For the love of sports cars and the Sicilian countryside

Words by Daniel Parry Williams
The Alpha Romeo 33TT3 chasing the Targa Florio trail in Sicily
The Alpha Romeo 33TT3 chasing the Targa Florio trail in Sicily


Possibly the most iconic and naturally spectacular motor racing event in the history of Motor racing, both famous and infamous, the Targa Florio race started in the sun-kissed Sicilian mountains in 1906 in the province of Palermo. It was the oldest Sports Racing event in the world. Famous because of the extreme length and difficulty, and infamous because of the fatal danger it presented to driver and spectator alike. It was officially recognised until 1977, when the horrific mounting death toll finally became unacceptable.

Vincenzo Florio first established the original ‘grande’ Targa Florio circuit. 148km long, including around 2000 corners on largely twisty, narrow and bumpy mountain roads. The first race lasted 9 hours and consisted of 3 laps. It was won by Alessandro Umberto Cagno (2 May 1883 – 23 December 1971). He was an Italian racing driver, aviation pioneer and powerboat racer.  Subsequently he became the first person to fly over Venice. He won the inaugural race at an average speed of 50km/h.

The circuits:

  • Piccolo: Distance 72 km. From Campofelice, Collesano, Scillato, Caltavuturo, Cerda to Floriopoli.
  • Medio: Distance 108 km. From Campofelice, Collesano, Scillato, Polizzi Generosa, Caltavuturo, Cerda to Floriopoli.
  • Grande: Distance 148km. From Campofelice, Collesano, Isnello, Castebuono, Geraci Siculo, Petralia Soprana, Petralia Sottana, Castalla Sicula, Polizzi Generosa, Caltavturo, Cerda, ending at Floriopoli.


From 1912 to 1914 the course became a single lap of Sicily at 975km! By the 1920s it had captured the public imagination to become the most important sports car race in Europe, and possibly the world. Neither of the other two classic European events, the Mille Miglia (a road race in mainland Italy) or the 24 hours of Le Mans existed. Finally, by 1932, the ‘piccolo’ 72km course, with 11 laps was established. This continued until its demise in 1977.

Between 1955 and 1973 the event was officially recognised by Motorsports governing body, the FIA for the World Sportscar Championship. Now a truly international event, it attracted the best drivers and the best cars in the world. Events in 1973 sealed the fate of the event as an international competition, but it continued until 1977 as a National sports car event until further tragedy finally ended Prototype Sports car racing in Sicily.

The spectacle:

Apart from its extreme length, the course is unlike any other, being held on some of the twistiest, bumpiest, narrow mountain roads to be found anywhere. Through picturesque mountain towns and ancient fortified villages, the ‘piccolo’ circuit is in the Madonie Natural Park, an area not only of tough, rugged terrain, but also of exceptional beauty and natural hues, which affords distant glimpses of Mt. Etna. With low, occasional stone walls, precipitous drops on one side and almost permanent rock faces on the other, interspersed with enthusiastic, and sometimes drunk families of spectators at the roadside and often right across it.


Porsche 908-3 Targa Florio 1970

Later years:

The fastest lap ever recorded was by Leo Kinnunen in 1970, racing a Porsche 908/3 at an average speed of 128.57 km/h. Leo Juhani “Leksa” Kinnunen (5 August 1943 – 26 July 2017) was a Finnish racing driver, and the first Formula One driver from Finland. He was asked to drive in the film Le Mans personally by actor and racing enthusiast Steve McQueen, who himself drove for Porsche in North America. Kinnunen’s contract with Porsche did not allow the performance and he was replaced by David Piper, who incidentally, was severely injured during the filming.

During the 1970’s the performance of the cars increased to around 600 horsepower in lightweight, aerodynamic pure sports racing.  With very little safety equipment for drivers and none for spectators, inevitably the major accidents happened. In 1973 there were not one, but two fatalities including one spectator, and seven other injuries from multiple accidents. The FIA immediately ceased competition there. Finally, in 1977, two more spectators were killed, five more seriously injured, and two drivers seriously injured. Local police stopped the race on lap 4, never to resume.


The legacy:

In its seven decade-long history, the most successful Marque was Porsche, followed by Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Lancia, Bugatti, Maserati and Mercedes-Benz. Porsche have immortalised the name ‘Targa’ for their hardtop convertible to this day after the iconic race.

There are few places that evoke the heady atmosphere, intensity, danger, and sheer excitement of the golden era of sports-car racing. The Targa was a unique Sicilian road race like nothing on earth. While some of the original route has faded into obscurity, the charming towns and boundless enthusiasm of the locals remain largely intact. Among the villages crossed by the legendary Targa Florio rally, is Collesano where the Targa Florio Museum honours the vivid memory of what the Targa Florio once was.

Today, the spirit of the Targa Florio lives on in the form of a historic rally in May and October. Enthusiasts, crews, classic and vintage cars from across the globe converge on Palermo to celebrate an intoxicating rally of unadulterated motorsport nostalgia on this most spectacular island of Sicily.


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If you need a place to stay:

We highly recommend the endearing Masseria Sussafa country house.
It’s an 18th century Manor Farm in the very heart of the Madonie countryside strategically positioned to explore the mid-west of Sicily.
Its past farm activities still linger in the air scented with wild herbs and flowers. The rolling hills and the sound of cowbells are a soothing backdrop to the swimming pool, the terraces and the hotel’s well-tended gardens.


Closest airport: Palermo
Closest town: Palermo
Areas: Cefalù , Madonie Regional Park