Quebecers have had a long-standing love affair with motorsport. Montreal’s fight to keep the Canadian Grand Prix goes beyond simple economic factors; racing is as entrenched in Quebec as the Villeneuve name is in auto racing legend. Modern-day motorsport got its start here, not on Montreal’s Ile Notre-Dame, where every June the Formula One race helps pump millions of dollars into the local economy, but in a much more bucolic setting in the Laurentian mountains north of the city.
Mention the name Circuit Mont-Tremblant, and a whole generation of baby boomers hearkens back to the glory days of the late 60s and 70s when the racetrack carved into the foot of the mountain was Quebec’s motorsport mecca. The track is surrounded by picture postcard scenery, and spectators sit not on grandstands to watch the races, but actually on the sides of the mountain or on the grass under the trees in the infield.
The Circuit Mont Tremblant may be an hour and a half away from downtown Montreal, but its idyllic location nestled between Lac Moore and the Diable River at the foot of Mont Tremblant makes it a perfect getaway. The fact that it is at the foot of Eastern Canada’s foremost ski resort guarantees a surfeit of hotel accomodations and restaurants that run the gamut from modest to five-star, virtually five minutes away from the racetrack.
The Laurentians are truly a four-season holiday location.
Inaugurated in 1964, the Circuit is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. In its heyday, Tremblant was home to the first ever Can-Am race in 1966. In 1968 and again in 1970, Tremblant hosted two Formula One Grand Prix races. Legendary drivers like Mario Andretti, Jackie Stewart, Al Unser, Graham Hill, Bobby Rahal and Gilles Villeneuve, to name just a few, have all made pit stops at Circuit Mont-Tremblant. In the 1970s, safety standards began to get a lot tougher, and tracks like Tremblant were also judged to be too far away from major centres to draw the crowds needed for the financial success of major league racing. The track fell into disrepair: by the 1980s and 90s, competitors complained that the circuit was so rough they would go through more tires on one race weekend at Tremblant than they would at Mosport for an entire season.
In 2000, a group of international investors got together and bought the track. Their plan was to turn it into a facility where they could go on weekends and drive their vintage cars. But Michael Ney, the president of the Circuit Mont- Tremblant, says that plans quickly changed when they realized the extent of affection for the racetrack in Quebec. The circuit was shut down for a year, while internationally reknowned track designer Allan Wilson was brought in to modernize it. The challenge was to make the track safer, while at the same time keeping it as technically challenging as it always has been. Michael Ney says while most modern racetracks are basically flat straightaways, “Tremblant has some enormous elevation changes along with 15 corners which makes it all the more exciting for the driver and for the spectator as well.” Ney says the new track is wider, safer and smoother.
The track was stretched out to 11 or 12 metres wide from the original eight metres. All the walls have pushed back, so it’s a very safe track to drive on. “Sand and gravel traps were added to the high-speed corners, so that if you do go off the track, you can stop before you actually get to the wall and do damage to the car.” The old pavement, which hadn’t been touched since the 1970s, was torn up and a new road bed, almost a metre deep, was put in and then topped by new pavement, the same composite used for Formula One, making it an extremely smooth track. The consensus is that the new Circuit Mont-Tremblant has been successfully tranformed into a modern facility while maintaining its technical challenges. The corners remain virtually unchanged, and the dramatic elevation changes continue to test the most experienced drivers.
The new owners have developed a multi-use facility. Recognizing the love of motorsport in Quebec, the Circuit has developed an exciting line-up of annual races and events for spectators. The season usually begins on the Victoria Day weekend in the spring with the Grand Am series of endurance races. A month later in June, fans are treated with the annual Ferrari Festival, where as many as 150 Ferrari owners are racing or just showing off their cars. A week later, on the Canada Day weekend, the Legends Event showcases classic racing cars from the 50s, 60s and 70s. At the 2003 Legends Event, 35 Formula One cars that had been raced over the past 40 years were on display. In late August, there’s a Superbike Championship race, and in late September, Circuit Mont-Tremblant is home to the Fall Classic, with races in vintage cars, and a national Formula Ford race. Ney says teams come to Circuit Tremblant “for a kind of the end of the year recap of Canadian racing; the last hurrah of the season and to enjoy the changing colours.”
The new owners have combined a schedule of regular annual events with private track activities for car clubs or automobile manufacturers. Ney explains that clubs such as the Porshe club, the Ferrari club, even the Viper club from Chicago “come in and rent the track for a couple of days mid-week and they just go out and enjoy their cars.” And car manufacturers like Acura, Volvo and Mercedes Benz are beginning to use Circuit Mont-Tremblant for media introductions of their high-perfomance vehicles.
The other major draw to the Tremblant racetrack is the driving school. The Jim Russell Racing School has been operating there for 29 years. Jacques Villeneuve is one of the school’s alumni; he trained there when he was 14. In fact, many of today’s top racing drivers are graduates of the Russell School at Tremblant. The school is equipped with a fleet of 2.2 litre Van Dieman Formula Fords that produce about 175 horsepower. It offers week-long racing series courses and lapping days for advanced drivers. But the school also offers introductory courses for novice racers, including one-day and three-day sessions. Michael Ney, who also operates a Ferrari and Masarati dealership in Montreal, says “many customers who get into high performance sports cars automatically think that the car is going to give them some new innate driving ability that they didn’t have yesterday, and its just the opposite; you have to learn to drive it.” When he sells a new sports car, Ney generally sends the customer to the Jim Russell School, to show them how to handle a high-performance car.
The Circuit Mont Tremblant is beginning to make a name for itself once again. And while the glory days of Formula One racing may be in the past, the racetrack has carved out a comfortable niche for motorsport enthusiasts in Quebec. And the roar of high performance engines still echoes in the Laurentian Mountains.
Photos courtesy of Circuit Mont Tremblant/NATA.