For all the talk of a car’s place being on the track, racing is actually a remarkably difficult hobby. Equal parts expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous, it’s surprising that it continues to exist. It may help that life is also expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous. Few people are as familiar with that reality as Kirk Jones.
Jones is a racing enthusiast who grew up in Australia and Canada, finding a love of racing along the way and has always harbored a desire to participate in a road racing event like the Targa Tasmania. Unfortunately, fate would conspire, as it always does, to complicate things. Now, though, after a familial bout with mental illness and despite being across the globe from the event that sparked his passion, he’ll be competing in a Targa and using the even as an opportunity to raise some money for mental health education.
Every fall, drivers and navigators from around the world gather at one of Canada’s most easterly points for the Targa Newfoundland, a week-long race through towns and countryside run on public roads. It’s a Targa race in the classic tradition that has had winners from Australia, America, and Canada, and that has seen moments of glory as well as moments of pain—like when an Enzo XX Evolution narrowly avoided a house and drove headlong into an Atlantic tributary. It’s a difficult race on difficult roads, and it’s just the kind of thing that a powerful AWD hot hatch, like a 2016 Volkswagen Golf R, could do well at. So that’s just what Jones is bringing to the event.
This will be Jones’s first time driving or indeed attending the Targa Newfoundland. It won’t, however, be his first time behind the wheel for a race. Having done his share of track days, autocrosses, and amateur rallying in Australia, he’s no stranger to some ragged driving. “The Toronto Ikea parking lot in the 80's was a favorite,” he admits, but he’s also had some training having attended racing school. And he isn’t just comfortable behind the wheel, he also likes spending time under the hood. Particularly enamored of the original Audi Quattro, Jones spent a good deal of time working on the five-cylinder. “I was an addict,” he says. “I think I owned seven of them all together over the years and it was my go-to car in the early 90's. I blew up engines over boosting them - it was old school back then with CIS injection [...] it was amazing what you could do with those engines. Once you melted a few pistons you got to know what you needed to do.”
In many ways, his love of Quattro is what caused him to buy this Golf R. “In my mind, it was a repeat of history of the Ur Qattro,” he explains, saying that it shared more than just a bloodline with the Audi. Along with VW’s recent WRC success, it’s “typically underrated in articles just like the Ur Q was.” So it felt like a good fit. And with all of the research that Jones has done, which included reading and watching everything he could get his hands on and talking to past winners, he feels confident that the Golf R is the perfect car for the event. That’s not to say, though, that it couldn’t be improved.
On his website, Jones explains that the car has a roll cage, Sparco seats, and six-point harnesses. He admits that there’s more going on than that, but “details are off the table until we are done,” he says. All he’ll say is that all of the modifications are legal within his class and that the team was focused on making the car survive. “Reliability is the most important and if you look at the sponsors you can infer some of what is done to the car . The car is prepared for what I think needs to be in place to both be competitive and reliable […] again this is not a track car, if you take a track car to Targa you will break it.”
The performance has been improved, though. “With the current Targa setup on the track, it is very, very fast. Almost as fast as my ‘Vette,” says Jones. “In the rain it is epic. Three track days were wet and when you are lapping the field there is something to be said about that. It is very neutral with no understeer.” A car that provides confidence in all conditions will be crucial because nothing can prepare you for the Targa. “The Targa is the Iron Man of motorsports,” says Jones, and it comes down to three things: The car, the relationship between the driver and the co-driver, and luck. “This is not a race track. You get one shot at each corner with coaching from your navigator. Of course, racing experience helps, but road crowns off camber, pot holes, broken pavement, blind corners, blind crests all add to ‘input’ the driver needs to consider. I have read the Targa school book from many years ago and the one today. The message has not changed. Be prepared for anything.”
With the start of the Targa only a few days away, Jones admits that he’s a little nervous, but his life has prepared him to deal with challenges. “I’m not John Buffum or Frank Sprongl,” he says. “I’m just a regular guy who has taken a step at a time towards a goal that has been on the list for a long time.” And that’s exactly the same tactic he says his family used when working through his daughter’s mental illness. Jones has two children and in her youth, his daughter struggled with mental illness, but an overworked system couldn’t help her before her life was at risk. “We had to fight to get her help. Literally camping out before we got help,” he says. “Once we were in the system I can’t say enough positive about the help, but there is such a shortage of resources the biggest issue is getting in the door.”
Jones considers himself lucky. Despite feeling like he and his family came out of the darkest period with scars, he recognizes that they still have each other, and that’s not a given. Mental illness, he says, takes a toll on the whole family, it affects every aspect of life. “Cancer folks are survivors,” says Jones, explaining that he has nothing but the utmost respect for people in that situation, but that people fighting with mental health are warriors who may have to fight their whole lives. That’s exactly why he thinks it’s so important to raise funds for both of his children. So he’s looking to do his part, by raising some money, and giving everyone a chance to help, by asking for donations. Right now he has a goal of $100,000 “but it doesn’t matter if we get $10,” he says. “The effort is to get folks aware and talking about it. That sometimes has more impact and benefit than monies raised.” If you want to help Jones out, visit nobrainracing.ca to help fund the effort .
Now that his family has survived the worst of the journey, Jones is ready to take on another, albeit much more enjoyable, challenge. Come next week, all Jones will have to worry about is racing. “My journey to Targa has been one step at a time,” he says. “But I have to thank my wife and best friend for telling me ‘do it.’ It’s been years of thinking. A full year of preparation, training, learning, listening, building. Now it is just time to have fun living a dream.”
[photos by Iain Donnell]