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Corporal Andrew Knisley (left) and Master Corporal Jody Mitic with the Acura TL SH-AWD they will be driving the 9th annual Targa Newfoundland that runs Sept. 11-18. (Honda)
Corporal Andrew Knisley (left) and Master Corporal Jody Mitic with the Acura TL SH-AWD they will be driving the 9th annual Targa Newfoundland that runs Sept. 11-18. (Honda)

Targa Newfoundland

These soldiers have a point to make Add to ...

When Targa Newfoundland competitors fire up their engines this weekend, it'll be the soldier boys and the trailer park boys against a fast field of 60 or so competitors in the five-day romp around The Rock.

The "soldier boys" are Master Corporal Jody Mitic and Corporal Andrew Knisley, wounded veterans of Canada's war in Afghanistan. They'll share driving chores in a rally-prepped Acura TL entered in the Targa division by the Acura Dealers of Canada and supported by Honda Canada.

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The pair hopes to raise $150,000 for the Soldier On Fund (a Canadian Forces trust) that assists injured soldiers in returning to full and active lives with their drive - and perhaps prove a point or two.

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At Calabogie Motorsports Park near Ottawa last week on a scorching hot afternoon, both were becoming familiar with their Acura TL on a track that mimics some of the surprises Newfoundland's roads will present - albeit with smoother pavement.

The TL is basically stock, but with a 305-hp V-6, a paddle-shifted automatic transmission, upgraded brakes and Michelin Pilot Sport tires on Motegi Rally rims, it's got the stuff to get the job done.

"It's quicker than I'd thought it would be," says Knisley, who owns a Porsche Cayman S and uses it for track lapping days. He drives with his sound left leg, his prosthetic right leg tucked in behind. "The paddle shifters make a huge difference. It's very well balanced and the Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive really works."

Mitic, despite prosthetics below both knees, wasn't having any trouble going fast either, not surprising as he drives a five-speed Saleen Mustang.

Knisely and Mitic's Targa began, as these things often do, over a beer in a pub during last winter's Paralympics in Vancouver. Both are keen motorheads and while watching last year's Targa on the bar's TV the inevitable question was asked - why don't we give that a try?

"I'd heard of Targa, but it was one of those things that until you see it you don't realize how wicked it is," says Mitic. And he "knew a guy" who could perhaps help make it happen.

The "guy" was retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, a keen racer and former Targa Newfoundland class winner. MacKenzie and racing associate Nigel Mortimer, a retired Transport Canada exec who's providing the technical support, have worked tirelessly to bring the project to fruition. Funding for the team has come from private and corporate sources, and all donations to the Soldier On Targa Newfoundland project will go to the Soldier On fund.

Mitic, whose military career dates back to 1994, lost both his lower legs to a land mine on his second tour in Afghanistan as a sniper. He became the first wounded soldier posted to the Soldier On program. Knisely joined up in 2007 and was posted to Afghanistan a year later, losing his right leg at the hip and badly damaging his right arm in the blast of an improvised explosive device. He returned to duty this spring, employed in the Casualty Cell, working with "guys currently being wounded in Afghanistan."

Mitic explains that the Soldier On fund was set up to help with the more social, sports and generally getting on with life aspects of being wounded in action. "It can connect you to the right people at the right time, to get something done," he says.

One point they'd like to make with their drive according to Mitic is that "motorsport is a sport. We'll be setting a precedent for Soldier On." And he says that after suffering such major injuries, "we're still out to prove we can accomplish things. Not just to show others but to show ourselves. You need a lot of confidence boosters once you're in a position like ours."

But Knisely says doing Targa is also about fun. "Who doesn't want to become a race car driver for a week? Every kid would like to do that." And he credits Soldier On with making it happen for him. Helping raise funds for the program is his way of giving something back.

"I don't think anybody owes me anything, or should feel bad for me. I joined the military knowing what could happen. But it's nice to have the opportunity to do things like Targa and enjoy my life," he says. "I know money that goes to Soldier On will be used properly."

The "trailer park boys" are, well, two of the Trailer Park Boys, J.P. Tremblay and Robb Wells, who play characters Julian and Ricky in the popular television show. Wells says they don't have much competition driving experience, just a few laps on local tracks. "And we may have run from the cops once or twice and got ... a lot of speeding tickets, but that's it."

They'll be running a Cayman S provided by Porsche Canada in the Grand Touring division in the colours of the Autism Society of Newfoundland, the official charitable partner of Targa.

Returning will be three-time winners, including last year, Roy Hopkins and Adrienne Hughes, not in their usual BWM 2002, but running a 1971 Dodge Dart prepared by Chrysler. Kia makes its return to Targa (it competed in the first four) with a Kia Koup prepared by Sherwood Kia of Calgary and driven by Adam Hill and Mark Kostick under the Team Wishful Thinking banner. They hope to raise $100,000 for the Children's Wish Foundation. Mini Canada will once again be backing auto journalist Jim Kenzie and co-driver Brian Bourbonniere.

*****

The rally

Targa Newfoundland is a high-performance rally in which crews can reach 200 km/h on the special stages - closed road sections, many running through picture-postcard fishing villages - of the 2,200 km they'll cover, in cars ranging from classic to modern, from Monday through Friday (Sept 13-17).

Grand Touring category competitors run the same route at lower speeds, but face testing time/speed/distance navigational challenges. A prologue or practice day gets the cars rolling Sunday.

A rewritten Targa rule book brings major changes this year. Gone will be an overall winner, with a return to winners in classic and modern divisions.

To make a donation to the Soldier On Targa Newfoundland effort, go to www.SoldierOn.ca and look for the link. To keep track of the team's efforts in Targa and the event itself, go to www.targanewfoundland.com.

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