Every Victoria Day Long Weekend we would make the pilgrimage to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (then Mosport). It was an unofficial tradition that began when I was 13 years of age and continued until I was well into my 20s. My Dad, Cousin, Uncle and a few others would make the annual trek.
We’d all pile into my Uncle’s three-axle RV and head to Clarington for three days of racing, campfires, and as I got older; drinks. Even when I lived four hours away in my early twenties, I wasn’t going to miss these male-bonding weekends. Lucky for me, at the time I was working for a rental car company, so I could still find a means of transportation to get to the event.
King of the Hill
Being a 21-year-old who had never owned a car, there were a lot of automotive activities I was yet to experience. One of them was driving on a track; any kind of track. Those familiar with Mosport in the 1990s will remember the short track oval located next door. It featured racing on many Saturday nights – especially during long weekend events at the main racecourse.
Anyone attending the race weekend at the big track could wander over to the oval and watch the Saturday night features, free of charge. It was a highlight of our long weekend – especially the King of the Hill event.
King of the Hill was a gimmick race that was part sideshow and part competition. It was open to all spectators who wanted to race their cars around the track. Pay $20 to enter, and then line up on the infield. Two cars were set off at a time and the first to complete the one lap race would win and stay the competition. The loser would go home. Simple as that. It continued until there was only one car left.
These races attracted all manner of entrant. Family minivans, sports coupes, old clunkers, it didn’t matter. It also attracted all levels of driving ability. Some were trained drivers who knew how to enter and exit a corner properly, others were amateurs with too much car for their abilities. Some of the latter would require a ride home after stuffing their car into one of the retaining walls.
Setting the Plan in Motion
As asinine as this racing sounds. I had to do it. For years I had been a spectator without a car. But I had a plan to change all that. I was renting a car to drive out for the May long weekend races, and while there, it might just happen to find its way into the king of the hill competition.
I began plotting out which car I would take with me. One that would have the best chance in the competition. We were a small rental operation dealing more with insurance replacements than business travelers or vacationers. We didn’t have sportier cars like Mustangs or Camaros. We had mostly compact and mid-size sedans, sprinkled in with a few SUVs and larger cars.
I wasn’t as knowledgeable about cars then as I am now. But I knew enough and wanted a car that had decent acceleration and would handle the corners. I immediately wrote off our tiny 2001 Kia Rios, larger base-model 2001 Toyota Camrys and a 2001 four-cylinder Chrysler Sebring. We had a few 2001 Chevrolet Impalas, including one LS with the more powerful 3.8-liter V6 engine, but none were available.
That left me with two candidates. A 2001 Honda Civic Coupe and a 2001 Chevrolet Cavalier LS. Both were automatics and despite the Civic being a base model, I figured it still had the handling advantage over the Cavalier. But the Chevrolet was the LS which in 2001 meant it had the more powerful 2.4-liter engine making 150 hp. That was a 35 hp advantage over the Civic. And being fully loaded, the Cavalier have nicer options like power windows, a tilting steering wheel and cruise control.
With a 10-hour round trip and my love for power, the larger engine and cruise control sealed the deal for me. The Cavalier would be my chariot.
A Comedy of Errors
Upon arriving at Mosport that weekend, I had told everyone my plans. My Cousin had a similar year Sunfire coupe with the smaller 2.2-liter engine, but a 5-speed manual transmission. He decided he too would enter the competition.
Saturday night arrived and we waited excitedly in the grandstands for the announcement. “Those wanting to compete in the King of the Hill competition please come to the infield now”. My cousin and I headed down after my Dad and Uncle gave us one last look conveying the message Don’t-Crash-it-into-a-Wall.
We paid our $20, drove onto the infield, lined up with the other cars and got ready. The Marshal came over and asked us where our helmets were. Helmets? We didn’t have those. Crap. He informed us we could still race if someone would lend us a helmet.
We both headed through the infield in opposite directions asking race teams if we could borrow their helmet for King of the Hill. I’ve never suffered so much rejection since High School. I remember one racer distinctly telling me there was no way anyone there was going to lend me a helmet, and in hindsight, I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t lend mine now to some random 21-year-old kid driving an automatic Cavalier with hubcaps either.
Feeling rejected and dejected, I headed back to my car – dreams crushed. As I was walking by the pit wall someone called out ‘Hey, you need a helmet? Here!’. A random stranger, who I can’t thank enough, reached into the bed of his pickup truck and produced a scuffed up, open face helmet. I’m sure this dome still had all the safety protection of tissue paper, but I was going to able to compete!
As I put on the helmet this amazing stranger gave me one more solid piece of advices. Watch out for corner four as it is tighter than the rest and can surprise you. I got back in my car and looked beside me. My cousin had also been successful in acquiring a helmet. Great! Race on!
Over the years spectating, we had watch a few competitors take each other out in King of the Hill whether it be accidentally or intentionally. Neither I nor my cousin wanted that to happen, so we had purposely lined up beside each other, hoping to race one another in round one. As we got closer to the front, it became apparent this wasn’t going to happen. My line was one car shorter, so I was going to head out first.
I was waved onto the tack and lined up beside a Mazda MX-3 of unknown specification or condition. I assume it was a four-cylinder model because when the flag dropped my Cavalier left it in the dust. I immediately got tunnel vision and focused on the corner ahead.
I chucked the Cavalier into the first corner way too fast as the front tire sidewalls buckled and howled in protest to my ham-fisted driving. I set new levels of understeer around turn two and got on the back straightaway. It was now I remembered to look to see where my competition was, and in my mirror, I saw he was a few car lengths behind.
I maneuvered through turn three marginally better and cautiously tipped toed through turn four. I crossed the line and won. Holy freaking cow! I won my first race ever! My Ego grew three sizes that day, just to be brought back to reality shortly.
I returned to the line-up and didn’t see my cousin. I later learned in his first race he had been winning but hit the rev limiter on the back straight away. He had never done this before and in his Sunfire and hitting the rev limiter meant a temporary fuel cutoff. Thinking his worst nightmare had come true and he blew up his car, he backed off, losing the race.
I looked at what my next competition would be and saw a well-used C3 Corvette. It looked like a later model, maybe during the darkest days of reduced horsepower. Knowing any Corvette would be a formidable competitor, I began strategizing how I would handle this.
I thought maybe if I did a transmission torturing neutral drop at the start, I might be able to get the jump on him or stay close enough to make up time in the corners. We lined up, I put the car in neutral and revved it as high as the car would allow (probably 3,000 or so rpm).
The flag dropped, I slammed it into drive…and nothing happened. The Cavalier LS came equipped with traction control and either that or other software programming prevent the car from engaging drive from neutral with high rpms.
All I had accomplished was bogging down the car and giving the Corvette a good three second head start. He only pulled away from me and my foray into King of the Hill was over.
Retired at .500
Despite only performing two races, it was an overwhelming success in my mind. I got to scratch it off my bucket list, I didn’t damage the car and I even did the impossible – won a race. I never returned as a participant in a King of the Hill event. A few years later I got into drag racing and track days which I found more exciting and rewarding. But I’ll always remember my youthful exuberance and questionable decision-making skills that led to me running a rented Cavalier in King of the Hill.
But this wouldn’t be the dumbest automotive adventure I’d have at Mosport with a rental car…