~ by Chris #16 Demaras ~

The abandoned limestone quarry in Millhaven (near the federal penitentiary) was the location of the Race Lab driving course. The entire drive there, I pictured prisoners breaking rocks with pickaxes and hammers, like in the old cartoons. I really don’t know what’s buried in the history of the quarry, but it is desolate, dry and dusty. The perfect place to learn to rally on gravel.

As always, the rally specialists at Race Lab provide the location as co-ordinates, so there’s no way the GPS could steer you wrong. Daniel and I could see the bright green Race Lab lion on an A-frame sign by the side of the road. Almost 2.5 hours drive east of Toronto, but we finally made it.

One of the other competitors laughed when we rolled in with the super-clean WRX. “Take a picture now, because that’s the cleanest it’s going to look all day!” the fellow chirped.

Some truly hardcore individuals, like Mike Heinrich, bring their own ‘prepped’ cars to Race Lab events. But not us! Nope. This time we used one of Race Lab’s Subarus.

Driving the Bugeye at Crazy Farm last year, Daniel made contact with a couple of cones and tore out the fender-liners, so we learned our lesson. It’s smarter (and cheaper) to rent a rally-prepped car and not have to visit Can-Jam for repairs afterwards.

We parked next to ‘Disaster’ the 2007 Production 4WD Subaru WRX STi that ‘Crazy Leo’ uses to compete in races across Canada, including a victory at the wins Rallye Perce-Neige. This fully-caged rally-car is a beast.

For the most part, students drive naturally-aspirated 2002-2007 Subaru Imprezas (like the WRX, but no turbochargers). The cars don’t have roll-cages, so you don’t have to wear a helmet, making the experience easier on the participant. It’s also much easier to hear your instructor.

I was paired up with Daniil, a rally-cross competitor and professional mechanic. His calm, re-assuring tone really helped because driving on gravel is so much different than track days at Shannonville, I was like a beginner all over again. But knowing to look far ahead and use quick hand-over-hand steering, I was able to improve to a 2:10.1 lap time.

The course was a challenging mix of packed gravel and loose sand with short tarmac section in between. Race Lab even threw in a water crossing, just for kicks. Stationed next to the course was awesome Dawson from K1 Speed, now working as Clerk of the Course for Race Lab. He was nice enough to replace cones I bumped, and gave me a lift around the track when my session was over, so I could take action shots.

Daniel was next up, and was probably the last student of the day. You see, Daniel went for the ‘premium package’ and received driver coaching from ‘Crazy Leo’ himself!

Out on track in the blue Subaru, Daniel was pushing hard, and finding the limits of grip. Driving fast on gravel you very quickly learn to make your inputs early, so give your car time to respond, and a lot of what you learned on a race track doesn’t apply on gravel.

From the cliff overlooking Station Alpha, I could see the rooster-tail of dust streaming off the Subaru. Daniel was really pushing hard, and was not shy about the water-crossing! His lap times improved with each lap, and set a personal best of 1:09.2 which topped by time by a second.

Check out this track. It looks like we’re racing on the moon in some sci-fi movie!

Rally and rally-cross are so different from driving on a paved road-course, where you absolutely don’t scrub off speed by sliding through corners. On gravel, so much is counter-intuitive, that sometimes the fastest way around a corner is a glorious looking four-wheel drift. It’s just a matter of control.

This weekend, we weren’t racers or competitors; we were students. It takes humility to try attempt a style of motorsports completely outside of your wheelhouse, and possibly be the ‘slow guy’. But it really didn’t matter. There was no ‘official’ lap times being kept (Daniel’s car was likely quicker than mine), so there’s no point reading too much into that one second gap.

At the tail-end of the event, we were covered in dust and mosquito bites, but it was totally worth it. We’d spent hours at Race Lab, and didn’t leave until dusk.

These Race Lab sessions are so valuable to Daniel and me. learning all about driving fast in low-grip conditions. It not only gives you confidence to handle unforeseen situations, but it just makes you a better driver on the road and track.

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