Targa High Country Car Rally – Put Some Excitement Back Into Your Life!

Diane and Russell Waddington in Targa High Country

With thanks to Diane Waddington. Image thanks to Lotus Cars Australia.

Originally written by Diane for their grandchildren, this story comes thanks to Diane and Russell Waddington and recaps their experience driving their 2004 Lotus Exige in Targa High Country earlier this year. Read on, and get inspired.

Targa High Country Car Rally – put some excitement back into your life!

Russell and I decided to get out of our “COVID rut” by packing up our yellow Lotus Exige and heading to Victoria for the Targa High Country Rally. We stopped over at Wangaratta to take a drive-through Covid test. This was an exercise in dexterity for the nurses, but they were up to the challenge and good naturedly dubbed our Lotus “the fanciest car” they had dealt with.

Once cleared we headed to Mansfield where we joined the Targa Tour organised by Simply Sports Cars. Here each car was prepared for the event – installation of ‘rally safe’ meters and application of decals was done and navigator’s road books and complementary Lotus team t-shirts distributed. In town, Targa officials checked that all basic safety equipment was present and that the car met entry requirements. Signed off with yet another sticker, we were officially ready to go.

Our touring group of five cars, together with a lead car and sweep car, then travelled in convoy up to Mount Buller – executing our first en masse “rapid re-fuelling” strategy on the way. This involved the driver filling up while the navigator waited by the register to quickly pay.

Lotus had booked the Whitt Ski Lodge for all the teams (touring and competitive), which included rooms plus excellent catering and hospitality. This meant we had the added advantage of spending time together as a whole group each morning and evening. Competition and tour drivers and navigators, as well as the Lotus support team dined, wined and chatted together and were briefed and debriefed throughout the weekend. This built a great atmosphere of camaraderie.

Overnight 100 km gale force winds, rain and fog set in. Our briefing on Targa safety protocols, speed rules etc was thorough and we were all encouraged to drive to our ability and to maximise safety. Walkie talkies were distributed and the order of our convoy was set, taking into account skill and experience levels of the group. Being the oldest Lotus (2004 Exige) and least powerful in the group (our car is naturally aspirated) we asked for and took up last position.

Day one, the Simply Sports Cars crew swung into action. In pouring rain they torqued all wheel nuts, checked tyre pressures, washed windscreens, allayed fears and offered words of encouragement. As well as finding a nail in a tyre, which was replaced in seconds. These guys were a serious asset!! Then it was down to the marshalling area to be breath-tested (0.00 requirement in place.) Here all cars lined up together for the first time – what an impressive sight! Adrenaline levels were now rising rapidly, but not the fog! Visibility was poor.

No time to think – we were ushered up, flagged off and our survival instinct kicked in. This first stage was only short – 18 km of twisty mountain road, full of switch backs and tight corners, edged by steep drops to ravines below with little or no armco. The car in front couldn’t be seen. We were working well as a team and then… suddenly it was all over. The fog was gone, the car was intact and we were safely at the end of our first Targa stage.

A leisurely drive to a regrouping point – lots of sharing, photo taking and debriefing and we were off again. The same stage but in reverse. The one constant was the fog and rain that we drove into as we ascended the mountain.

Having passed the finish line we found ourselves isolated from the group and lost in fog. But Lotus team was on the job – determined not to lose a car, even off stage. They talked us through an alternative route. We finally arrived in time for dinner to a round of cheers from the rest of the team. Dinner, as on each night of the rally was a wonderful affair – excellent food, lots of laughter, meeting new people, story telling, and swapping of advice.

The next morning brought much better conditions – even the Ferraris came out to play! 217 kilometres to cover – four Targa sections, with touring stages in between, before lunch and then a further four in the afternoon. We had studied the road book and noted the numerous hairpin turns, the corners which came with warning exclamation marks (indicating that inability to negotiate this turn could lead to an “incident”). As we waited our turn to approach the starting line along came Team Lotus bearing water supplies, Chup a Chop sweets and last minute advice.

We were off!! Russell was starting to get a feel for what the car could do and was pushing a little harder and letting the car work its magic. I have never been more grateful for the road-hugging capacity of the Exige.

By now I had given up on the road book. I was relying on the TomTom – and quickly developing my own descriptions of the road ahead to keep us on track. The level of concentration required was surprisingly intense. Thank heavens the Targa Stages were short – 16km. We regrouped and switched to touring mode – actual road speed limits applied for the next 44 kms.

Second Targa stage for the day was only 8 kms and began with gentle flowing curves and a bit of a climb. Then we hit a winding section. A momentary loss of concentration by both driver and navigator and the car was off-road into gravel, fishtailing and heading dangerously close to a white post – the only thing between us and the edge of the ravine. Fortunately, we got the car under control and back on track.

The Tolmie stage commenced almost immediately. It contained lots of hairpins and a number of curves marked !! CAUTION DROP ON OUTSIDE. We were flagged off and quickly resumed our rhythm. Up the mountain reliance on TomTom was put to the test – now and then in it skipped following the actual road and cut across to reappear on the next straight piece of road. The satellite could not keep up!

Stage four, the Whitfield stage, was another very short run (7.5km) this time mostly descending and uneventful. We completed a rapid re-fuelling routine in Whitfield and headed in convoy to the Pizzinni Winery for lunch (ironic venue given the nature of our activity). It was here as we sat at appropriately spaced tables in the garden and devoured delicious lasagna, salad and fresh fruit that we took a bit of friendly banter about our “escapade off road”. Apparently news had traveled fast amongst our group about Russell “being bored with bitumen” and trying a more “agricultural approach”.

It was at this stop that I had a chat with some of the marshalls on duty. These people are mostly volunteers who come from as far afield as Tasmania, Queensland etc to ensure that the event proceeds smoothly and safely. They seem to be regulars, a lot of them seniors and it is largely through their commitment that Targa events are so efficiently run. What’s more, they have to endure the weather conditions to ensure we can all race around having fun!

After lunch we retraced our steps through the King Valley, to Powers Lookout, Barwhite and back up to Mount Buller. Throughout the ride I had been very aware of trying to limit my movement on the curves. Those of you who have had the fun of riding in an Exige will know the space limitations. I was continually holding onto the small recessed hand grip on the door to brace myself as we maneuvered hairpins and tight corners. That is, until I succeeded in pulling it out of the door. I soon learned to tightly brace against the gear console and against the door to ensure stability.

Back at the lodge that evening the Lotus support crew washed our cars, checked them out for any repairs and prepared them for the next day. As a result, one of the engineers approached us to ask for our keys at 6.30am because they wanted to bleed the brakes before we set out on our final stages – they considered the pedal was soft. The professionalism and hard work of the Lotus support team was outstanding. If you are thinking of doing a Targa event in your Lotus, we highly recommend that you do it through the Simply Sports Cars group – whether as a serious race competitor, or a touring participant. The experience was superb.

Over the evening meal I was interested to hear from the other navigators how they had fared. A number of us had resorted to “the little white lie” at times. As tour participants, we were restricted to a speed limit of 120 km per hour and the Rally Safe meter in your car kept track of your speed at all times, beaming it back to Targa officials and local police. Breaking the speed limit leads to fines and/or eviction from the rally. When the car hit about 117 km per hour an alert came up so the navigator could advise the driver to pull back the throttle. I admitted in discussion that after our little off road adventure I had used the guise of the speed monitor to slow Russell down a couple of times when a particularly gnarly corner approached. To my surprise a couple of other navigators admitted they had done the same – the drivers were too intent on driving to divert their eyes from the road so they knew no better at the time.

Day three was the final test – 129 kms of racing stages of which two were approximately 50 kms long. It was exciting, but could we sustain the effort? Early start. In the cars by 6.30. All shiny and clean, freshly bled brakes and a reinstalled hand grip we lined up for the big day. Mt Buller to Eildon by lunch time and then retracing our steps back to Mansfield for a Targafest event in the afternoon before returning to Mt Buller.

The day turned out to be one of extremes. The touring sections were very scenic and reasonably lengthy so we had our first good look at the countryside. The long Jamieson stage however was as anticipated, extremely intense. A steep incline for about 8 kms and then nothing but curves to the left and right incessantly for about 40kms. This was really giving the Exige a good work out negotiating the twisty route. What a privilege, being able to have the road closed so that we could race around the mountain roads at speeds that suited the cars so well.

Both stages were negotiated successfully and our reward was a lovely picnic lunch by Lake Eildon. Once again all the cars parked in formation, tourers and racers – and everyone was fed in a smooth and efficient operation —the organisation of this event was superb. After lunch we set off, re-fuelled and retraced our way through the long stages back towards Mansfield. Our confidence levels were high and each stage we seemed to go just that little bit faster. Then we reached the outskirts of the town and the next 4 kilometres were probably the most testing of all!

The final stage took us through suburban streets – short bursts of acceleration followed by either ninety degree left or right turns one after the other. Hay bales were the only thing between us and the crowds watching us go by – exhilarating and “scary” all at the same time. Then it was over. As we drove sedately into the centre of town to park up the cars for the Targafest we were handed a medallion attesting to the fact that we had officially completed the Targa High Country 2021. It was all over bar the the presentations to the race participants. The Lotus drivers made frequent appearances on the winners podium doing the team proud.

As a true novice at this type of event at 70 years of age, I was a little taken aback at how exciting and rewarding the whole experience was. I have a great deal more respect for our little Lotus Exige and its potential. I would recommend to anyone who wants to put a bit of spark in their COVID existence and a spring in their step to consider entering a Targa Event. But remember to do it with the Simply Sports Cars team and and experience the support of people who epitomise professionalism, efficiency and passion in what they do.

If it isn’t clear – Russell and I had a ball!

Diane Waddington

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