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Take twenty intrepid crews in a variety of Italian cars, add 1250 kilometres of fabulous driver’s roads between Sydney and Melbourne, throw in a few questions to ensure that everyone follows the correct route, spice the whole lot up with plenty of gourmet Italian food, wine and camaraderie, then mix in a few surprises, and you have the recipe for three days of pure enjoyment that also provides opportunities to support some very worthwhile charities.

Enter the Italian Connection Trophy touring assembly which was held on the weekend of 22 – 24 May and is now set to become an annual affair, such was the success of this year’s event.

First conducted in 2008 with a small but enthusiastic entry list, the 2009 Italian Connection built on the previous year’s success. So much so that many of the original competitors came back for more, bringing with them a host of new entries keen to experience what must rate as one of the most enjoyable low-key rallies on the calendar.

With the benefit of Sydney suburb, Leichardt, supporting the event, the city’s mayor flagged competitors away at 10am on a rainy Sydney Friday, escorted on their way south by a flotilla of Italian cars, Fiats and Ferarris, Alfas and Abarths. After crossing the Anzac bridge, the flotilla peeled off to allow competitors to make their way south and the start of the real rally. As the rain eased, crews found themselves leaving the Hume Freeway to pass through more interesting country around Moss Vale and Bundanoon in the NSW southern highlands. Joining the Freeway again at Marulan, the route then led to the lunch break at Goulburn underneath the towering Big Merino. Allowing hard-worked competitors to bed themselves in slowly, all 20 crews clean-sheeted the morning’s run, despite a misleading instruction that forced navigators to don their thinking caps.

With the end of day stop, Gundagai, firmly in their minds, the rally crews continued to head south, again leaving the Freeway, this time at Parkesbourne, using some exciting drivers’ roads that led firstly over the infamous Cullerin Range which was once part of the Hume Highway before it was bypassed. Villages such as Gunning, Dalton, Jerriwa and Jugiong came and went as quickly as they could be pronounced, and the further south the competitors travelled, the more the weather improved. Long stretches of freeway roadworks put some reality back into everyday motoring as speed restrictions slowed everyone down.

Eventually the day’s finish control at Gundagai was reached and weary crews who had been on the road for six hours were more than happy to stop for a breather. Cars were displayed on the lawns outside the Gundagai Shire offices, attracting a good deal of attention under the setting sun, until the entourage found their motels and unwound for the day.

Dinner that night was a totally new experience for everyone, served as it was in the quaint and historic Lanigan Abbey in the middle of Gundagai. The building once served as a Catholic nunnery but now houses hundreds of paintings and not a little memorabilia. Following a wine tasting of local produce, crews sat down to a splendid meal, washed down with more local wine. Entertainment, courtesy of the local choral group, brought much merriment as the choir regaled competitors with a range of Italian songs and humorous banter that was appreciated by everyone.

With breakfast served in the same iconic building the next morning, it seemed appropriate for the local Catholic priest to bless the cars and wish competitors God-speed for the remainder of their journey. It was a totally unexpected but nevertheless much appreciated gesture. After a ‘farewell to Gundagai’ lap around the town, the gathering of classic Italian machines began Day 2. The route headed firstly west into the Riverina before crossing the mighty Murrumbidgee  at Mundarlo, then turned east to cross Highway 31 at Tumblong. Like a multi-colored snake slithering its way through the picturesque countryside, the assembly of cars made its way into old goldmining territory at Adelong. Before long the route opened up to encompass the magnificent plantation roads in Greenhills Forest, and there were grins a mile wide as the Italian machinery snarled along the switchback roads. Ending far too soon for most, Greenhills gave way to the run down into Victoria at Tintaldra where the prescribed route crossed the Murray River. Few navigators had difficulty as they passed Batlow, Tumbarumba and Towong, however accurate spotting and recording was required if you were to remain penalty-free.  Frequent police cars ensured that competitors abided by the speed limits but there were many opportunities where drivers could ‘push on’ without breaking the limit.

After lunch at Corryong in the Upper Murray Valley, more great roads led on through Shelley plantation to Koetong and Bullioh. It was then that drivers were treated to 29 kilometres of pure driving heaven – the little-trafficed Yabba Road that wound its way along the lazy Mitta River, a section that had drivers begging for more. Beautiful autumn sunshine enable crews to enjoy the vibrant colors on the run to Myrtleford. Detours off the main road led through Kiewa, Tangambalanga and Yackandandah which were, to drivers and navigators alike, little more than names on a map until now. It was now mid-afternoon as competitors reached Myrtleford and turned west to the finish control at Gapsted Winery where the cars were displayed on the magnificent lawns to the delight of hundreds of spectators. Most cars arrived on time, but the crowd-pleasing pseudo-police car Alfa Romeo and the 1955 Fiat 1100 were some way back after experiencing some minor mechanical problems.

The Ovens Valley town of Myrtleford was in party mood for the arrival of the Italian Connection Rally and turned on a ‘getting to know you’ welcome and wine tasting which went down well with everyone. Great driving roads and the fresh mountain air generated big appetites so it was no surprise that a gala dinner at the local Italian club was a real winner with everyone. Great food, more good wine amidst a backdrop of yet more Italian songs by the local music group, set the scene for a fabulous night.

But too much partying is no prerequisite for manoeuvreing a rally car around a motorkhana course, so it was off to bed early in anticipation of some fierce competition on the final day. With a local street blocked off and hordes of anxious spectators gathering to see the action, competitors were anxious to display their skills on a bright and sunny Sunday morning. Drivers were given three runs at the motorkhana slalom, each one trying to better their previous best time. In the end, to the accompaniment of the sound of tortured tyres, it was Peter Mandich who drove his Alfa Romeo  147 GTA to first place, narrowly beating Rob Panetta (Alfa Romeo Zagato) across the line with the amazingly competitive Fiat 500  Sinquecento of Muzio Cantarelli equal to Panetta.

But Melbourne, and the finish in Lygon Street, Carlton beckoned, and crews reluctantly said goodbye to this enthusiastic town that has a long and strong Italian heritage. The road through the Ovens Valley into more wine country in the King Valley stretched out before the Italian Connection as one by one they stopped to collect clues as evidence of their passage along the correct roads. With eight crews still sporting clean sheets, most were being particularly careful to record the right answers. Yet another firm favourite, the brilliant drive from Whitfield to Mansfield via Whitlands and Tolmie, was tackled next. Such was the drivers’ delight, many wanted to turn around and drive it again.

But the clock was ticking relentlessly on, and the lunch stop at Mansfield beckoned. This bustling town at the foot of Mount Buller was starting to come alive for the snow season, but the rallyists had time only to grab some lunch and fill their cars with fuel. With just 200 kilometres of the 1250km route left to cover, crews were soon on their way south along the busy Midland Highway through Bonnie Doon to Yea. Leaving Strath Creek, the Clerk of Course led competitors down the winding valley road from Flowerdale to Kinglake West, an area terribly ravaged by Victoria’s February bushfires. It put into perspective the devastation that many had suffered, with hundreds burnt to death and thousands of homes lost.

Soon the charred forests were left behind as the route descended into Whittlesea and the rapidly expanding suburbs of Melbourne. For the last time, the route joined the Hume Freeway at Donnybrook. It was an easy run into suburban Melbourne in busy Sunday afternoon traffic, but the finish line was beckoning and the chequered flag was unfurled. As each car  arrived at the finish, there was a loud cheer from spectators who gathered to celebrate the end of this wonderful event. The 3-day drive had been a real achievement, but none more so than for Newcastle’s John Dickson who single-handedly drove and navigated along the entire route in his Lancia Fulvia.

As with all events, there can be just one winner and this year the hounours went to brothers Rob and David Panetta, who brought their Alfa Romeo Zagato over the line ahead of Peter and Matthew Doig (Alfa Romeo 156GTA) in second, and Ian Allison/Warren Smith, third, in a Fiat 20V Turbo.

This year’s Italian Connection trophy was presented to the winners at the Victory Dinner celebrated at the Abruzzo Club in the heart of Melbourne’s busy Lygon Street that night. It was a fitting end to a fabulous event. The recipe for the event mentioned earlier obviously left a great taste in everyone’s mouth, a taste that saw each and every competitor vowing to return again next year for more of the same. It was that sort of event.

RESULTS – 2009 ITALIAN CONNECTION TOURING ASSEMBLY

OUTRIGHT
1.     Robert Panetta/David Panetta        Alfa Romeo        21.84
2.     Peter Doig/Matthew Doig            Alfa Romeo        23.45
3.    Ian Allison/Warren Smith            Fiat            24.83
4.    John Dickson                Lancia            25.91
5.    Joe Fiori/Branden Kisten            BMW            26.76
6.    Joe Parisi/Charles Parisi            Alfa Romeo        27.91
7.    John Carigliano/Sam Carigliano        Porsche        28.42
8.    Enio Briglia/Enzo Salsano            Alfa Romeo        29.91
9.    Grant Wilson/Anthony Renowden        Fiat            32.97
10.    Charles Di Petta/Benny D’Angelo        Alfa Romeo        33.88
11.    Robert Seritti/Frank Carigliano        Alfa Romeo        35.07
12.    Luke Faccini/George Pandaleon        Alfa Romeo        37.27
13.    Vaughan Stibbard/Dimity Carrick Clark    Mercedes        42.44        
14.    Lido Russo/Sylvia Russo            Ferarri            44.59
15.    Ben Doig/Wayne Green            Alfa Romeo        48.40
16.    Nick Scali/Mario Martino            Fiat            61.71
17.    Muzio Cantarelli/Adel Mangaloni        Fiat            61.84
18.    Frank Vasile/Joe Vescio            Alfa Romeo        93.70
19.    Peter Parussolo/Mitch Butera        Fiat            107.30
20.    Peter Mandich/Boris Mandich        Alfa Romeo        109.94

Photos: Peter Whitten

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