Westwood race track gone but not forgotten

It's a housing development now, a knot of quiet residential streets with names like Mulberry, Maplewood and Chickadee. Large, detached single-family homes sit cheek-by-jowl, their driveways cluttered with compact sedans and crossovers.

Once though, this was a battlefield.

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Maybe you can hear the imaginary echoes as you putter down Paddock Drive, keeping an eye out for kids on bikes. Maybe your eyes are sharp enough to see the faded scar of Turn 3 through the tree-line.

All plowed up and bulldozed over - the maw of B.C.'s housing boom is unstoppably rapacious in its appetite for land. The development marches right up the side of Eagle Ridge in Coquitlam, right up to the edge of the forest. The only racing now is done on bicycles, or in these suburban basements on gaming consoles or Hot Wheels tracks. But once upon a time, this was Canada's racetrack: Westwood.

Built in 1959, the Westwood circuit was carved into the mountain's ridge beside the Coquitlam river by the Sports Car Club of B.C. Tired of shredding tires on the rough and rutted asphalt of local airfields, club members wanted a dedicated facility at which to indulge their need for speed. Circling the hat, they collectively raised enough funds to lease a parcel of land from the Crown and built a swooping, curving, 1.8-mile course amid the pines.

From the air, it looked like a Valentine's Day card drawn by a not-especially-talented four-year-old. The twin humps of the steeply-banked carousel and valley corner curve formed the top of the skinny "heart" and then there were the twin straights, elongating out to a tight turn: Marshall's Hairpin.

Looking at a track-map, you'd think the wriggling S-curves of the road that ran past pit lane would be the more challenging of the two straights. You'd be wrong (though they were no picnic), the arrow-linear Mountain Straight had a considerable hummock right in the middle. Dubbed "Deer's Leap," this bump would occasionally fling unwary drivers off into the weeds at high speed. This is what people did for fun in the days before Facebook.

When it officially opened in July 1959, Westwood could lay claim to being the first dedicated road course in Canada. Over the next three decades it would host Formula Atlantic racing, Trans-Am and even NASCAR.

Gilles Villeneuve would race here, as would Michael Andretti and Keke Rosenburg. Indy champions like Bobby Rahal and Danny Sullivan would also flog their machines around the course in anger, much to the delight of spectators.

In 1976, the Vintage Racing Car Club of B.C. joined the scene, showcasing historic racers on the Canadian tarmac. While you might characterize club members as curators, historians and caretakers, don't think they took the racing lightly. While there are no official prizes or trophies, a racecar cannot be pussyfooted around a racecourse meekly. It champs at the bit. It squirms under the bridle and dances sideways impatiently. It gets under your skin.

Certainly the club members who will be on the track at Mission Raceways two weekends from now won't be holding back much - they drive both to show off their love of the machinery and share in a sort of camaraderie of speed, but also to spread the gospel. Watching these early Formula Fords and race-prepped specials streak past the bleachers is like having an access-pass to a time-machine.

Granted, Mission's tight, flat circuit isn't anything like the rolling surface of the Westwood facility. And yes, rubbing elbows with a group of middle-aged folks - most of whom smell faintly of improperly combusted hydrocarbons - and getting all excited over somewhat elderly and brittle thoroughbreds isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea.

But I'll be there. I'll be there with my father and my daughter, and we'll keep our eyes and ears open and our mouths shut. We'll hear the thunder of American V8s and the accented burr of race-fettled British four-pots. We'll filter among the racers and spectators and listen to the stories come pouring out to be compared and contrasted. What it used to be like. The time Gilles signed the plywood message board. Picking bits of tree out of your britches after a whoopsy-daisy on the carousel.

We will go there as a family the way some people go to a library, or a museum, or a church. We will go to learn, to be bathed in the reflected light of a golden past, to experience something beyond the tactile everyday.

Mostly though, we're going because it'll be a hell of a lot of fun. I hope you'll join me.

The B.C. Historic Motor Races are held at Mission Raceways Park May 25 and 26. Details at bchmr.ca

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