DATELINE: MONT TREMBLANT

Lessons in the fast lane

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 27 1986
DATELINE: MONT TREMBLANT

Lessons in the fast lane

Anthony Wilson-Smith October 27 1986

Lessons in the fast lane

DATELINE: MONT TREMBLANT

Keeping an even throttle as he approached the turn on the Circuit Mont Tremblant race car track, Conrad Humphrey, a 30-yearold laboratory technician from Detroit, Mich., brought his Van Diemen Formula Ford car into the corner only inches from the curb. Then, because he had taken proper advantage of the bank in the road, he emerged from the turn picking up speed, and within seconds had roared ahead of the startled driver ahead of him. At the end of the lap, which marked the close of the second day of lessons at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School, Humphrey, a divinity college graduate, smiled sunnily at the driver he had just passed. “That” he declared, “may be one of the most enjoyable things the Lord has allowed me to do in a long time.”

Life in the fast lanes of one of North America’s oldest—and statistically safest—schools for aspiring racing drivers is made of such small victories. Located on the site of a former Canadian Grand Prix track in Mont Tremblant, Que., the 16-year-old I

school boasts an alumni list that includes racing champion Gilles Villeneuve. He was the 1978 winner of the Canadian Grand Prix and in 1979 finished second in overall world championship rankings. Villeneuve died in a racing accident in 1982. This year his

The disciples of the Mont Tremblant racing school have nursed a lifelong fascination with automobiles_

15-year-old son, Jacques, also took the three-day course. Despite the $1,195 registration fee and nine-hour-long days of classroom and on-site instruction, most students relish the experience. Declared Gregg Swanson, 28, an investment broker from Calgary: “I have been wanting to do this ever since my first speeding ticket.”

Learning to race around a track is a

complex matter. Twenty-five per cent of the course, limited to 10 students at a time, is spent in the classroom. They study the bible of motor racing, Piero Taruffi’s Techniques of Motor Racing, and must absorb lectures on driving theory, technique and strategy. The rest of the time is spent on the trackin a 1,600-cc four-speed open-cockpit Formula Ford racing car. There, students drive at gradually increasing speeds until they attain 160 km/h on the hilly, sharply curving circuit, a course which Scottish driver Jackie Stewart once described as second only to Monaco’s in difficulty.

Concentration is essential. Said assistant instructor Gabriel Gélinas: “Everybody has one early, unplanned skid. After that, they don’t let their minds wander again.” The Jim Russell school is named after a celebrated British driver who opened the first school in the franchise in 1959. Later, Russell opened two schools in California in addition to the Quebec school. The organization also prides itself on its safety record. There has never been a serious accident at the Mont Tremblant track. The program is based on teaching students such techniques as how to heel-and-toe (downshift and brake simultaneously) and double clutch (a more efficient method of selecting gears) at gradually increasing

speeds starting at about 100 km/h.

The race is not always to the swiftest: student drivers are initially forbidden to pass each other, and anyone considered to be driving recklessly is immediately ordered off the track. Repeated offenders may have their money partially refunded and be sent home. “We tell people not to race each other, but to drive at speeds they are comfortable at,” said chief instructor Gilbert Pednault, 33, who has taught and driven professionally in England and the United States. “The problems occur when people try to exceed that.”

The school’s disciples tend to be males between the ages of 20 and 35, and most have nursed a lifelong fascination with automobiles. “I have always considered myself a good, fast driver,” said Swanson, who owns a Mercedes and a Lotus sports car. “This is my chance to see if that is true—and to see if I can get better.” Others see the school as an opportunity to combine business and pleasure. Keith Buerker, a 29-year-old instructor at Paul Smith’s College in New York State, was divorced last year and said he enrolled because “now, for the first time in years, I can have fun.” About five per cent of the students are women. For most of the students, said Pednault, “there is unquestionably a bit of a Walter Mitty factor—it is their big

chance to do the thing they have dreamed about all their lives.”

For the more serious, the course is only the beginning. The school also offers an advanced-level program that allows students to drive more highperformance cars. Those who wish to race professionally must acquire a licence by applying with their racing school certificates for membership in one of the variety of regional motor racing associations that govern the sport in North America.

But for the majority of students at the novice level, passing the course is an end in itself. Said Pednault: “The guys come in here at the start of^the course, and you can see some are a little scared and have something to prove to themselves. Then, when they leave here and they have made it, they hold their heads just that much higher.” One successful graduate offered his own eulogy to the school. “All my life, I wanted to find something that was legal, fun, that you could do with your clothes on and my wife would approve of,” said Alan Colvin, a 31-yearold factory supervisor from Rawson, Ohio, as he packed to go home. “Looks like I finally discovered it—and I’ll never forget it.”

-ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Mont Tremblant