My first attempt at racing outside Malta, apart from a dabble while studying in England in 1967, was in May 1972 when the late Matteo Sgarlata from Syracuse persuaded me to enter my low line Mini in the famous World Endurance Championship race the Targa Florio, with him as co-driver. It sounded like a good idea at the time for Matteo’s father was quite a “big wig” in Sicilian motorsport circles in those days, and if someone could secure an entry for us in this very special race, it was him.
“The Targa Florio, run along a 47 mile (72 km) mountain circuit” “in the Madonie mountains in North Western Sicily, and the Le Mans 24-hour race held annually in France, are considered the greatest and most gruelling races of all times, and also the most difficult, so it really was a baptism of fire for me, not to call it a “big mistake. I was young, inexperienced and underfinanced, and needless to say my “Targa” didn’t last too long. But I still have the “Starter’s” memento, and there aren’t many people that have one of them. And the record books show “Car 51 – Mini Cooper”– 1600 Prototype class drivers Joe Anastasi (Malta) and Matteo” Sgarlata (Italia).
Six years later in 1978 I was to return to Sicily to start something which nearly 40 years down the road is still going, that is my regular participation in Italian Hill Climbs, and it is thanks to 3 more Sicilian friends who are also no longer with us that I was able to do this in the first place. Alfi o Vitale, known in racing circles by the pseudonym of “Jimmy” suggested that I should try participating in an Italian “Cronoscalata”. He offered to find me a drive in one of the very few competitive Mini Coopers in Sicily which belonged to Delfo Alessandro, and he also assured me that Catania Corse team President Santo Mosca would see to all the necessary paperwork… of which there is always plenty in Italian racing circles. He also offered to find a drive for my brother-in-law Alex Zammit. So in September of 1978 Alex and I actually participated in our first hill climb in Sicily, the Coppa Monti Iblei held on the 5.3km hill up to the little mountain top village of ChiaramonteI never looked back since.
Even on the ferry returning home to Malta I was making plans for my return in 1979, only this time it would be with my own car. 79 was good. 80 was excellent, with 2 second places at Sortino and Sciacca, followed by 3 consecutive wins in 3 weekends, at Giarre, Collesano, and Chiaramonte. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? 39 years down the road it did indeed get better, or on four consecutive weekends between the middle of September and that of October this year, I was back racing my Mini in Sicily with the same sort of vigour, and success, even if now aged 71 my pace is somewhat more “pedestrian” than it would have been in my youth. And despite the aches and pains which appear to be part and parcel with old age, I am still loving every minute of it.
I stopped temporarily with my racing in Sicily in 1983. It was an enforced stop, brought about by a sudden regulation change by CSAI which outlawed overnight virtually 90% of the cars competing at the time, including mine. Many years passed but still the attraction of racing in Sicily was always at the back of my mind, so when the opportunity returned in 2014 I built up another race Mini to today’s International regulations, and I haven’t looked back since.
In the 70s and 80s I had taken part in almost all the different hill climbs in Sicily. All except two. So when I decided to return three years ago I knew that those two boxes too would have to be ticked. I started off again with my favorite Chiaramonte, for the 6th time in 2015 and followed that up with my third visit to Giarre. But I still needed to tick those two boxes so in 2016 I included Monte Erice and the Coppa Nissena at Caltanissetta in my programme too. Erice was a bit of a let down following all the hype I had heard about it. The scenery is beautiful but you don’t have much time to admire the scenery when you are bombing up the hill in a race car against the clock. But it was love at fi rst sight with the Coppa Nissena the minute I saw the blindingly fast 5km hill. I did it in 2016, and again this year when it was the first of four super weekends of racing in succession.
The great thing about doing the same events on successive years is that you can compare your times and see your progress …or otherwise! At Chiaramonte for example I improved my time by four seconds between 2015 and 2016, and 9 whole seconds this year. And the same again at the Coppa Nissena, where an improvement of fi ve seconds was registered over last year’s times. An excellent start to my four consecutive weekends of racing. Caltanissetta is not far from the superb Autodromo Valle dei Templi at Racalmuto where my next appointment was to be, so I took the Mini straight there and left it safely in one of the many pit garages in readiness for the following weekend.
This second event was to be the 6th round of the Racalmuto Time Attack championship in which some 18 Maltese drivers, as well as over 100 Italians, were also participating. Time Attack events are ideal opportunities for testing, for you get four or five sessions of 20 minutes duration on track, so everybody’s times improve as the cars are set up and the drivers get more acquainted with the circuit. Again the Mini behaved excellently, chipping almost a second off my previous best lap time.
The third successive event was yet another motor sport discipline, proper wheel to wheel circuit racing, also at the Autodromo Valle dei Templi. The entry was good and competitive so both Johann Spiteri and I enjoyed our respective races and came back with plenty of silverware to prove it. And just last weekend – I am writing this article on Tuesday 17th October – I competed again in my fourth Giarre Montersalice Milo hill climb, and again it was a super fun weekend.
The weather can be pretty aweful at this time of the year around Mount Etna. Last year it rained for most of the time and Milo up in the mountain was just one big patch of fog, but this year the sun was out and all was at peace with the world. The racing too was excellent as always.
In Sicily there are a number of “old fogies” like me still racing, mostly guys I competed against 40 years ago, and quite a bit of the race weekend is consequently spent socialising and reminiscing, and generally winding each other up. It’s great fun. We talk about the cars, we admire the talent walking by, we even occasionally discuss our performance in the race car and our times, but at the end the discussion always centres around the same topic: where are we eating tonight?
It’s a wonderful atmosphere, we still drive hard once the light goes green, but it’s not the end of the world if we don’t win. The more important thing is how good the wine is going to be that evening. Racing in Italy is great. I just love it. I suppose I wouldn’t have done it for over 40 years if I didn’t.
© 2017 – VIDA Magazine – Joe Anastasi