Racing around Canada’s first motorsports country club
My cheeks are flush, my breathing is shallow and, to be honest, my armpits are sweating, probably right through my light denim button-down. My brain is buzzing with alertness and yet I can’t think straight. My hands betray me, letting off a slight tremble. I eat, but don’t really taste the food.
These are first-date jitters.
I’ve been anticipating this day for months, playing out plausible versions in my mind, grinning to myself, losing sleep to a heart hammering with hope and excitement. But none of it has much to do with the tall, dark Italian brushing elbows (and let’s be straight, also a very sinewy arm) with me.
My date is with a racetrack. Sure, I’ve been around tracks before. As a young kid, I begged my dad to let me tag along to a local stock car oval on Saturday nights; the racing bug must have seeped in with all the cold I absorbed from those old cement bleachers. As an intern one year, I reported from the Toronto Indy. And I’ve watched Days of Thunder a thousand times (I joke. The number is more like 50).
For all the laps I’ve watched, spellbound by ballsy drivers and soothed by the way engine noise reverberates through the body, I’ve never actually driven on a track. But I’ve burned to.
This is the day I break the seal.
I’ve flown on a helicopter (natch) from Victoria to Duncan, which offers a stunning aerial view of the brand new Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit (VIMC), a private 2.3-kilometre track carved into a 50-acre patch of logging land by a world-renowned company that builds for Formula One.
At ground level, the track is utterly provocative. While its distance is technically short for a race course, the thought doesn’t even occur to me as I take in the curves of its 19 turns. The freshly paved asphalt is so flawless that the white BMW M3 heating it up after a light rain appears to be roaring over black silk (the paving crew actually laid the whole surface in one day to ensure there is only one seam on the track).
Opening June 6, this track is the first of its kind in Canada, an all-season motorsports country club that will offer members rare, year-round access to a professional-quality circuit. With pro drivers on staff, members who pay between $48,000 and $200,000 for a 25-year pass will have a dedicated space to drive street-legal performance cars the way they were built to be driven. And for those of us who have only dreamed of such a thing, VIMC is a place to learn how to do it.
While members will have to bring their own cars (they’ll store them at the track so staff mechanics can maintain them), for my sneak peak at the circuit, I get to select from quite a lineup.
There’s a 2017 Porsche 911 Carrera S, a 2016 Jaguar F-Type, a 2002 Aston Martin DB7, among a dozen eye-popping options. My pick is a white 2016 Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. Out we go, following an Audi S3 “pace car” driven by professional racer Max Papis. Just setting foot – er, wheel – onto a track ignites a thrill. We follow him through several laps, hitting orange cone markers along this curb to put us in the right position for the next corner and then the next. At increasing speeds, we swoop through turns and over rises that leave us blind to the next obstacle until the split-second before we crest, forcing a much faster reaction than street driving demands. At lap 5, Papis peels off, leaving us.
It takes only a couple of circuits, during which time I feel both abandoned by that faithful pace car and exhilarated to be on the track alone (how is this allowed?), to understand that fast driving is a game of slow learning that will require practice – and much instruction.
“It’s really a game of angles that I imagine a pool player would be pretty good at,” says Peter Baljet, a former competitive race driver and one of the track’s first members. Sitting beside him in a 2016 Mercedes-Benz GTS AMG, I’m sliding helplessly across the passenger seat’s leather, thumping between the console and the door as Baljet highlights the intricacies of this track. “You have to give up something,” he says, breaking hard as my chest squishes forward against the seat-belt, “so you’ll get the car here and you can go faster,” he says, coaxing a pleasing roar from the AMG.
Herein lies the pleasure of the VIMC. Peter Trzewik, one of the track’s co-founders, compromised on the length of the circuit in this first phase (phase two will see it swell to nearly five kilometres) but chocked it full of challenges that create a never-ending game of strategy.
“The curbs are your friends,” Baljet says, clunking across a strip of raised red and white hash marks in a move that forces another of my involuntary shimmies across the seat. “This probably seems a little violent to you. Everyone thinks driving is done with the steering wheel,” he says. “It’s really done with the pedals. A real fast lap is even more violent.”
I learn this first-hand when Papis – nicknamed “Mad Max” – climbs into the drivers’ seat. We lap the track a couple of times while Papis, who has driven everything from go-karts to Formula One, explains that he can drive fast because he knows – not just anticipates – exactly what the car will do. The utility of a track facility such as this, he says, is to teach others how to unlock that knowledge safely instead of figuring it out alone on a highway.
We speed up and Papis makes true on Baljet’s promise of violence. “I’m only doing 90 per cent,” Papis says earnestly, taking a hand off the wheel to gesture. “If I do 100, I can’t talk.”
I laugh politely, unsure of what this indicates about his intentions. Before I blink, those sinewy arms are pulling us hard through a series of turns that let up for brief seconds while the AMG eats up a fine stretch of straight on the back side of the track. It ends too soon; I notice Papis is no longer talking. We jerk into a corkscrew to fly out of it, roaring down the straightaway and flirting hard with the concrete wall edging this side of the track.
“I’m gonna go fast now,” Papis says with a grin. When we stop, we have clocked the fastest lap at the track yet at one minute, 22 seconds, and the brakes are smoking.
I step out and Papis goes for a cool-down lap that inevitably turns into more hot laps when he and Baljet start competing to beat the time. As the pair ping around the track there is the sense that even the cars would crack grins if they came to life.
As the session closes, both drivers step out of their rides with ear-to-ear smiles – a victory for this little track, which now embarks on a bid to collect 499 members to form its exclusive club.
As we walk to the parking lot, where we were tasked with driving these nice cars down what now seem like utterly boring highway roads through the Cowichan Valley, Trzewik leans over for one last explanation.
“Once you get on the track, it can be a kind of addiction,” he says.
Count me addicted.