Competing in the Macau Grand Prix two years ago, Christian Chia braked too late, failed to make a turn and hit a wall at 150 km/h. The crash tore a few wheels and all of the wings off Chia’s Formula Renault car, but he walked away without a scratch. It was the auto-dealership owner’s worst crash in 12 years of racing, but it wasn’t the first. Indeed, accidents—also known as “shunts”—are an expected part of the game, says Chia: “If you don’t have a shunt, or if you never go off-track, you are not pushing hard enough.”
You can’t accuse Chia of not pushing hard enough. When he’s not driving sales at Richmond, B.C.-based OpenRoad Auto Group, which operates seven car dealerships in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, the 36-year-old is behind the wheel of his Renault competing in such prestigious events as the Asian Formula Renault Challenge.
There’s no denying the thrill. Considered an entry-level motorsport series, Formula Renault sits a couple of notches below Formula One and is home to young, professional drivers aspiring to move on to the big leagues—and serious amateurs like Chia. Complete with a Renault engine, an Italian-made chassis and an onboard computer, Chia’s car—which sits one inch off the ground—can accelerate to speeds of 280 km/h. “This gives me a little flavour of what Formula One is like,” says Chia. “When we race in Shanghai, for example, we’ll get 30,000 to 40,000 spectators and it will be broadcast nationally in China and parts of Asia.”
The speed, the competition, the challenge, the risk. Who hasn’t imagined themselves behind the wheel of a powerful race car? The bad news: you need deep pockets, time and skill to compete in Formula racing. The good news: you can still capture the feeling. Rallying, which involves using modified road-legal cars to race long distances over often difficult terrain, is an affordable way to participate in the sport. Or, for a reasonable cost, racing schools in Canada and the U.S. will put you in the driver’s seat of a Corvette, a Cobra, a Formula-style or a NASCAR-style racer for a day. There’s also sports-car clubs that organize club racing and track days.
Chia’s racing pastime began in 1995, when the long-time Formula One fan enrolled in an intensive, three-day course at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix, Ariz. As the fastest of the 20 drivers, Chia then began looking for racing opportunities.
Chia got his first taste of competition participating in road rallies. “I distinctly remember my very first serious rally race in Indonesia, and that was a very humbling experience,” says Chia. He paid ÃÃ£10,000 for an Italian-made Lancia Delta that he bought sight unseen from the U.K. and had shipped in preparation for the four-day race, only to be knocked out early when the fuel pump broke. The experience did give him a greater appreciation for track racing. “With rallying, you are driving on roads that you have probably never seen before,” he says. “A track is very much a controlled environment.”
His results improved subsequently: two years ago, driving a 1985 Toyota Corolla GTS, Chia placed third in class in the seven-day, 2,200-km Targa Newfoundland Rally, a winding circuit that traverses “The Rock” and boasts both speed trials and endurance runs.
Still, speed was always the appeal for Chia. To gain track experience, he trained at the Bridgestone Racing Academy near Bowmanville, Ont., outside of Toronto. After another two years in the school’s racing series, Chia joined Formula Renault.
Regulated by the FÃ©dÃ©ration Internationale de L’automobile (FIA), Formula Renault drivers must hold an International C race licence. Issued by FIA, the licence is granted based on previous racing experience and results, and must be maintained by competing in at least one international event a year.
Chia now races exclusively in Asia with the Hong Kong-based Shangsai Formula Racing Development team, whose owners brought Formula Renault to Asia. The $40,000-per-season fee allows individuals to share costs among drivers, and Chia also enjoys the camaraderie of being part of a team.
He averages seven races per season, which runs from March through November. Participating in this year’s Asian Formula Renault Challenge, Chia has so far raced eight times, including the Jackie Chan Celebrity Cup held in Shanghai in May. Through 10 rounds, he stood 22nd out of 51 drivers. Though Chia would like to race more, his hobby is not going over all that well on the domestic front, he admits. His family is less than enthusiastic about the cost and, as Chia puts it, the “perceived danger”. To mitigate the risk, Chia prepares physically for races, which exert forces in excess of 2.5 Gs on his body. He runs most days and enters the odd half-marathon during the year. Just as important is the mental preparation. Drivers must be able to make quick decisions, so focus is key. Chia finds video games like Need for Speed and Gran Turismo 4 perfect for developing his concentration and hand-eye coordination. “Any lapses in concentration will be detrimental,” he says. “At 280 km/h, you can’t be thinking of something else.”
Mitigating the financial burden of racing is harder. Besides the cost of his car ($70,000), Chia will race through US$3,000 worth of tires on a typical weekend. Entry fees can run between US$2,500 and US$10,000, and repairs can add another US$10,000. “I never, ever tally the numbers because I’d rather not know,” says Chia. “It does add up.”
How to get your day of thunder
Formula racing may not be in your future, but there are a number of racing schools in Canada and the U.S. that can put you behind the wheel for a day. One- to three-day courses typically cost from US$1,000 to US$4,000.
Mario Andretti Racing School, Las Vegas, Nev. Bills itself the “world’s fastest driving experience,” offering Indy-style cars capable of 600 horsepower, at several U.S. locations.
Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, Phoenix, Ariz., offers Grand Prix road- racing courses.
Bridgestone Racing Academy, Bowmanville, Ont. Teaches handling, acceleration and braking, plus offers races in Reynard F2000s.
ProFormance Racing, Abbotsford, B.C. Offers instruction in NASCAR-style race cars from locations in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat, Alta.
Racing Adventures, Scottsdale, Ariz. Offers instruction in Corvettes and Cobras from several U.S. locations and in Calgary and Toronto.
Panoz Racing School, Braselton, Ga. Learn how to race in a purpose-built V-8 Panoz GT-RA.
Skip Barber Racing School, Lakeville, Conn. Offers high-performance driving skills and racing from several U.S. locations and in Mont Tremblant, Que.