Marathon a mix of magic, madness

Madonna di Campiglio, Italy • Sometime around 11 p.m., pitch-black, snow falling at a fearsome rate and having just manhandled our 1964 Porsche 356 Cabriolet around what felt like the 200th hairpin of what was the third (maybe fourth) mountain pass — anticipating when, not if, the back end was going to slide out — I had an epiphany: I was having a bucket list experience and it was fantastic — provided I didn’t screw up on the next turn and pitch my co-driver and I 1,500 metres off the side of said mountain pass.

Why I was on this particularly hellish stretch of switchback is easy to explain, courtesy of an invitation by Porsche Italia to drive the 48-year-old cabriolet in the 24th Winter Marathon — a vintage rally event for front- or rear-wheel-drive cars built no later than 1968 — through Italy’s Dolomite mountain range.

Why I was doing this is more complicated. A believer and occasional victim of Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong) — not to mention other related epigrams — has provided the inspiration to create my own law. Called Harper’s Rule of Infrequent Competition, it is variable — applicable for out-of-shape weekend warriors involved in team sports (don’t play worse than the worst player on your team; don’t get hurt) or occasional motorsport participation (don’t finish last; don’t break the car). The Winter Marathon was giving both Murphy’s Law and Harper’s Rule a workout.

In essence, here are the challenges that faced me and co-driver Matthew Bubbers, a fellow Canadian autojournalist (who literally arrived one hour before the rally started) — not including any inherent lack of talent. (1) Unfamiliarity with the roads. Of the 169 teams signed up for the Marathon, 160 had both an Italian driver and co-driver. Even though not everyone was from the region, there’s still a home field advantage due to an intimacy with road etiquette. (2) Unfamiliarity with the Italian language (see home field advantage). (3) Unfamiliarity with the car. (Prior to arriving in Italy, my total experience behind the wheel of any 356 consisted of an hour — and that was in sunny California a couple of years ago. Young Bubbers admitted he had never driven a 356 before — or any car older than a 1991). (4) Unfamiliarity with this type of time, speed, distance (TSD) rally, also known as a regularity rally. When the organizers said the route had a total length of 409.330 kilometres, they meant 409.330 km — not 409, not 410. When they said the event would take place on roads open to normal traffic with an average speed not exceeding 41.756 kilometres an hour, they meant 41.756 km/h, not 41 and not 42. Throw in 40 precision time trials, five time controls and one passage control — with time penalties measured in fractions of a second — and one starts forming the idea that this rally, while not the Dakar, is diabolical in its own right. The final twist is that the first car left the starting line at 2 p.m. and was not expected to return for at least 12 hours, meaning the bulk of the Marathon was being run on mountain roads in the middle of the night!

For those of more rational minds, the Winter Marathon might seem like madness. And it was; it was also magical, at least for those with a motoring bent.

The main street of Madonna di Campiglio, a pretty and bustling ski village for those with sufficient means, was lined on both sides with a veritable what’s what of fabulous vintage tin — a 1928 Bugatti Type 40A, a 1939 Lancia Aprilia and a 1936 Citroën 7C Cabriolet, to name but a few. The British marques — Jaguar, Austin, Triumph, MG, Aston Martin and Jaguar — were well represented, as were the Germans — BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen and, especially, Porsche, with more than 40 various types and vintages entered.

As for the teams, they ranged from the deadly serious, their cars boasting state-of-the-art computerized rally and navigation equipment, to the what-the-hell types, many, as the rally entered the latter stages, fuelled on espresso and cigarettes. What was most amazing was that a good number of the cars entered were roadsters, which meant the driver and navigator were braving the winter elements al fresco. What fortitude, what madness!

Being newbies and lacking the basic math skills (which is why we’re journalists in the first place), Bubbers and I decided to pitch the trio of provided computerized stop watches into the back of the car and concentrate on making the four stages within the designated time. By blowing off the precision time trials, we knew this would put us near the bottom of the finishing order, assuming we finished, but it was about the experience, not the results — as long as we weren’t last.

And what an experience. While it was still light out, the Dolomites presented their snow-capped peaks for all. There were deep valleys, flowing rivers, quaint villages with cobblestone streets, fields of grapevines and more. When darkness came, the numerous ski areas around Canazei alleviated the tension of the mountain passeos or passes — Sella, Gardena, Campolongo and Pordoi — with their bright lights and appreciative après ski crowd, who cheered and waved the competitors on.

Through it all, our plucky little Porsche never let us down, no matter how much we abused it — its 90-horsepower 1.6-litre four-cylinder strained by 400-plus pounds of driver and co-driver, not to mention the loss of power the higher we climbed. What at first seemed like a stiff, unyielding anachronism — no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, no power steering, no xenon headlights, no seat belts (!) — soon charmed us with what it did offer: light weight, a surprisingly comfortable ride and mostly predictable handling. Switching driving and navigating duties after each rally stage, Bubbers and I each had a sphincter-tightening moment behind the wheel, with the back end starting a pendulum-like wiggle-waggle in the deepening snow, offering a 50/50 chance of ending poorly for all concerned. Fortunately, Murphy and his law gave us each a free ride.

The 356’s most glaring weakness was the gearing for the four-speed manual transmission, first being too low and second too high, which made keeping the momentum to plough through the snow-covered switchbacks particularly challenging. At least we weren’t alone in this regard. What started out as ideal conditions for the competitors — roads bare and mostly dry — quickly deteriorated and the last half of the rally had the 356’s woeful wipers in overdrive. Some of the older machinery couldn’t cope — more than 40 fell by the wayside or did not make it back to the finish line in Madonna di Campiglio in time to be classified. Conversely, Bubbers and I were both flabbergasted at the speeds some drivers managed to maintain — flying down the passes as if they were trying to catch the last train out of hell.

We finished the Marathon at 2:45 a.m., jacked on adrenalin and ready to take on the world. The results, posted later that morning, showed 120 cars finishing the rally. We placed 119th. The winner completed the event with 360 penalty points. We had more than 11,000.

No trophies were being offered for finishing 119th; however, one was awarded to the best-finishing “foreign” team. It’s now sitting on the mantel over my fireplace.

Photograph by: Porsche, handout