targa_logo2.jpgThe first leg of competition proved tough on teams as the sixth-annual running of the Steelback Targa Newfoundland took to the winding roads of the North Avalon on Monday.

Rainy conditions near Gooseberry Cove spelled trouble for a number of entries — including several veterans – who were caught out by the slippery surface of a wet wooden bridge. Locals are familiar with the narrow crossing, and say they are wary whenever weather strikes.

“We came around the corner and onto the bridge and it was like a sheet of ice in the rain,” said Ford Mustang driver Afshin Montazeri, who found himself stuck in the ditch Monday afternoon. “We got sideways and just didn’t have time to straighten out.”

It was a disappointment for the driver, but – as is typically the case at this contest – the damage was minimal.

“I have a bruised ego, that’s it,” he said at the end of the day as the team’s crew of mechanics carefully inspected the car. “It looks like we’ll change the oil and check the tire pressure and be back tomorrow.”

Big power and rear-wheel-drive also proved quite a handful for Dennis and Levi Pippy, who slid off the road nearby in their BMW M3. Jim Turner and Darryl Deagle suffered the same fate in their Ford Mustang GT, as did Bob and Nadine Saville in their Porsche 914.

There were no injuries or property damage reported, although it is not immediately clear whether the Porsche 914 or a beautiful Austin Healy that crashed into a ditch earlier in the day will be able to race again.

Meanwhile, the first real day of competition following Sunday’s pair of warm-up stages in St. John’s saw a number of veteran competitors locked in a battle for the lead. Among them were Classic division contenders Jud Buchanan and Jim Adams in their crowd-pleasing 1967 Acadian Canso Sport Coupe, Tom Silver and David Fuss in their 1965 Ford Mustang Fastback, and Scott Giannou and Ray Felice in their 1981 Porsche 911 SC. Only two among the 11 teams who were still penalty-free after the challenges of Monday’s first leg were in the Modern division – the brothers John and Clarke

Paynter in their factory-supported 2006 Subaru WRX STi, and Jason Byrne and Mark Laitenberger in their 1995 BMW M3.

Surprisingly, one early favourite for the overall win – defending champions Glen Clarke and Evan Gamblin – were well off the pace. They chased recurring electrical gremlins in their 1979 Porsche 911 all day long. Despite the setback, Clarke said he was optimistic the team could make a comeback later in the week-long contest.

The factory entry in the new hybrid class, a gas-electric Lexus GS 450h campaigned by Marc Lachapelle and Jean-Francois Drolet, also ran into trouble when they missed a turn on the second stage of the day and had to turn around. The team dropped back in the overall standings, but remained in contention for a class win and a Targa plate.

“I want this plate so much,” said Lachapelle. “Being here is what counts the most — I don’t want to mess up.”

In addition to Lexus, BMW Mini, Mazda and Subaru are also fielding factory-supported entries. The contest offers manufacturers an opportunity to prove their automotive mettle as well as take in some of the famous Newfoundland hospitality.

While there is no prize money, teams comprised of a driver and a navigator are competing for Targa plates, as well as class and divisional titles. All finishers receive a medallion. Entries are divided into categories – the faster-paced Targa category, where teams must achieve ambitious speed targets, and the more moderate Grand Touring division, which rewards precision driving. Teams may also pursue the automotive adventure in the Targa Tour category.

The day’s events concluded with a car display at the Gander Community Centre that drew crowds of local fans and autograph seekers. Area resident Jay Nelles brought his two daughters to the show on Monday and said he looked forward to watching the speeding cars when the course passes a block from his home on Tuesday evening.

“It’s interesting and it’s fun,” said Nelles, an Armed Forces pilot stationed with the 103 Search and Rescue squadron in Gander. “I like the cars, and the girls have fun.”

It’s the third year that Nelles has brought his young daughters out to take in the sights at the contest and he said the family especially enjoys the opportunity to keep tabs on the pastor of their church, Targa regular Edison Wiltshire, who is competing this year in a 1979 Porsche 911 Targa with his wife Marg-O in the co-driver’s seat.

The Steelback Targa Newfoundland is the first and only event of its kind in North America. It is one of three internationally recognized Targa motorsports events in the world and is listed on the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) international calendar.

The sixth-annual running of the event starts and ends in St. John’s. It covers 2,200 kilometres of the challenging, twisty roads of the central and eastern portion of the island of Newfoundland. The event began with registration and technical inspection in St. John’s (on Saturday, September 8), and concludes back in the city on Friday, September 14, 2007.

More than 70 teams from around the world took the start Sunday at an official ceremony outside The Keg in downtown St. John’s, as fans including hockey legends Phil Esposito and Johnny Bower looked on.

On Sunday, teams completed a pair of preliminary stages — known as Prologue stages — in the communities of Flatrock and Torbay near St. John’s. On Monday, the event traveled to the North Avalon region where it visited the communities of Argentia, Placentia, Normans Cove, Northwest Brook, Gooseberry Cove, Adeytown/Deep Bright, and Eastport, and wound up in Gander. Competitors take on the Exploits region on Tuesday.

Teams have come from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Holland, the Bahamas and the U.K. for the first five editions of Targa Newfoundland, and the 2007 field is equally international. Targa Newfoundland is owned and organized by Newfoundland International Motorsports.

Complete coverage of the event airs on Global TV and the Speed Network in early 2008. The 2008 running of Targa Newfoundland is set to take place September 13 – September 20.



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