SOCIETY

FERRARIS IN THE FOREST

A racetrack and a helipad pit the rich against the super-rich in Mont-Tremblant

MARTIN PATRIQUIN August 4 2008
SOCIETY

FERRARIS IN THE FOREST

A racetrack and a helipad pit the rich against the super-rich in Mont-Tremblant

MARTIN PATRIQUIN August 4 2008

FERRARIS IN THE FOREST

SOCIETY

A racetrack and a helipad pit the rich against the super-rich in Mont-Tremblant

MARTIN PATRIQUIN

The Ferrari Challenge at Mont-Tremblant is a festival of noise and speed held every July, in which very rich men race each other in a variety of exotic cars. Their host is Lawrence Stroll, a Canadian multi-millionaire who made much of his fortune in the 1990s by turning a middling clothing designer named Tommy Hilfiger into a billion-dollar brand

This year, Stroll, whose family owns Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant, raced two of his many Ferraris: a 430, which retails for $250,000 without race modifications, and his 1971 512M, an 800-h.p. single-occupant beast with saucer-sized exhaust pipes, worth about $7 million. He placed second in both races, at one point sharing the podium with Patrice Brisebois, the Canadiens defenceman and a member of Stroll’s private racing team. “It’s a good day for Ferrari Québec,” a jubilant Stroll said of the luxury-car distributor he owns, as he bear-hugged Brisebois after the race, his green eyes dancing under a pair of bushy black eyebrows. Flush with his many victories, Stroll scooped up his young son and ambled back toward a waiting RV, his grey hair still matted and sweaty from the race. Success, it seems, was as easy as the smile he wore in the winners’ circle.

The winner’s circle is a familiar place to Stroll. He counts several celebrities among his friends, including Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. A-listers invariably show up for openings of his boutiques. In 2004, Uma Thurman, Sigourney Weaver, Jade Jagger and Keira Knightley attended the London re-opening of the flagship store of luxury-goods purveyor Asprey. Stroll, an imposing six foot three, was photographed smoking an enormous cigar. Stroll is a boon to the local economy, his allies say—his very presence in Mont-Tremblant lends the town a sheen befitting a world-class resort. He and his track “help brand the region and bring a quality clientele,” says Sean O’Donnell, managing partner of the five-star Quintessence Hotel.

His bonhomie belies a certain truth about the man, however. He is one of the most polarizing figures in Mont-Tremblant, the once rustic, now posh ski resort town about 150 km north of Montreal. Many residents say Stroll is the area’s most egregious example of loud, conspicuous consumption, the type of guy who races his Ferraris on his track, then uses his helicopter for the five-kilometre jaunt from his racetrack to his gated compound on Lac Tremblant—“a nouveau riche, belligerent moron,” opined Jim Iredale, who first complained about the track in 2001.

In fact, 24 residents, many of whom own multi-million-dollar houses near his racetrack, are in the midst of a seven-year feud with Stroll. They allege the track noise has affected their lives and diminished their property values. “There are people in [our group] that’ll drop a hundred grand on the table tomorrow morning, no problem,” Iredale, the lead complainant, says of the resources he can bring to the case. And so what began as a simple dispute over noise has become a series of court battles pitting residents against Stroll, his track and the town of Mont-Tremblant itself. Relations between the track and this group have become so caustic that Vince Loughran, the track’s vice-president, reneged on an interview after he heard Maclean’s had spoken to what he described as “other members of the food chain” behind the lawsuit.

Le Circuit has existed since 1964. The Stroll family took control of it in 2000; shortly thereafter, Stroll had the roughly four-kilometre track widened from nine to 12 m, and had runoff areas and gravel traps built, bringing it up to Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile racing standards. The complainants claim those renovations were done without the proper environmental certification from the Quebec government, and ask that the track be returned to its original state.

“The only way to get him to stop is to shut it down,” Iredale says of Stroll. “That’s not our intention, but that’s what might happen.”

'YOU WANT TO TAKE AN AIR RIFLE AND POOF!' SAYS A NEIGHBOUR

The fight has pitted Tremblant’s wealthy against the even wealthier—that is to say Stroll, who through a spokesperson “respectfully declined” to comment for this story. The feud speaks to what Mont-Tremblant once was—a backwoods retreat for Montreal’s old money— and what it has become after 15 years of breakneck development: a Whistler-style jumble of condominiums, lavish cottages and spendy shops catering to upwards of 2.2 million tourists a year.

At it simplest, though, it boils down to the economic spinoff, and noisy fallout, of Stroll and his friends’ ceaseless desire to drive expensive cars very fast and very loudly around a track carved into the Laurentian hills.

Little is publicly known about the Montreal upbringing of the 49-year-old Stroll, né Lawrence Strulovitch; his friends and colleagues tend to be as tight-lipped as he. Various estimates put his net worth at anywhere from $375 million to much more. (In 2005, Commerce Magazine said it was $1 billion.) In 2002, he sold his interest in Tommy Hilfiger. He splits his time between Tremblant, Montreal, London and the Caribbean.

On paper, at least, Lawrence Stroll doesn’t own Le Circuit; his father, Leo Stroll (alternatively known as Leo Strulovitch), is listed as principal shareholder. Stroll’s Mont-Tremblant properties are registered to Leo Strulovitch, while Silcho, a Montreal-based holding company, owns his mansion in Upper Westmount. Leo Strulovitch is also listed as Silcho’s president, and Silcho—an apparent reference to Silas Chou, Stroll’s longtime Hong Kong-based business partner—shares an address in Montreal’s Golden Mile with Michael Kors Canada, the Canadian office of the fashion designer. Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou bought the majority interest in the high-end fashion line in 2003 for a reported $100 million, and are in the midst of a multimillion-dollar expansion of the brand.

Stroll has effectively done to Le Circuit what he did with Hilfiger and Michael Kors: taken a flagging brand and supercharged it. Over 40 or so years, the track had hosted several premier racing events, including the Canadian Grand Prix, but largely went to seed in the late seventies. Stroll’s renovations changed things. “The track became a little faster and much, much safer,” remembers Bob Rouleau, a Porsche aficionado who has raced on the track since the ’60s. “In the old days, you hit trees and rocks. Now, you have a chance of survival.”

SOCIETY

Safer, as it turned out, also meant louder. Along with the Ferrari Challenge, Stroll brought in a host of races, including the Six Heures du Mont-Tremblant, a six-hour endurance race, and the Fall Classic, a mixedplatform event held every September. In 2003, these two events garnered 50 noise complaints from Tremblant residents. “The noise upsets my eight-month-old daughter and causes her to cry,” wrote Lesley Skinner in a police report. Sometimes, the police themselves seemed

bothered by the din. “On September 20, 2003 • • • I met with Geoffrey Farnsworth and we had difficulty hearing each other over the noise of the track,” wrote officer Steve Cossette in an affidavit. “I arrived at the complainant’s house and can verify that the noise is intense and unbearable,” wrote officer Sebastien Renaud. (According to police figures, there were 250 resident complaints the subsequent summer and fall.)

At the same time, Stroll had alienated his traditional allies: the driving clubs who rented the track for events. He’d often interrupt club days to race his own cars, even though the clubs paid him some $10,000 a day. “He decided he wanted to play,” Rouleau says of Stroll’s once-ffequent interruptions. In 2002, “he held up one of the Porsche club events for an hour and a half—about 150 participants—while his two kids drove around on their go-karts. Chutzpah is the polite way of putting it.” (Rouleau says there hasn’t been a similar incident in several years.)

“Stroll doesn’t give a s-t, which doesn’t really help his case,” says Tremblant resident Bob Charbonneau, who lives near the track but isn’t participating in the lawsuit. Along with frustrated residents and racers, Stroll also infuriated several of his neighbours on Lac Tremblant where, between 1998 and 2000, he built three houses on three combined lakeside lots. The problem isn’t so much the houses—the largest is a gigantic neo-Victorian spread with seven chimneys valued at over $17 million—it’s Stroll’s use of his helicopter to get to and from it, at all hours of the day and night.

Michel Collins, Stroll’s closest neighbour, has lodged numerous complaints about the chopper with the city, the province and the federal government to no avail. Despite its ballooning size, Tremblant remains a designated “undeveloped area,” where private helicopters and float planes are permitted. Collins seems to have given up. “There’s nothing I can do,” he told Maclean’s. “I don’t want to get into it. I don’t want problems later. I already

have enough problems with Mr. Stroll.”

'STROLL HAS MORE MONEY THAN THE TOWN ITSELF,' SAYS THE MAYOR

The helicopter is the reigning obsession of the Lake Tremblant Property Owners Association. Its president, Annette Liebermann, whose residence is across the lake from Stroll’s, gives out stacks of Transport Canada’s noise complaint forms to members, to fill out whenever the noise of the chopper is unbearable. A frank, sprightly 53-year-old with a passing resemblance to Loni Anderson, Liebermann is unequivocal in her disdain for the millionaire with whom she shares the lake. “He has an arrogance,” she says. “For him it’s like, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and that’s it.’ ” “You want to take out an air rifle and poof,” she says of the chopper. “And I’m being polite. Your thoughts get evil at times. You just want to sleep in on a Saturday morning.” That’s not to mention the helicopters used to film races at Le Circuit— “hovering over nearby Lac Moore,” wrote resident Alain Chamberlain in a typical complaint to police in 2003.

Whirring helicopters, though, have nothing on the Ferrari FXX, a 12-cylinder, 800-h.p. behemoth that retails for roughly $2 million. When a handful of FXXs race around the track during the Ferrari Challenge in MontTremblant, the noise is all-consuming, fright-

ful and, to fans, exhilarating. When a driver lets off the accelerator in the corners, the resulting backfire sounds like buckshot exploding across the track several thousand times over. “That is what’s great about racing,” says Patrice Brisebois, referring to the FXX’s evident lack of a muffler. “Racing is speed, but it’s also noise.”

Faced with hundreds of complaints, the Town of Mont-Tremblant formed an ad hoc committee made up of residents, town councillors and track officials to try and resolve the noise issue. The residents’ pleas fell on deaf ears; according to the town, track management continued to schedule a bevy of “special events,” most of which included nonmufflered cars. In 2003, the town issued a letter of demand compelling the track to conform to its noise bylaw. Nevertheless, the races continued.

“They [track officials] screwed around, they didn’t want to conform, they didn’t want any sort of agreement with us,” says Tremblant Mayor Pierre Pilon. So, in 2006, the town asked for and received a court injunction against the track mandating that all race activity, save for one weekend, be held with mufflered cars. “When we got the injunction it softened them a bit,” Pilon says.

The next year, the town negotiated a settlement with track officials that would allow for six major events and 26 practice days a year without any noise limits. Club event cars had to have mufflers; the track was to be outfit-

ted with a noise metre transmitting, in real time, noise level readings to the Mont-Tremblant police station. Finally, track vice-president Vince Loughran offered two free tickets per household to those living near the track. The mayor heralded the agreement as a masterpiece of compromise; many residents near the track cried capitulation to Stroll and his money and have launched an additional lawsuit against this bylaw. (The bylaw case will be heard next spring; a date has yet to be set for the residents’ request for a permanent injunction against the track.)

“Stroll has more money than the town itself,” says Pilon, chuckling at the absurdity of this fact. “If I try to stop the track I’ll end up in court, and I’m not sure I’d win. And it wouldn’t necessarily be in the interests of the town to do that.” Since the deal with the town, Pilon has far less time for residents living near the track. A resident of St-Jovite, Mont-Tremblant’s poorer neighbour until the two were merged by the Lucien Bouchard government in 2000, he shows a certain weariness for what is known as Old Tremblant. “People are special in Mont-Tremblant,” Pilon says, chuckling once again. “The second someone does something that they think isn’t correct, right away they go to their lawyers.” The thing that truly vexes him, though, is why anyone would choose to move next to a racetrack, and then raise all manner of hell that it’s noisy.

Fuller, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Le Circuit, has an answer to that: he says he was aware of the track, but figured it would remain semiderelict until the landowner sold it off to developers. “I moved in 2000 and watched them rebuild the track,” he says. “I thought they were doing condos.” Yet even Fuller’s lawyer, Jacques Jeansonne, recognizes Le Circuit’s historical right to exist (though the renovations, and the many un-mufflered races that came after, are another matter entirely, he says). For all his hubris, Stroll can hardly be blamed for using the track as

it was meant to be used.

But the real problem is when residents don’t find out about the track until it’s too late. There are about a dozen developments in the immediate area of the track, but the track itself, if not its noise, is largely obscured by trees. Tremblant’s meteoric rise since 1993, when ski resort giant Intrawest moved in, has led to a dizzying increase in land values, and it seems real estate companies may be less than eager to disclose the track next door when selling a million-dollar pied-à-terre. Currently, for example, one realtor has for sale a four-bedroom home located at the confluence of the Diable and Cachée rivers. “Its exterior, all cedar shingles, its abundance of windows, its large family room and its location confer this home a certain cachet,” reads the notice. The price: $1.2 million, not including the earplugs you’d need on race day. You’d never know from the listing, or from gazing out at the manicured lawn, that it sits perhaps 150 m from the first turn of the track.

“I wouldn’t buy a condo in Mont-Tremblant to relax,” says Léo Samson. He would know; in 1949, the 94-year-old Tremblant resident dreamed up the crazy idea of putting a racetrack in the middle of nowhere as a way to lure tourists from Montreal. It took 15 years to build it, but his dream came true: many of the big events in the ’60s and ’70s typically drew 100,000 people to the area. “Sometimes it would take eight hours to drive back to Montreal,” recalls Bob Rouleau.

Stroll has yet to match the track’s glory days; for all its racket, the Ferrari Challenge hardly drew a capacity crowd, and several of this year’s events have been cancelled. Champ Car, an open wheel event similar to Formula One, drew an estimated 40,000 last year, but the series folded shortly thereafter. Still, race car drivers and fanatics are generally a wealthy lot. They need tow trucks, tires and gasoline—10,000 litres of the high-octane stuff on a typical club weekend, according to a local garage owner. They are more likely to stay in upscale hotels and eat in expensive restaurants, both plentiful in Mont-Tremblant.

For now it’s likely that Lawrence Stroll will continue to be the most conspicuous of them all, driving his exotic cars and flying to and from his mansion. Like him or hate him, he is a measure of what Mont-Tremblant has become. “Each of us has tried to find a way” to get Stroll to tone down, Annette Liebermann says. “We haven’t got a leg to stand on. Everything he does is legal and right.”

Liebermann stares out at the once placid Lac Tremblant just as a loud motorboat roars by, towing a waterskier. Stroll’s seven chimneys poke out of the trees behind it. “Right doesn’t mean it’s okay, though,” she says, sighing.