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Car race track takes shape in Cowichan Valley

It’s the end of another tough week in the Canadian oilpatch, and a handful of energy industry executives need to let off steam and get some rest and relaxation.

It’s the end of another tough week in the Canadian oilpatch, and a handful of energy industry executives need to let off steam and get some rest and relaxation. 

If Peter Trzewik has his way they won’t just head for libations at Calgary’s Petroleum Club, or speed off in their Porsches to their favourite luxury hotel in Banff. Instead, they’ll fly to Victoria or Nanaimo before making their way to the Cowichan Valley for a weekend they’ll never forget at the Vancouver Island Motorsport Resort.

“You’d get picked up or take a rental car from the airport, drive to your hotel, have a nice dinner, stay overnight and the next morning go to the track, where your car will be waiting for you in the clubhouse,” said the German Auto Import Network (GAIN) Vancouver Island president, explaining a typical scenario awaiting members once his Victoria-based car dealer group’s dream project is up and running by the spring of 2016.

The 19-hectare automotive resort has until recently been kept under wraps.

It’s being designed by Germany’s Tilke Engineers and Architects, the world’s foremost authority in track design, test facilities and driving clubs. Construction of the first phase of the 2.3-kilometre track (expandable to 4.2 kilometres) at 4063 Cowichan Valley Hwy. near Mount Prevost is underway by Triple T Excavating and SupErb Construction, with Chris Erb at the helm.

The year-round resort surrounded by coastal wilderness and close to fine dining and a partner hotel is about more than the track where a Porsche GT3 could reach a top speed of 184 km/h.

The resort will also have a 15,000-square-foot, two-storey complex housing a clubhouse, presentation centre, observation deck and four pit garages with high-tech setup bays and staging areas.

Members would have options such as having their classic automobiles made track-ready by partners Rudi & Company and Coachwerks.

“True luxury is time, and the one thing [prospective members] don’t have is time,” says Trzewik. “The idea is to make it tempting to people here and places like Calgary, Kelowna, Edmonton and Toronto, an attraction for Victoria and Nanaimo, with mountains, ocean and lakes. Everything’s waiting for you and the question is how do we fill your weekend with the best activities you could possibly want?”

There would also be economic spinoffs when members go to a spa, for dinner, golfing, fly-fishing, hiking, mountain biking or other activities when not doing laps, he said.

“The opening of this track will not be a race,” said Trzewik, emphasizing it is a private membership facility, with value-added options for GAIN customers, and can also be used for corporate events and charity functions.

Fees for the 300-member club are expected to be announced soon.

GAIN has dealerships representing nine high-performance and luxury brands, including Three Point Motors, BMW Victoria, Porsche Centre Victoria, Audi Autohaus and Nanaimo’s BMW, Mini and Subaru dealerships.

As well as giving motorsports enthusiasts the thrill of driving high-performance vehicles fast in a controlled environment, driving lessons to qualify for a race-car driver’s licence could be offered, Trzewik said.

Admitting “it has to be a home run” in terms of selling memberships to operate such clubs successfully, Trzewik said GAIN’s dealerships “will provide a lot of solidity to the track” and eliminate the risk factor.

“I think what Peter and his group is doing right is to start with a footprint you can control and generate revenue out of,” said Christian Epp, Tilke’s director of the Americas, during a visit with architect and engineer Peter Wahl, Tilke’s managing partner. “I think what you have here is quite unique because you control it with these dealerships. It’s very difficult to do that in other regions.”

A dealer meeting held at the Las Vegas Raceway, where auto buffs rented Mercedes-Benz SLS’s, Lamborghinis and Ferraris to do laps, inspired the GAIN group to build their variation.

A motivating factor was having a venue that would give manufacturers’ clients and dealers a way to showcase the performance of new vehicles at product launches, Trzewik said.

Selecting the property near Victoria and Nanaimo, largely because of its expansion potential and topography that allows for “exciting corners and elevation changes” was the start of a long road trip with steep learning curves. After doing extensive research and visiting other clubs and tracks, Trzewik was repeatedly told having a great track designed by professionals was essential.

After visiting Wahl and his partner Hermann Tilke in Aachen, Germany, Trzewik’s team gave Tilke the go-ahead.

“This project has been very efficient in the way we are really working almost in symphony,” said Epp, whose construction partners received special training for the unique grading of land and other aspects.

“We have certain specifications; we tell them about how we want the asphalt, the sub-base, how do we do the drainage, and the safety.”

They first do “mock-ups.” If 1,000 metres of an element is required to build a curve, for example, crews would have to successfully build a smaller-scale version with two metres before doing larger applications.

Tilke engineers also took GAIN’s construction team to Mexico City for a firsthand look at the Formula One track — the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez — it was designing there.

“It’s the easiest way to train people,” Epp said. “I know it sounds a bit crazy, but it’s like teaching you to write again, but differently.”

Indeed, a lot more goes into the creation of a safe, challenging automotive track than meets the eye, said Wahl, whose company has designed and built as many as 65 tracks worldwide, 19 for Formula One.

They include the European Grand Priz Baku, Santiago’s Motorpark Chile, Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, the Sochi Autodrom, Moscow Raceway, Fuji International Speedway and the Atlanta Motorsports Park. Tilke, which designs grandstands and pit buildings for their projects, has also designed hotels, housing projects and shopping centres.

“It’s very, very complicated. Do we want a fast track? Do we have enough elevation?” said Wahl. “Our problem with racetracks always is water. We must always make sure the water goes away.”

Epp, who first visited the site last October, said the journey from conceptualization to completion is like peeling an onion.

“We have different layers. The first part is creative. Then we start modelling it and look at the land. Then we take that layer away. You go deeper and deeper,” he said.

“In every phase of the project you reach a different level of complexity.”

A rough design is first sketched on paper, fed into a computer for complex calculations, rendered through 3-D modelling, and ingredients are determined based on factors such as climate and soil conditions, he said.

“It starts with the aggregates we put in because in some countries you get only limestone, and it’s impossible because it’s not adhesive with asphalt,” said Wahl, comparing it to pouring oil on a hard floor.

“The oil runs down. We take three or four bags from different quarries, check them in our lab and say: ‘OK, we’ll go with this asphalt.’ ”

He said he’s proud that carefully chosen asphalt used on a racetrack they designed in Malaysia 20 years ago hasn’t changed or required repair because of such precision.

“It’s not that easy to do good asphalt when it’s 38 degrees,” Wahl said. “If you go to tropical countries, all the roads there are bumpy but our asphalt is OK.”

Other factors to be considered, said Epp, are that a race car generates a lot of “lateral forces” and uses a track very differently than vehicles on a normal road.

“The tires can suck the stones right out of the asphalt sometimes,” said Wahl.

While the track has a distinctive character allowing for maximum excitement, it allows beginners to improve their driving skills moderately, he said.

“As a designer, we can play with this topography. If you have a sharp corner, this makes racing a roller-coaster ride. This is what is fun and challenges people.”

The multi-purpose facility also features an off-road track, and sub-sections comparable to a driving range on a golf course where drivers can learn special skills.

Run-off areas are also built in where your impact speed would be reduced as you drive from asphalt onto gravel before reaching tire barriers, Epp said.

“The last thing they want to do is crash up the Porsche, so what you offer as a track designer is sufficient area to turn safely and stop the car. Doing those calculations is all part of what we do.”

Boredom is not an option, said Trzewik.

“If you’ve been a member for three or four years, you’ll still get excited because this is a phenomenal track.”


Track facts at a glance 

Maximum incline: 12.5 per cent between corner 14 and 15
Maximum slope: 11.5 per cent between corner 4 and 5
Track length: 2.3 / 4.2 kilometres
Track width: 10 metres
Nineteen turns: 7 left, 12 right
Top speed: 211 km/h (street-legal sports cars)
Number of short cuts: 4
Track layout combinations: 6
• Hanging and banked corners in all sections
• Run-off areas designed with the newest technology and standards preventing damage to cars and bikes, enabling drivers to correct and return safely onto the track.