x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Driving into the unknown

Mark Cardwell joins a healthy crowd at a dirt track in Canada for the annual spectacle of blind racing.

Apart from the Super Bowl, there aren't many sporting events where the half-time show gets equal billing to the game itself. But for many of the 4,000 racing fans in the stands for the weekly round of races at a dirt track in the heart of French Canada last Friday night, the intermission entertainment - a 10-lap race between 40 legally blind drivers and their seeing navigators - was the main attraction. "Let the fun begin!" the in-house announcer bellowed as the cars - all of them small and mid-size, four- and six-cylinder models that were destined for the scrap yard, but would end their car lives here instead - were driven, towed and sometimes pushed to the starting line from the central pit in two columns that resembled a mechanical version of a death march. Minutes later, once the blind drivers, most of them from the Montreal area, had abandoned their white canes and taken the wheel, the mayhem of the 22nd annual Quebec Blind Drivers Race began.

For the next half-hour, the crowd cheered as the cars made their way unevenly around the track. Fender benders, side swipes and rear-end collisions were all to common, not to mention blown tyres and engines. There were even a few high-speed collisions with the track's perimeter cement walls by the most reckless drivers, accidents that got the loudest cheers. Two eight-cylinder, four-door behemoths with "Police" written on the sides, flashing yellow lights on the roofs and no mufflers underneath, zoomed around the track at high speed driven by track officials, pushing dead cars against the perimeter walls in demolition style.

"This is a major fund-raising activity for us," said Jean Royer above the roar, as the smell of fuel and burning brakes and rubber drifted into the huge red-white-and-blue grandstand that lined one side of the track. Royer is the co-ordinator of the race on behalf of the Mira Foundation, which raises money to buy and train seeing-eye dogs for blind people across Quebec. This year's event, he added, raised more than $70,000 Canadian dollars (Dh226,980) - a little shy of the record $85,000 (Dh275,625) raised two years ago. Most of the money comes from the $1,000 (Dh3,250) that seeing navigators pay to guide blind drivers.

In addition to wealthy business people and representatives of sponsoring companies, the event attracts several well-known celebrities in Quebec who act as seeing navigators. Joanna Villeneuve, widow of the former Formula One racer Gilles Villeneuve and mother of the former F1 world champion Jacques, has been the best-known navigator in the race for the past three years. The race track's four owners also make a $25,000 (Dh81,000) donation, most of which comes from the additional $8 they tack on to the regular $17 (Dh55) charged for the regular race schedule held every Friday night from May to September. The half-mile dirt track is located on the outskirts of Granby, a small city a half-hour drive east of Montreal.

"It's for a great cause," said Patrice Houle, 34, a scrap yard owner who bought the track two years ago with his twin brother, François, and two of their friends. They decided to continue hosting the race, he added, because of its tradition at the track and the popularity of the event among the track's regulars. As the race continued, the track became increasingly littered with ripped off car parts. The scene was most chaotic - even apocalyptic - right in front of the grandstand, where several cars had died at the starting line or were killed in early- and mid-race collisions.

Like the race itself, the end was both confusing and collision filled, as a small clutch of cars came toward the finish line, grinding against one another or piling hard into the stalled or dead cars that littered the area from earlier laps. Eventually, car No. 3 - a white Honda driven by Benoit Pelletier, a blind 18-year-old from Montreal with just enough peripheral vision that he had to wear a full-face helmet with duct-tape completely covering the visor - took the checkered flag.

"I'm so proud that I won," said Pelletier, a second-time competitor who finished third in last year's race. "It's not easy because I never get to practice driving on the street - and that's likely a good thing for other people." He added that he was "extremely nervous" prior to the race, but those jitters quickly disappeared. "The adrenaline is really flowing at first, but once you get away from all the other cars and get going on the track, you focus on just making the turns," he said. "And it gets easier each lap, because you get to know the track."

Pelletier's navigator, Fabien Fontaine, who owns several nearby farms and describes himself as Quebec's largest veal producer, said that, while nerve-racking, directing a blind driver isn't such a big deal. "Basically you just say, 'Right, right, right" or 'Left, left, left," although your voice gets louder and more anxious when you see yourself heading for the wall or another car - and we hit a couple of both," said Fontaine. "But it's not that hard. I've been more scared teaching some of my kids to drive."

Joanna Villeneuve, who has spent much her life at the world's most illustrious race tracks - and watched her husband die in a fatal crash while qualifying at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder - said she is never worried being piloted by a blind driver. "It's a fabulous cause," said Villeneuve, who was sponsored by a Quebec magazine called Echo-Vedette. "Mira does so many good things for blind people."

Although she and her driver, Guillaume, a twenty-something resident of Montreal, finished "around fifth, but we don't really know," Villenueve said the two "had great chemistry between us." At one point, she said, Guillaume was looking at her and talking, while Villeneuve watched as their car hurtled toward another car that was stopped on the track ahead of them. "I yelled, 'Keep your eyes on the road!'" recounted Villeneuve. "We both laughed at that - and then we slammed into that car."

She added that she hopes to return to next year's race - and hopefully be accompanied by her son, Jacques. As the blind drivers filed slowly out of the stadium, with track officials busily clearing away the debris for the second half of the Friday night races, another blind competitor said he couldn't wait until next year - but more for the money than the race itself. "You can't imagine how important a guide dog is to a blind person," said Gilles Lebel, a 48-year-old who lost his sight from glaucoma in 1990. He began training last month with his first guide dog after spending more than a decade on Mira's waiting list.

"You have no idea what a drag it is to be blind (and) you have to depend on other people to do even the simplest things when you don't have a guide dog," he said. "For almost 20 years I didn't go anywhere or do anything - just sat and home and vegetated. "But with a dog, if you want to go the store for a bag of chips, you just go. It makes you feel independent (and) gives you control over your life.

"That's the beauty of this race," he added, dismissing a suggestion that it somehow ridicules blind people. "It shows people we can have fun and make light of our disability. But we do it because we want and need the money to train animals that we will have a huge impact in our lives. "And besides, it's a blast to drive when you can't see where the hell you're going!" motoring@thenational.ae