2009 Targa Molise

Charlie Magee

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.

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