When Canadian rally driver Leo Urlichich, better known to his fans as Crazy Leo, first conceived of Race Lab, the idea was to introduce car fans to the sport of rallying in an effort to revitalize the sport. As the idea grew in popularity and gained support within the rally community, it became apparent that the idea could have a broader impact. Race lab could be a perfect platform to educate everyday drivers about how to properly navigate Winter roads in Canada.
The biggest challenge that most drivers face in Winter driving is not just the limited traction offered by snow or ice, but the sudden change of grip that happens when a car leaves one type of surface and enters another. A great example of this is a video we shared a couple of days ago which showed a driver going from wet pavement to a row of slush and losing control. The driver’s inexperience becomes life threatening when the vehicle flips into the ditch. Click here to watch the video.
Held at the Rockton Fairgrounds, just west of Toronto, Race Lab makes use of an incredible closed course which is made up of a wide range of surfaces from wet tarmac to ice, gravel to snow and lots of slush.
Not quite as crazy as he was in his early days of driving, Leo is an accomplished driver and instructor who rides along with students to teach them the basics of handling different surfaces. As a student’s skill level and confidence increase, Leo teaches more advanced techniques.
For those who are interested in learning about rally driving, the opportunity is there to don a helmet and attack the course at higher speeds.
The most recent event included about 30 participants, most of them were regular motorists according to Urlichich, with only a small handful being motorsports enthusiasts looking to learn more about rally. It is with those regular motorists with whom the program will have the longest lasting impact. The lessons they learn may just save a life some day. It might be their own or it might be yours, or mine.
Race Lab offers participants the chance to learn the limits of their car and their skills in a safe and controlled environment. A harmless spin in this setting means the driver has found and exceeded the limit without putting others at risk like they would on the road.
For my own Race Lab experience, I borrowed a 2016 CX-3 from Mazda Canada, specifically because the small crossover market has become so significant to the Canadian market. This is the type of vehicle that families all over the country use to get around. Also, during testing for the Canadian Car of the Year awards, the cute as a button CX-3 surprised many journalists with its willingness to scamper across the challenging off road course, despite having limited ground clearance compared to some of the competition. My tester had been fitted with a proper set of Winter tires, meaning it should be perfect for the Racelab course.
My lesson began with Leo driving, to show me the way around the tricky course, which winds its way through trees, along roads and across frozen fields. The pace of this recon lap was considerably quicker than what I was seeing from the students who were out practicing their new skills.
Regular readers may recall that I did some performance rallying back in the early Nineties, along with many, many navigational rallies. I was looking forward to putting the Mazda and myself to the test. With the traction control turned off and sport mode engaged, we set out on our first lap. Naturally, I was hoping not to embarrass myself in front of Urlichich, but was also very aware of the trees lining the course. At the pace of a beginning student, those don’t factor into the equation beyond being a visual reminder to stay in control. At high speeds however, the potential for damage is real and I had no intention of bringing back a bent press car.
Despite only being available with an automatic transmission, the CX-3 proved to be an absolute blast to drive at speed in limited traction conditions. Living up to the brand’s Zoom-Zoom moto, engineers have allowed the driver to have full control of the vehicle with the TCS turned off. Like most modern vehicle setups, the CX-3 exhibits a bit of understeer on corner entry, but when accelerating out of a turn, the little crossover kicks its tail out nicely, just like an all wheel drive rally car. Don’t want it to wag its tail? No problem, just be a bit softer with the throttle. With patient steering, throttle and brake inputs, the CX-3 never loses its composure, even during transitions between mixed surfaces.
While there are several driving schools in Ontario which offer fantastic Winter driver training, Race Lab offers a unique experience by focusing on mixed surface conditions. Novice drivers are taught the skills needed to stay alive in rapidly changing conditions while at the same time having a terrific time. Every driver training exercise is fun, but driving on a simulated rally stage is exciting!
To learn more, visit Race Lab online.
Mazda photos courtesy of Rafal Kochanek.