around Taranaki with spectacular views of the snowcapped maunga at every turn, if you had time to look! And we generally did while waiting to move up to the start control on each special stage. After seven stages for the day, with lunch in Stratford, we ended up in Whanganui with plenty of light to spare this time. There was a big leg on day four as we travelled from the West Coast to the East Coast, starting with the Parapara road then the first special stage on Fields Track ending close to Waiouru.
Another couple of local stages around the Waiouru area, once again with spectacular snow-covered mountain views (Ruapehu this time), then it was on to Taihape for lunch. The famous ‘Gentle Annie’ road to Hawkes Bay was split into three special stages after lunch, to see us finishing in Havelock North, once again with light to spare. That night we enjoyed a VCC dinner at the Havelock Club where many stories were told and experiences shared. The MGB Roadster team of Jeff Sewell and Paul Newton provided some fun entertainment, and a few participation awards were handed out by Rod and Peter.
Sunday, the final day, provided us with five good long stages spread around Hawkes Bay, centered on Hastings and still in the perfect weather we had started in five days earlier! The prizegiving dinner was held that evening although Frank and I didn’t get there, mainly because we were both due to fly out of the country in the following few days and didn’t want to run the risk of catching the dreaded Covid! We both agreed that the VCC Time Trial is a great way to get out and exercise your classic car over the best roads in the world, while enjoying a challenging competition among like-minded enthusiasts. Go for it!
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