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Targa Florio: 1955-1973
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Targa Florio


The Norman conquest of southern Italy led to the creation of the Kingdom of Sicily, which was subsequently ruled by the Hohenstaufen, the Capetian House of Anjou, Spain, the House of Habsburg, and then finally unified under the House of Bourbon with the Kingdom of Naples as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It became part of Italy in 1860 following the Expedition of the Thousand, a revolt led by Giuseppe Garibaldi during the Italian unification, and a plebiscite. Sicily was given special status as an autonomous region after the Italian constitutional referendum of 1946.

Vincenzo FlorioVincenzo Florio was born in Palermo, Sicily on March 16, 1883, the youngest of the four sons of Ignatius Sr. and Baroness Giovanna d'Ondes Trigona. Vincenzo did not show any attitude for running the family winery business, which was firmly in the hands of his older bother Ignatius Jr. He longed to travel the world beyond Sicily and as soon as he could he traveled to Germany and France. While in Paris he came upon a showroom that contained a machine he had never seen before. The machine was a de Dion motor tricycles which he promptly purchased and had shipped back to Palermo. The new contraption caused quite a sensation as it was unloaded onto the dock. Unfortunately there it stayed due to the fact that there was not any gasoline available in all of Sicily! Urgent cables to Paris finally brought a shipment of the precious fuel. After the initial thrill of driving his new toy began to wear off he decided to have a race. The only problem was that his was the sole motor car on the island which would make for a poor race. It was decided that he would organize a handicap race between his car, a cyclist and a horseman. The cyclist was the first to drop out with cramps which put Vincenzo and his car in the lead, but the lead was short lived when his engine began to over heat. Scoring one last win in the battle of horse and machine the horseman galloped past to take the victory. Rather than wallowing in defeat Vicenzo vowed to return from France with a real motor car. He tried many different cars but the hilly Sicilian countryside proved too much for the fragile cars. Finally he turned to a new Italian manufacturer, Fiat.

Villino FlorioThe turn of the century Fiat was a company that believed in service and would send a representative to each customer to ensure that the customer was properly trained in the care and maintenance of their new car. To Sicily they sent a young apprentice named Felice Nazzaro who would soon make a name for himself as one of the first great racing car drivers. Nazzaro and Vincenzo became fast friends. He induced Nazzaro to stay in Sicily to take care of his growing stable of cars. Vincenzo's rich friends did not sit still while all of this was taking place, they also bought cars and had them shipped to Sicily. Soon races were organized in Favorita Park. Feeling himself sufficiently experienced he decided to order a real racing car with which he could compete in races in the rest of Europe. Fiat fearing that Vincenzo was still too young and inexperienced, would not sell him the race car, refused by none other than Giovanni Agnelli without written permission by Don Ignazio and his mother! After much searching he bought a disassembled Panhard and had it rebuilt. Nazzaro brought the new car up to race readiness and in its first competition, Vicenzo Florio won a speed trial in Padua.

Sicily 1900Emboldened by this easy win he prepared to enter the infamous 1903 Paris to Madrid race. His brother Ignazio, hearing of this conspired to prevent his under-age brother from leaving the island and may actually have saved his life. The race was stopped short of the end after numerous fatal accidents that took the lives of spectators and drivers including the Renault brother Marcel. The next big race on the calendar was the race in Brescia which Vincenzo entered without his older brothers knowledge and in which he finished a respectable third. After he was finally judged to be of age and no longer the responsibility of his brother, Vincenzo entered every race that he could including the Kaiserpreis, the first French Grand Prix and the Gordon Bennett Cup.

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Brescia, in Northern Italy, was was already the Italian center for motor racing, 22 years before the first Mille Miglia race was held. The wealthy young racing enthusiast from Sicily generously funded the 1905 "Brescia Motor Week" on September 2-10, 1905. He donated 50,000 lire and a Cup for the winner. The "Coppa Florio" was born: it was to be held until 1929. The winner on September 10 in Brescia was Giovanni Battista Raggio driving an Itala 100 HP, 14.8 liters. Vincenzo finished ninth in his Mercedes 125 HP, 14 liters, some 45 minutes behind Raggio.

Targa Florio CircuitIn 1905 while attending a sporting competition Florio was asked by Henri Desgrange, editor of L'Auto and founder of the Tour De France: "Why do you not have a motor race in Sicily?" Florio startled by the question could only respond: "Why, because we have no roads." Upon his return home he had his associates look into the matter of road and they convinced Florio that a course could be built. Florio also commissioned a jeweler to craft a targa (Italian for plaque or plate) that was to be awarded to the winner. In addition there would be cash prizes: 30,000 lire for the winner, 10,000 for second place and 5,000 for third. The Targa Florio was not so much a race as it was an ordeal. Established in 1906  a single lap at la Madonie, East of Palermo was approximately 92 miles.

Besides the course which traversed mountain roads unchanged since the Punic Wars, there were severe changes in climate, local bandits and the ever present packs of wolves waiting to feast on any unfortunate driver. Each hairpin competed with a sheer abyss for the driver's attention over a 3 lap race of 277 miles. Road elevation rose from 30’ (10m) above sea-level to some 3,300’ (1010m).

The start/finish line would be placed at the Cerda railway station with the town itself just up the road, if you can call a village a town without a garage or a single hotel. This forced the teams to locate to Termini Imerese, an ancient town on the coast towards Palermo. The Grand Hotel des Thermes included a hot spring where the drivers could relax after a hard day of driving.