Can’t stop won’t stop

Rookie rally car driver Iannick Lemaire is obsessed with speed.

Driver Iannick Lemaire stands next to his modified VW Golf rally car.

The Hyundai Pony is Iannick Lemaire’s favourite car to destroy.

Lemaire recalls buying a used Pony for $300 and sliding it around the snow at night in the Montreal suburb of Sainte-Julie. Once the car was wrecked, he’d go buy another and do it all over again.

“I would just e-brake every corner, drive the neighbourhoods like a maniac,” says Lemaire. “Literally, it would snow all day and at 10 o’clock I would sneak out of my house because the streets are pretty quiet in the neighbourhood and go slide around.”

Decades later Lemaire is still drifting around corners, although now he does it in a rally car. Lemaire is a rookie in the Canadian Rally Championship series, which has been running since 1957. The 40-year-old Taghum resident is in the nascent stage of his career — he’s still learning to brake properly, for example — but after just four races he’s already showing plenty of pace.

That speed has often gotten Lemaire in trouble.

“Driving fast has always been my passion and my problem,” he says.

Lemaire started building cars when he was 15. His first was a Renault 5, which he rented out the corner of a garage to work on. The mechanics would give him advice, and when the garage was empty he’d tear around the empty industrial park.

But it was snowboarding, not racing, that led Lemaire out west. He moved to Whistler, where he was eager to make a professional career out of Big Air events.

That dream died in a car crash. Lemaire was lucky he didn’t die as well.

In 1997, Lemaire was driving 140 km/h in a 50 zone with four friends in his car when he hit a ditch, spun across the rode and flipped the vehicle over a boulder. He was the only one injured, but the accident destroyed his right knee and prematurely ended his snowboarding career.

“For a while I thought it ruined my life,” says Lemaire. “I mean just thinking about it right now I still have shivers. It still pisses me off.”

He tried staying in Whistler but couldn’t do it. All his friends were snowboarders, and conversation was torture. Instead, on a friend’s suggestion, he moved to Nelson to rehab. His leg recovered enough to snowboard again and he returned to Whistler for a time to try to revive his career, to no avail.

He moved back to Nelson in 2013 to work as a carpenter. He kept snowboarding casually and remains a Whitewater regular, but Lemaire needed a sport he could actually compete in.

Lemaire bought his first race car in 2009, but realized it would be too expensive to convert it into a rally car. So he sold it off and bought his current car – an $11,000 1988 Volkswagen Golf – from a former driver living in Saskatchewan. His car isn’t fancy, but it’s durable. “They’re simple, they’re tough. They’re actually really good for rally,” says Lemaire.

Rally racing is one of the oldest forms of motorsport, dating back to the 1911 Monte Carlo Rally. The races, split into stages, usually take place on backroads where drivers have to contend with dirt, gravel, snow and ice surfaces. It’s also made unique by the inclusion of a co-driver, who sits in the passenger seat and tells the driver what to expect as their car barrels down often treacherous roads.

Lemaire likes the purity of rally racing. There’s very little in the way of bells and whistles.

“This is where the driver versus the car you have makes the biggest difference,” he says. “A good driver in a shitty car can beat a bad driver in a good car.”

Is Lemaire a good driver in a shitty car? “I’d like to think so,” he says with a laugh.

Car secured, Lemaire started the hunt for a co-driver. He didn’t expect his search to take six years.

Lemaire initially had a friend lined up for the job, but they backed out when cost and time commitments became a reality. So he started volunteering at races in the hopes of finding a partner.

A capable co-driver is essential in rally racing. Events begin the day prior to the race with recce, or a reconnaissance lap of the course in which drivers can’t go faster than 60 km/h as they make notes. These consist of the pair taking down course details, which can include recommended speed, distance to corners and how big those corners are, which is crucial when drifting.

Lemaire’s co-driver, David Ma, initially started in the position in late 2012 as an affordable way of entering the sport with an eye on driving eventually. Now he prefers it to being behind the wheel.

“I think on the surface level it looks like it’s just some guy reading directions,” says Ma. “That’s what I thought at first. Now I really like it because you basically control the pace of the car. Most of it’s done with the driver. The driver can only go as fast as his talent and the car allows, but [the co-driver] really set the mindset and control the confidence level. You have a big influence on how fast or how slow the car is going at that moment. Something about that really appeals to me.”

Motion sickness, then, is the co-driver’s biggest adversary. Trying to read notes at high speeds as a car jolts over bumpy roads makes having a ziplock vomit bag required equipment for the co-driver.

Lemaire finally found someone for the gig last year and entered his first race September in Merritt. It was a disaster. He’d wanted to keep everything simple for his first race and neglected to call out distances during recce, which come race time confused both Lemaire and his rookie partner. “We lost ourselves in the notes a few times. We’re just like, ‘we’re screwed,'” he says.

The pair worked together for one more race before Lemaire’s co-driver ditched him for a spot that paid. So he posted a request in a rally forum for some help. Ma, who works as a software developer, was in need of a new driver after his previous partner rolled their car. He answered Lemaire’s post, and the pair’s first race together was the Big White Winter Rally on Dec. 6.

There was an instant chemistry. Ma was able to correct the distances Lemaire was calling out, and constantly reminded him to slow down – a necessity after Lemaire was penalized four times in his first race for speeding during recce.

“Iannick’s a pretty special case,” says Ma. “He’s got one mentality, which is, ‘I want to go really fast. I’ve been waiting all year to do this. I want to go as fast as possible.’ Usually people are the other way around. They cautiously dip their toe into the event and gradually build up their speed, whereas [Iannick] just likes to go all out. … I like to slow him down because I feel like he’s going a bit too fast for the level that he knows the road.”

The partnership worked. Lemaire and Ma finished the race first in the two-wheel drive production class – granted, the only other driver in the class retired from the race and Lemaire’s car likely should have been in the open-modification class – and an impressive 14th overall out of 31 competitors. The pair were 12 minutes 59.30 seconds behind the winning car, a four-wheel drive 2004 Subaru Impreza STI.

Ma admits he was initially underwhelmed when he saw Lemaire’s car. That changed as soon as the racing began.

“As unassuming as that car is, Iannick really makes it work,” says Ma. “Because if you look at the lap times, we’re just outside the top-10. But we’re matching times. There’s this Mitsubishi that’s rumoured to have $80,000 worth of parts in it and we’re matching [their] times. We’re off by maybe a couple seconds, and that’s really a testament to how well me and Iannick are working together.”

Their last race was the Cochrane Winter Rally on March 6. Lemaire and Ma finished 20th overall after Lemaire misjudged a corner and slid into a snowbank. But Lemaire had been running ninth overall after 10 stages before the crash. “It opened my eyes and a lot of people’s eyes too. So now I know I can win, basically,” he says.

Right now Lemaire can only afford to compete in regional races, but he’s hoping to do some of the national events next year. He’s got work to do before that becomes a possibility. Lemaire has two sponsors right now – Nelson’s Zap Welding and South Slocan’s Babes Automotive – and he’s looking for more.

He also needs more practice behind the wheel. Ma lives in Calgary and there are no places locally Lemaire can safely take his car out. Lemaire relies on video games to perfect his driving, and is currently trying to work on left-foot braking in which the right foot stays on the gas.

It’s not lost on Lemaire that a car crash led in a roundabout way to rally racing. He’s actually saving the motor from the car he wrecked, just in case something happens to his current one. “That motor still scares me but I’ll still use it if I have to,” he says. “And if I ever have to, I’ll have to respect it. It’ll be weird.”

Lemaire doesn’t think about the accident while he’s driving. He knows he’s not invincible in his car, but he feels safe in it. When he used to snowboard, Lemaire would get so stressed before an event that he’d have trouble breathing. Now before a race he sits in the car and feels the same anxiety.

Yet when he floors the gas, the stress gets left in the dust.

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