~ by Daniel #12 Demaras ~

I’ve been competing in motorsports for almost a decade now, but my experiences have been on the racetrack. I drove a NASCAR at Shannonville and tested a F1200 open-wheelers at TMP, but my off-roading racing experience is non-existent. That’s why I decided to get some private coaching from the crew at Race Lab at their testing grounds in Northern Ontario.

My trusty Subaru WRX hasn’t spent much time in low grip conditions driving around the streets of Toronto, but up north, all the winding roads were completely snow covered. Challenging conditions.

With our classroom session were handled by Zoom meeting the day before, the plan was to meet our instructor, Jason, at a gas station. On the morning of our ‘training day’ it was -20°C…colder than either Alaska or the Yukon. My 18 year-old WRX struggled to start that day, and I just wasn’t willing to stand outside in these conditions to fill up my tank all the way. After a briefing, Jason lead us through the country roads for several kilometers to the first trail.

My first pass through the backroad was cautious, making sure I kept my Bugeye under control and carefully looking out for my surroundings. Jason guided me and taught me where to position my car both for safety and for speed, especially around the blind corners.

For my second run I knew the road better and added some speed. The snow was challenging, and I became familiar with counter-steering, which was super fun.

It didn’t take much full-throttle running to empty the tank, so we took a brief break to fuel up the WRX. For the next run, Jason joined my dad in his GMC pickup truck, which was playing the role of recovery-vehicle. The lifted monster-truck looked incredibly difficult to control, and those big mud tires just didn’t grip as well as my snow tires. My dad had a tough time, but learned how to control that heavy truck he uses as a daily driver.

Meanwhile, I got to take the trail alone. Using the techniques Jason taught me I drove as aggressively as I could without hitting a tree.

For the afternoon session, we headed off another 20 km north to the second trail, which had greater elevation changes, was even more twisty and featured a tight one-lane bridge. The light from the setting sun made navigating the course tricky. I was gaining confidence but unintentionally dropped a wheel into some heavy snow. The car was pitched into a slide, and I had to recover quickly, but I managed to gather it up and keep the rest of the run clean. We’d been out on the backroads from just after sunrise until twilight. After two more runs my dad was getting tired and hungry and was ready to call it a day. But I still had unfinished business.

One more go down the trail and I felt I had really improved my off-road driving skills, especially learning how to handle an AWD car during a slide. We followed the ‘racing line’ on the backroads to smooth out the corners, but not a lot of my knowledge from go-karts and open wheelers was transferrable. A lot of bad habits had to be unlearned to keep my daily driver from colliding with a bush, tree, or lake.

The private coaching session was definitely worth it. Some concepts, like weight transfer and how it effects grip, were similar to my experience s on racetrracks. Other ideas like learning how to anticipate the road ahead by reading the tree-line were completely new. Combined, it made me more confident behind the wheel.

In early February, my dad and I will try out Race Lab’s “Mixed Surface Trak” at the Crazy Farm in Markham. We’re both really excited about that event, and while I’m not Colin McCrae just yet, I certainly have a better understanding of driving fast in low-grip conditions.

But next time, I’ll fill up at the gas station.

6 thoughts on “RACE LAB: Backroads

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