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JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR AWARD presented by Jaguar Canada

Entry Number 3: Mont Tremblant Lives

(Originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)

 

Carte Blanche

by Jim Kenzie

July 27, 2002

 

Mont Tremblant is back

 

Around 1960, plus or minus five years, a spate of North American race track-building resulted in such outstanding road racing circuits as Westwood in Vancouver, Riverside in California, Road America in Wisconsin, Mid-Ohio in (aw, you guessed) central Ohio, Watkins Glen in up-state New York, our own Mosport, and Le Circuit de Mont Tremblant, near St-Jovite, about an hour and a half north of Montreal.

In addition to being brilliant to drive and race on, these circuits shared a couple of not-so-good features - they all got old, primarily with respect to safety standards which continued to get tougher during the ‘60s and ‘70s.

And with few exceptions, they were too far away from major metropolitan areas to draw the crowds needed to make big-time races financially feasible.

There just aren’t enough hard-core race fans; you need the spectacle-followers, the mostly-corporate crowd, for whom a major league race is an event, rather than merely a car race.

Once these people have taken the subway to the Molson Indy in downtown Toronto or the Grand Prix in Montreal, it’s hard to get them to drive an hour or two to Mosport or Mont Tremblant.

(Those urban exceptions, like Westwood and Riverside? The land became too valuable to race on; condos were the inevitable result.)

Remarkably, some of these old circuits are once again prospering. Mosport was bought a few years ago by Don Panoz; millions of dollars of improvements later, it seems to have found a way to thrive.

In 2000, a group of international investors purchased Le Circuit in Mont Tremblant, with the intention of turning it into a private go-fast playground.

They soon realized that the local community, not to mention Quebec’s motorsport community, had too much invested in the facility to allow this to happen.

The plan changed, and the track was shut down for over a year to make renovations to bring the track up to standards set by the FIA - Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the world governing body of motorsport.

Allan Wilson, a South African race course consultant, was hired to design and manage the changes.

Safety was the big issue - Mont Tremblant was always a fabulous track, but there were lots of places you could fatally kill yourself.

(Ed. Note - that's a wee joke...)

Run-off areas, gravel and sand traps, and ARMCO barriers were planned in places where cars were most likely to become part of the Canadian shield - or the local aquaculture.

But the nature of the track had to be preserved, else what was the point? All the corners remain as they were.

Then there’s the  infamous “hump” on the back straight, where Jackie Oliver’s Shadow Can-Am car (among others) once did a complete back flip. (Like Babe Ruth’s “call-the-shot’‘ home run, about 17 million people claim to have seen that flip. But I actually was there. No, really...).

The hump still goes up-then-down; long-time Tremblant fans who have driven the new course say it feels like it’s been chopped by maybe a metre; in fact, about three metres were cut out.

The entire track surface was completely removed, dug out to a depth of about a metre, with new gravel and road bed, topped by all-new paving - the first in the circuit’s history.

A new pit lane with room for 46 cars was built, and the in- and out-lanes no longer connect with the track on the racing line. Again; safety.

The new control tower is built on the original foundations, but is now fifty percent larger; it and the new media room are air conditioned.

And there is hot and cold running water in the washrooms.

Hurray to both, say I.

Michael Ney, formerly with Porsche and Nissan Canada’s Infiniti division, is president of Le Circuit. He says Charlie Whiting, the safety and sanctioning head of the FIA, told him that the renovated circuit is now better than some of the tracks the Formula One circus runs on.

Technically, it isn’t wide enough - Le Circuit is now 11 metres wide, 12 metres on the pit straight; F1 requires 15, although if you watched the French Grand Prix from Magny Cours last Sunday...

Le Circuit’s management knows that levering the Formula One Grand Prix out of Montreal will never get off the trailer.

But events like the Grand Am (September 12 - 14), plus corporate activities like press introductions for high-performance cars, car club meetings, plus two - count ‘em, two - racing schools (the resurrected Jim Russell program, now with a fleet of new Van Diemen Formula Ford race cars, and Skip Barber), should provide enough busy days for the track to be a viable commercial proposition.

A huge advantage Le Circuit has over most race tracks is an abundance of near-by hotel accommodation in all price ranges, thanks to the neighbourhood ski and summer vacation resorts. These have multiplied in recent years since Intrawest, owner of B.C.’s Whistler, took over the ski hill and built a new village just east of the track.

The first big racing event on the new track was held two weekends ago. “Le Sommet des Legendes’‘ paid homage to the two defining series in Tremblant’s history - Formula One (the Canadian Grand Prix was held here in 1968 and 1970) and Can-Am.

Indeed, the first-ever Can-Am race was held at Le Circuit in 1966.

Can-Am cars were, in my opinion, the greatest race cars ever. These 800 horsepower winged monsters went spectacularly fast, and provided racing thrills that have never been equalled.

Le Sommet des Legendes brought many of these same cars to the circuit, along with even older open- and closed-wheel cars.

Needless to say, the Can-Am race was my favourite. Even fifteen of these beasts - half of what we used to get for a good Can-Am meeting - were enough to give a whole new meaning to the name “Mont-Tremblant’‘.

The medium-term plan for Le Circuit is to join forces with the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England and the Monterey Historic Races on California to create a sort-of World Series of high-end vintage racing. Let us pray...

If you remember Mont Tremblant from your racing youth, or if you’ve never even heard of it but just love great race tracks, make a point of getting up there.

You won’t regret it.

- 30 -

 

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