What if a performance car enthusiast had a dedicated motorsport country club that he or she could be a member of? Just like a golf club, with a limited number of members able to enjoy the use of a first-class facility, including a race track. It's a concept that has been proven in the United States and overseas, and the first steps have been taken to create just such a facility in the South Okanagan region of British Columbia.
The South Okanagan Motorsports Corporation (SOMC) has been formed to develop and operate what will be known as Area 27 (www.area27.ca), a location just north of Osoyoos on 230 acres of land controlled by the Osoyoos Aboriginal Band. Three of the directors of the corporation are Jacques Villeneuve (hence the number 27 in the project name, honouring his father Gilles) who will design the track, contractor Trevor Seibert of Williams Lake, and Bill Drossos of Penticton, who raced with both Villeneuve and Seibert over 20 years ago, and is the visionary and President of SOMC.
Area 27 will be located at the northern end of the Sonoran Desert – the only true desert in Canada, which stretches down in to Mexico – which enjoys the driest climate in Canada, allowing for a longer driving season. Geographically, it is approximately midway between Vancouver and Calgary, and a short drive from both Kelowna and the U.S. border.
The project enjoys strong support of Osoyoos Band Chief Clarence Louie, whose forward thinking has resulted in a beautiful resort area called Spirit Ridge, which includes a hotel and condo development, a golf course, a winery (Nk'Mip Cellars) and much more. A motorsport country club would be a perfect addition to these resort amenities.
The plan is to build a clubhouse first followed by garages where members can park their cars and businesses can locate. A condo and hotel development could follow in the future.
There is a definite time line involved with the membership, as well as approval and construction aspects of the project. Essentially, once a certain number of members are signed up, that triggers a vote by the Osoyoos band members. Construction would begin with their approval, along with that of the Federal Government. Even at this early stage in the new year, a number of memberships have already been sold for a one-time initiation fee of $30,000.
Obviously, much is involved with getting such a project of this magnitude off the ground, so SOMC is wasting no time in accomplishing as much as possible in anticipation of meeting the membership threshold and the Osoyoos giving its final approval.
Site surveying has been completed, and a computer-generated three-dimensional topographical model of the site was generated by Seibert and his technical team in mid-January, 2014.
“With that, Bill and Jacques and I can start discussing some ideas we have, and actually see how [the clubhouse and track] will out on the land,” Siebert says. “It's one thing to do it from a two-dimensional aerial perspective, but when you lay it out on what the land actually is,
you can see much more. We have a GPS-based system that we use in our construction business, which is accurate down to the millimetre.
“So, when we go to build this track and lay down pavement, we'll know exactly what is there, in case we want to raise or lower the land to fit the design. Anything we do from a design standpoint will be accurate, including the curbing, utilities and facilities. It is so much easier than even 10 years ago to get a design done; with all the technology we have, we are looking at a matter of hours, or less, to make a major change to a corner, for example.”
In a geo-technical sense, the site – on a plateau above the valley floor and surrounded on three sides by hills – is very conducive to its proposed use as a track.
“It is desert, so there is no ground water to speak of,” Seibert says. “There is no clay in the ground, so it is not susceptible to frost heaving. It's very dry, and similar to a track like Laguna Seca. We'll do a geo-technical study on the ground, but from the roads the Band has built, it looks like there is a lot of gravel there, which means it will be well-drained. And it is water that causes a lot of problems over time, with the freeze-thaw cycles. There are not a lot of runoff issues with the site, only a couple of small streams going through it, and they aren't fish-bearing. From a construction perspective, it is fairly straightforward.”
At the time of this writing (mid-January), with the 3D map yet to be shared with him, much of Villeneuve's design work has been done in his head, after a brief visit to the site on Labour Day weekend. He has raced on most of the top tracks in the world and has a pretty good idea what he wants Area 27 to be.
“I've been thinking about the lay of the land to see how it can be used, until we get the 3D mapping completed,” Villeneuve said in January. “If you look at all the amazing race tracks, they all depend on the land and its distinctive features. That’s what gives them great corners. A corner is only great because of what comes before and after it. Just the corner on its own is not that exciting. With the land we have, there are two or three parts to it that are significantly different, that will make it very fun.”
Villeneuve's goals are to make the five kilometre-long Area 27 circuit fun and safe for both pro drivers in race cars, and beginners in 200 km/h street cars. To that end, he has certain criteria in mind that he will apply.
“You do need a small element of a price to pay for going beyond the limit - which doesn't have to end in tears. The point is to not have anybody hurt, obviously. But people driving on a race track want their heart rate to go up, to be excited. So, there is a fine line in between.”
But he has strong opinions of what his track will not be.
“If you look at most of the modern race tracks, they are terrible. They look like a big parking lot with painted lines. The cars look slow, it's not exciting. Watching paint dry is more exciting.” And yes, he is referring to some of the new tracks on the Formula One calendar. “So we want the track to avoid that,” he says.
“Also, a driver wants to brag, so if there are a few corners that kind of push your own personal limit, it gives you a bragging factor as well.”
This is a country club, after all. As in golf, the lower the number (or lap time), the better. So, it not only has to be challenging and exciting to drive on, but it has to be a track that is good to race on, a very key difference in Villeneuve's mind.
“It's difficult to find a good trade-off,” he says. “Tracks that are fun to both drive and race on have a lot of straight lines in between the corners to give you time to prepare for what is coming – and braking zones. You can get through a corner or two and then relax a bit, assimilate what you have just done, and learn from your mistakes for the next laps. That is all-important; to get in the rhythm of the track, to have some breathing space to learn, and get ready for what is coming.”
As Seibert puts it, “Nobody wants to drive on a track when you are working hard all the time, because then you get so worn out, you don't do a good job at anything, especially from the amateur standpoint.”
That is a big list of criteria. But the 3D mapping and its related software allows Villeneuve to do something that is a track designer's dream.
“I'll take his basic layout options, overlay them on the 3D map, and send them to him,” says Seibert. “We can even send him the perspective as if he is sitting in a car, driving on the track, and show him all the different possible lines around the track. And then he can mark it up with his suggestions, send it back, and we can rework it for him. All in a matter of hours.”
Similar to his race training, the computer-generated models are right up Villeneuve's alley.
“What I want to do is to have the 3D software act as a simulator, where we can try a few different layouts, in different cars at different speeds. We can pretest everything, including the safety features. A corner can be amazing, but it can also be too dangerous. Unless you have been on the track driving, it is often difficult to figure out where the danger would be.”
The track at Area 27 will meet FIA Level 2 standards, permitting organized road racing events, of which SOMC would like to run three or four each season. A karting track is also planned. Other uses will include corporate events, filming and driver training. That latter activity will take on a high-profile status with the January announcement that Area 27 has secured the services of legendary driver trainer Richard Spenard to be the Driver Coach.
If everything continues to go well on the membership side, actual construction could begin as early as this summer, with the first laps being turned in 2015.