Rally, Eh?

By Sarah Young
Nov 18, 2010 | Mazda | Posted in Shop Work | From the June 2010 issue | Never miss an article

Face it: Gearheads get a kick out of rebellion. Sure, topping 120 on a race track straightaway is exhilarating, but there’s an extra thrill in knowing you’d get hauled to the station if anyone caught you doing the same thing on a mailbox-lined street. Targa Newfoundland lets motorists from all over the world capitalize on this feeling: For the last eight years, this weeklong, 1375-mile tarmac rally has led competitors through the forests, suburbs, fishing villages and coastal routes of its namesake Canadian province—and it all takes place on public roads. Keith Tanner from Flyin’ Miata and his wife, Janel, had never competed in a rally before. They only had a fair bit of autocrossing and track day time between them. However, the event had long called to Keith, and he decided to build the perfect Targa machine to compete in the race. Complete with scrubbed-in Toyo RA-1s, a stiff chassis, light weight and responsive handling, his race-prepped 1994 Miata offered a pure and lively driving experience—a consistent package that was perfect for the unpredictable conditions of the Targa rally. With their roles worked out—Keith would drive, Janel would navigate—the pair dove in and began preparing for the event.

How It Works

Targa competitors raced on closed public roads through towns and villages, and Newfoundlanders came out in droves to cheer them on.

The Targa Newfoundland is divided into 44 stages, and officials decide how long it should take to finish each one. If you finish a stage in time, you safely “zero” it; if you’re late, you start racking up penalty points—one for every extra second you take. The allotted stage times become more and more aggressive as the race goes on, and it’s nearly impossible to make it through the whole rally without a penalty. The event classes cars by age, then further by engine size (small or large) and specification (stock, improved or modified). The Tanners landed in the Late Model, Modified Small class, which most notably forbids adding forced induction to cars not equipped that way from the factory. While Keith and Janel studied the rules and preparation limits intensely, they still needed to learn how to rally. The California Rally Series school taught them the basics, while a Colorado TSD rally gave them some valuable practice as a driver/navigator team. They also analyzed video footage of the Targa, and Keith attended as many track days as he could before the event. “I took odd lines through corners and drove over berms to simulate driving hundreds of unknown corners,” Keith explains.

Hit the Road

The Colorado couple towed their Miata 3200 miles to Nova Scotia, then took an 18-hour ferry ride to the Newfoundland rally location for the 2008 event. After breezing through tech, they ran the odometer calibration route to make sure their rally computer and the rally route book had the same concept of a single kilometer. Their race officially started the next morning. A Prologue stage allowed drivers and timing crews to acclimate to the rally atmosphere, and after a jittery start, Keith and Janel established a steady race pace. They managed to zero the stage without crashing. Others weren’t so lucky. “The potential for catastrophe was brought home to us on the second stage,” Keith says. A classic Mini had barreled into a ditch, and Keith and Janel were the second team on the scene. “Once the ambulance and fire teams showed up to cut the car apart and extract the navigator, we headed out on the stage at a slow pace,” Keith explains. “Quite a sobering sight to see on the first day, no question.” The couple would see two more cars claimed by ditches during their rally experience. They wrapped up day one in 13th overall with two penalty points. The rally paused for lunch each day, and the locals were enthusiastically involved in the meal preparations. “It was as if every grandmother within driving distance had been challenged to a dessert contest, and we were the judges,” Keith recalls. At night, the cars gathered in the same hockey and curling rink for an extremely varied car show—Mitsubishis and old Corvettes rubbed elbows with a vintage Camaro and a bright green Challenger.

Days of Targa

Keith Tanner, with help from his partners at Flyin’ Miata, crafted this Miata to handle Targa Newfoundland’s unpredictable conditions. Visit targamiata.com for a highly detailed account of the build.

As the rest of the days unraveled, Keith and Janel gained confidence and became a well-oiled machine. The base times grew progressively harder, but Janel became better able to articulate driving instructions—and Keith became more comfortable with trusting them. While the duo accumulated their share of penalty points, they were starting to get the hang of it. Day two’s course zigzagged through Gander, a typical subdivision closed down especially for the event. “Not only did we get to fulfill every commuter’s fantasy, we had the entire town standing on the lawns cheering us on,” Keith recalls. “I realized that this was basically just an oversized autocross—and I was driving a Miata, so the game was on.” Driver and navigator fatigue started to settle in by day three, but the pair pressed on through the fence-lined, single-lane roads of days four and five. The final day led competitors on a high-speed forest run, then through the charming village of Brigus, and finally along a route with a spectacular coastal view. “It was a microcosm of the whole rally,” Keith notes. Unfortunately, Keith didn’t get a chance to plant it on that final seaside leg; he and Janel came across another accident that effectively shut down the last stage. They completed the rally at a cruising pace, but it was still an exhilarating experience. “We’d done it—we’d finished the Targa Newfoundland without a scratch on the car,” Keith explains. “But we didn’t get to tear across the finish line with the tires screaming and flirting with the rev limiter.” Keith and Janel finished 16th overall—not bad for first-time participants. They forged bonds with the locals, their competitors and each other. And they’re looking forward to going back.

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