We're perched on the edge of a remote one-and-a-half-lane road twisting through the Italian hillside, staring at a stone farmhouse built long before the automobile was invented. Tiny European rally cars are skittering around the corner in untidy handbrake turns at one-minute intervals.
If we were in the United States, there might - might - be one or two gonzo rally fans watching the action armed with PowerBars and digital stopwatches. But here in rural Italy, dozens of miles from the nearest gas station, there are fifty spectators overlooking the apex, with another twenty camped out in the braking zone and maybe twenty more farther down the road. These aren't the rally obsessives derisively called bobble hats by the British but a broad spectrum of Italian society - men and women, grandparents and toddlers, most of them dressed with the casual elegance that makes most American tourists in Italy look like schlubs.
Mind you, these spectators aren't here for a round of the World Rally Championship or the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, which are the major leagues and the high minors of the professional rally world. Nor does this race count toward the Italian national championship. It isn't even the most important rally on the schedule in Molise, a little-known rural region 135 miles east of Rome that doesn't merit a single mention in Italian travel guides. No, this is a so-called sprint rally, the lowest rung of the club-racing ladder, and the fact that it's so well attended is a testament to two natural phenomena: First is the passion Italians have for all forms of motorsport, no matter how pedestrian. Second is the indomitable will of Italian-American attorney Ruthann "Raffaella" Niosi, who has navigated her way through the pull-your-hair-out Italian racing bureaucracy just as deftly as she's managed cobblestone streets and gravel roads in her high-heel pumps. "She has been the engine for everything," says Giuseppe Di Nobile, the former mayor of the nearby town of Ripalimosani and the president of the Molise Foundation in Italy. "None of this would have happened without her."
The fingerprints of the Molise Foundation - a nonprofit organization recently founded by Niosi to stimulate development in the economically depressed region - can be seen throughout the area this lovely weekend in September. It's the reason the race, officially known as the Rally di San Giuliano del Sannio, is also being billed with the misleadingly grandiloquent title Targa Mille Molise. It's the reason Tom Park, a sports car devotee who lives in Atlanta, is making his international rally debut in a Renault Clio Williams pocket rocket. It's the reason Adam Bruce, an online media entrepreneur, has hired a French crew to film the event. And it's the reason we're here, traipsing along with Niosi from stage to stage - and from restaurant to business meeting to a birthday party at a local orphanage to an elaborate outdoor concert she's put together in Ripalimosani - as if she were the Pied Piper.
Niosi, an energetic go-getter who doesn't take no for an answer, exudes the drive you'd expect of a high-powered New York City attorney who litigates high-dollar securities cases. What comes as a surprise is her Italianate passion for motorsports. As a child, she attended autocrosses, gymkhanas, and club races with her parents, who were stalwart members of the SCCA. Five years ago, when her daughters left the nest, she formed Scuderia Niosi to indulge her interest in the business of racing, most notably lining up sponsorships for drivers. The Molise connection was forged last year, when a genealogist discovered that Niosi's paternal grandfather had emigrated from the small town of Ripalimosani. Niosi and her father, John Granito, dutifully made a pilgrimage to Molise, where they fell in love with the region and its people. After returning to the States, Niosi - who answers to Ruthann in the States but is known in Italy as Raffaella - created the Molise Foundation and embarked on an ambitious program to spark economic development. Encouraging tourism was one of the top items on the agenda. Unfortunately, despite Molise's picturesque terrain, it contains none of the cultural attractions that draw tourists to Tuscany and Umbria. So Niosi decided to promote an event that would appeal to American enthusiasts who were looking for something more exotic than another track day on U.S. soil.
"Tom is my bellwether," Niosi says of Park, a twenty-eight-year-old entrepreneur who's already amassed a bunch of high-horsepower track-day experience on circuits ranging from Road Atlanta to the Nordschleife. "If he goes home with an ear-to-ear grin on his face, then I'm going to put together a package for Americans. They'll get a race car, insurance, FIA license, uniform, hotel, and transportation, and they can tack the rally onto a Monza F1 vacation. I think there are a lot of people who'd be interested. And the more Americans who come, the more American sponsors we can get."
In March, Niosi started exchanging the first of dozens of phone calls and thousands of e-mails with race officials in Molise. The Italians offered to stage an elaborate road race for a fee of 235,000 (about $350,000). "If I had a quarter of a million euros," Niosi said, "I'd just give it to the Foundation!" The next suggestion was a low-speed rally for historic cars, but Niosi didn't think this would fly with thrill-seeking Americans. Finally, in May, she hopped on a plane and met in Ripalimosani with the regional delegate to the Commissione Sportiva Automobilistica Italiana, Saverio Riccardi. "She was a volcano," he recalls. "We were a bit afraid of her. But we respected her passion. And Raffaella is very persistent."
Besides playing up the economic benefits of the rally, Niosi plucked at her listeners' heartstrings by explaining that she'd promised her father that she would promote a race in honor of his grandfather's roots in Ripalimosani. This was the clincher for Riccardi, who'd staged the first Rally di San Giuliano del Sannio in honor of his father. So he agreed to mount the Targa Mille Molise, and maybe - maybe - Niosi would have to come up with $15,000 in funding. Niosi contacted Adam Bruce, a partner of AutoStream.com, a motorsports media production, sponsorship, and distribution company, who brought on Royal Purple as a sponsor. Bruce's friend, Park, agreed to rent a race car from Rally Point, one of Italy's top rally-car preparation shops. Bruce also got road-racing legend Steve Millen to commit to run the rally, which promised to lend the event credibility while raising its profile.
Then, disaster. Barely a week before the event, Niosi was told that, for various reasons, the race was being canceled. Niosi was undaunted. "I was not going to acknowledge defeat," she says. "No matter what roadblocks were thrown in my way, the race was going to happen." She convinced Riccardi to merge the canceled Targa Mille Molise with the already-scheduled San Giuliano del Sannio rally. This meant no stages in or around Ripalimosani, as originally planned, nor would the rally cover 1000 kilometers, as advertised. Instead, the competition driving would be limited to six stages covering a grand total of fourteen miles plus about fifty additional miles of transit stages on public roads.
Millen had to cancel, but Park re-upped for the new dates. Two days before the rally, he secured his FIA license after a brisk classroom course and the briefest of medical examinations. (Essentially: Do you have a detectable pulse? Yes? Then you're good to go.) But because the race car arrived late, he and his Italian navigator, Barbara Perugini, rented an anemic Fiat Punto to reconnoiter the course and practice their cross-cultural communications - a critical task in a pace-note rally. And it wasn't until the day before the rally that he finally got his first seat time in the car he'd be racing.
Rally Point provided Park with a 2.0-liter Renault Clio Williams whose interior had been gutted and retrofitted with a Magneti Marelli digital instrument cluster, race seats, and assorted go-fast modifications. The engine had been overhauled to raise its output from 140 to 230 hp running through the front wheels, and the stock transmission had been replaced with a Sadev sequential gearbox. Park wasn't allowed to recce the rally stages in the race car, so the team found a secluded country road for a shakedown. As owner Armando Colombini made the initial run, we heard fast, clean shifts punctuated by glorious staccato cracks - as the antilag system shot a burst of fuel into the exhaust to keep the revs up - echoing through the trees. "In Italy," mechanic Paolo Pierotti said with a smile, "if the car does not make a bang, it is not a good car. If it makes a bang, it is beautiful."
On race morning, fifty-six entries line up on the street in front of the humble city hall in San Giuliano del Sannio. For this race, they're capped at 2.0 liters. Aside from a single Honda Civic, none of the cars are sold in the States. Clios are the most popular entries, but there are plenty of Peugeot 205s and 106s, Citroën Saxos, and even a handful of adorably spunky Fiat 500s. There are lots of obvious club-racing touches, from decals advertising local sponsors to "Grazie Papa" lettered on the back of one entry. But even though the cars themselves are modest, almost all of them have been prepared and stickered with an attention to detail that can only be described as loving. "In Italy," driver Nicola Fiorillo explains, tracing a finger down the inside of his forearm, "racing is in our blood."
The first car is flagged off. Back on pregrid, drivers tell each other, "In bocca al lupo," which literally means "into the wolf's mouth" but which translates idiomatically as "good luck." As he awaits the start, Park looks remarkably calm and poised for a guy who's never driven in a race before, much less a rally on diabolically twisty roads in a foreign country, in a car he barely knows, with a co-driver who hardly speaks English. "I think it's going to be fun," he says before strapping on his helmet. Apparently, racing is in his blood, too.
Park spends most of the first three special stages finding his feet - and keeping the stiffly sprung car on the road. After a pause for service halfway through the rally, he starts exploring the limit. But a few minutes into the fourth stage, a half shaft snaps, and it's game over. Altogether, Park's gotten about ten minutes of flat-out driving under his belt, and he doesn't feel that he ever extended himself or the car. Nevertheless, he remains upbeat about the experience. "I'm not upset," he says. "I loved doing it, and I'm glad I did it. This kind of racing isn't totally safe. But maybe that's why it's fun."
Although the rally seems to be over almost before it started, the postrace award ceremony - the longest, by far, I've ever attended - is a festive celebration of community spirit. The number of trophies, plaques, commemorative bottles of wine, and other baubles distributed to the participants exceeds the number of entries, and there are speeches by the organizers, by the class winners, by Niosi, by the mayor of San Giuliano del Sannio, even by the president of Molise. Ninety minutes pass before a final round of applause allows everybody to break up for pizza and long-deferred cigarettes. Carrying her own prize - a lovely piece of Venetian glass given to her by the organizers - Niosi looks on with an exhausted smile. "I'm tired," she says. "But I'm already thinking about next year."
In bocca al lupo.