In the spring-green hills above Sicily's Mediterranean shore there is a small white house known to the local populace as La Casa di Feelleell. This is the Sicilian way of saying " Phil Hill's house," in remembrance of the day when the American racing driver—the world champion for 1961—catapulted off the road in his Ferrari, sailed 75 yards through the air and landed against the wall of the building. Hill's luck in being able to climb unhurt from the wreckage of his car was commensurate with the astonishing good fortune that has attended the race he was driving in—the oldest automobile race in the world and, to some, the best.
The Targa Florio, as the race is called, has survived fire, war, an earthquake, political chicanery, a man-made flood and—most surprising of all—the worldwide trend away from over-the-road races. Nearly all of the historic ones have ceased to be, due to the near impossibility of assuring the safety of spectators. Accidents involving spectators caused Italy to abandon its Mille Miglia—the most famous Italian sports event—after the 1957 running. Mexico canceled its Pan American road race after 1954.
Although the Targa Florio is potentially no less hazardous, not a single spectator has yet been lost and only one driver has been killed. The Sicilian defense is not to be found in favorable statistics, however, but in an abiding passion for the color and speed, for the noise and high excitement of the race. This Sunday brings the 50th running of the Targa Florio and the annual outpouring of that passion as 70 racing sports cars, driven by an elite international corps of pilotos and a sprinkling of that disappearing species, the gentleman driver, commence what Stirling Moss of Britain calls "the greatest race left in the world." Starting near the town of Cefal�, these adventurers will speed up into the hills, climbing to nearly 2,000 feet at the route's highest point and down again on often primitive roads, narrow and twisting, which contain 1,300 curves. And then, if they can avoid such mishaps as that of Feelleell, they will retrace the terrible route nine times more, for a total distance of 430 miles.
The Sicilian passion will be evident all the sun-baked day as the island's people crowd close to the roads—some invariably in suicidal positions where centrifugal force could pull a too vigorously cornering car into them. In most races if a bystander even touches a car it runs the risk of disqualification. Not so in the Targa Florio, where the rules are more simpatico. In one race a Roman businessman named Francesco Lessona, driving the Targa Florio with more brio than skill, gunned his Ferrari LM down a tightly curving descent, only to skid at the bottom and find himself sideways across a small stone bridge. England's Clive Baker, driving a tiny Austin-Healey Sprite, barely squeezed past. A group of peasants materialized around Lessona in no time, lifted and turned his 1,800-pound car so that it was headed in the proper direction and shoved him on his way with cheerful cries of "Via! Via!"
One Calascibetta, a Sicilian driver, tells of the episode last year when his Abarth-Simca stopped beyond Collesano with a broken throttle cable. A family of spectators picnicking nearby offered him a salami sandwich and a bottle of wine. Calascibetta took a bite of salami, a swallow of wine and a string from the family's guitar. With the string he repaired the cable well enough to reach the pits, where a lasting fix was made, and he finished the race 10th overall and first in his class.
Then there was the time Maurizio Grana, Ferrari's dealer in Rome—and a demon driver—ran into a guardrail, crumpling one side of his LM. Helpful spectators pried open the deck lid of the rear-engined car and, seeing that the part of the dual fuel system located on the damaged side was broken, sealed it off and sent Grana on his way in less than five minutes. "The amazing thing," Grana explained later, "was that these people were from an isolated village and probably never before had seen such a complicated piece of machinery, yet patched it up without hesitation. I could not have done it myself."
Drivers find it extremely difficult to get as much Targa Florio practice as they would like. On the one official day of practice there is only time for about two laps each for the two drivers every car must have. Consequently, there is much enterprising unofficial practice amid ordinary workaday traffic, which includes donkey carts, bicycles and occasional herds of sheep, goats and cows, as well as cars and trucks. After Britain's Graham Hill was driven around the course for the first time he said, "Beautiful scenery. Now may I see the circuit, please?" Later he said, "I realized I wasn't being kidded when I saw my friends out practicing."
The question whether to practice unofficially with one's racing car or in a rented car depends largely on one's bankroll or the supply of spare cars on a factory team. A year ago Britain's Sir John Whitmore went practicing with the American Bob Bondurant in a new E-type Jaguar. After a week they had worn out three sets of tires, two sets of brake linings, the clutch and the differential.
Accepting or rejecting offers of rides around the circuit with racing drivers is a matter of individual preference. I have myself ridden over it in a Mustang, a Porsche, an Alfa Romeo and various Ferraris. After 10 minutes of sliding around curves with Nino Vaccarella, the 1965 winner, in a Ferrari, I became carsick. Half an hour's ride with Clementino Ravetto in his GTO was a lesson in the physical punishment that drivers must be able to absorb: the intense heat rising from the floorboards that scorches your feet, vibrations that make your teeth chatter, the roaring engine that paralyzes your hearing, the jarring crunch of the gears and, after each gear change, the thrust of acceleration that slams you against the back of your seat.
Vaccarella says, "When I go fast I really sweat. I am sure that I am going to scrape those stone bridges—they are so narrow that it is like being on a bobsled run." Of the spectators, Britain's Andrew Hedges says, "They are everywhere—standing in the ditches, strolling across the road and jumping out of the way as you go past."