Targa Newfoundland – How it all began

by Jim Kenzie, Targa Newfoundland co-founder and three-time winner 

We owe it all to Bob English. Bob, a fellow auto scribe, and his wife Helen had invited me to dinner in their then-home in Erin Ontario, a bit north-east of us in Milton. During dins, Bob mentioned that our mutual friend, Doug Mepham, a former fellow scribe and at that stage of his career a public relations guru, had invited Bob to be his navigator in a crazy event called Targa Tasmania, a week-long performance car rally held in – aw, you guessed it – Tasmania. For the geographically challenged, Tasmania is the island just south of Australia. The event would start on Easter weekend in 2001. 
Bob is a wonderful fellow, the sort of chap you would want to share a car with under challenging conditions like these. He is an excellent writer, also a fine driver. But I must say, navigating was not one of his strengths. On several occasions, he and I had driven together on press events. Even while I was driving, I’d often sneak a peek at the route maps or driving instructions he was holding to make sure we didn’t get lost and end up being eaten by wolves. 
And Bob knew this about himself. He was worried he might somehow screw up this adventure that Doug had put so much time, effort and money into. He asked if I knew anyone who might like to take on the Tasmanian task. I almost dislocated my shoulder throwing my arm up into the air. 
I of course also knew Doug well. He had been at least partially responsible for several aspects of my career. I also knew he was an excellent driver, capably quick, but not foolhardy – someone I’d be comfortable with sharing a car under high-speed, high-stress conditions. 
I got in touch with Doug. He knew I was pretty good at it, so he agreed to the swap. 

Doug was – is – also just about the neatest person I have ever met. What’s that got to do with rallying? Just that you want a meticulously-prepared car for an event like this. You don’t want to schlep a car half-way around the world to have it blow up on the first corner. 
Doug supervised the construction of his car by the respected multi-champion ralliers and rally car builders Frank and Dan Sprongl of FourStar Motorsports in Georgetown, Ontario. It was a 1971 Volvo 142S two-door sedan, one of those “they’re boxy, but they’re good” cars. It meant his car would be solid, and beautifully prepped. “Safe as houses,” to quote Henry Manney III of Road & Track magazine fame. 
We completed the rally. It was a great week, on several levels. Didn’t crash. Didn’t die. Don’t remember/don’t care where we placed. Fabulous roads, with the “Special Sections” (for the high-speed stages) closed off to all other traffic. Friendly people. Amazing scenery. 

On the ferry back from Tasmania to Melbourne, we were reminiscing about what a magical time we had just enjoyed. Where else on earth could you pull off something like this? 
Neither Doug nor I can recall the exact sequence of this discussion. This was over 20 years ago, dontcha know. But at one point, one of us (I think it was me, but that may be because I’m writing this story…) wondered aloud: What if you had an island like Tasmania? A welcoming population like Tasmanians? A place that could use some tourism dollars like Tasmania? I am quite sure it was me who first uttered these two words in the same sentence: 
“Targa, Newfoundland.” 
When we got back home, Doug called a chap named Robert Giannou. Back in the day, Doug had done PR for Coca Cola where Robert had been a consultant in St. John’s. Doug recognized the Giannou name from the days of the Canadian Road Racing Championship for Formula Atlantic cars. One of those events was through the streets of St. John’s Newfoundland, which Giannou had organized. Robert was very well-known in Newfoundland, and if anybody could pull something like a Targa Newfoundland off, he would be the guy.  

And he did. 
Doug and I did the first Targa Newfoundland together in the Volvo – we thought it was fitting that the car which had carried us through the event that inspired Targa Newfoundland should be the car that carried us through the event which it spawned. 

However, I was sitting on what for me was the wrong side of the car – we both wanted to drive, not “navi-guess” as we joked about it. So, in Year Two, and more by coincidence than design, I ended up as driver in a new-generation MINI supplied by MINI Canada. 

A “Factory” ride! Every driver’s dream. When the navigator MINI had arranged for me – a fellow journalist from Montréal – had to leave unexpectedly in the middle of the week, I stumbled upon a chap named Brian Bourbonniere from Lawrencetown, Nova Scotia. Brian had previously won four consecutive Nova Scotia rally championships as a navigator, and it had ceased to be much of a challenge for him. He was at Targa simply as a crew member for some of his buddies who had entered the event. We went on to win three “Open Division” championships together. 
The secret to our success? Among other things, our “chemistry” as a team, which was instantly perfect. Inside the car, I never talked, Brian never shut up. He’d call, “100 metres, easy left.” In 100 metres, I’d make an easy left. No questions asked. 
After some ten years together, Brian’s real-life job started getting in the way of his fun, and I had to find another navigator. MINI decided they had had enough too, and I had to find another car. I landed a Kia Optima for a couple of events, and later a Nissan Juke RS Turbo for three more. Once more, tales for another day. 

Still, Targa Newfoundland remains the most fun you can have in a car with your clothes on.

Jim Kenzie’s auto/biography, In The Driver’s Seat, includes this history of Targa Newfoundland. Find out more and order a copy here.