2009 Targa Molise

Charlie Magee

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.

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