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Learning to drift in a Porsche in the Quebec snow

Published March 1, 2013

Round and round the same block in Rexdale we coasted. Brake, engage clutch, ease on the gas, ease it into first . . . stall. Damn!

The goal was to drive a Porsche in the Laurentian Mountains. But it started much more humbly with a rented 1989 clunker — it had a broken driver-side doorlock and it smelled of tobacco and desperation.

Before I could conquer the mountains, I had to conquer this subdivision. My friend Brad had offered to give me a refresher course.

Although I drove a stick as a teenager, it’s been several years and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in the presence of Porsche.

Coasting round and round the same block near Weston and Finch, we became something of a curiosity to the locals. And, yes, I stalled it a few times.

Eventually I got better and it just began to click. As I drove Brad home, he commended me on my rediscovered skills with the stick shift.

“Sure,” I said, “but would you trust me with your Porsche?”

Silence. I guess he thought it was a rhetorical question.

But the main thing was I had regained my confidence and, equipped with that and a pair of fancy leather driving gloves, I boarded a plane to Montreal.

Porsche camp is much like other camps. There is the boarding of a bus with a bunch of awkward strangers, all coming from different places, for different reasons. You make a few introductions and engage in some idle chatter, mostly to ensure that you have someone to sit next to in the mess hall.

Except that, in our case, dinner was seared scallops with red wine at the very impressive Estérel resort in the Saint-Sauveur Valley.

I wound up sitting with a few other women and one of our driving instructors. He explained why he liked working with women drivers.

“Number 1,” he said, “they listen. Number two, they take it seriously.”

“When you get two men in a car, they get very competitive. And they don’t listen.”

Early the next morning, we headed to Porsche’s Mecaglisse ice-driving facility, also known as Camp4, about an hour from Montreal. As we arrived in the pristine hills, all the eye could see for miles around was snow, ice and trees.

And there they were. One neat row of Porsches, all lined up and ready to go, with the sun glistening off their hoods. They blended in perfectly with the landscape. This is where a Porsche was meant to be driven.

The tracks are set up to “experience the extraordinary Canadian winter” and drivers are encouraged to master the art of the drift.

To fully embrace the drift, you have to let go of your survival instincts, that inner guide that prevents you from relinquishing control while behind the wheel of a powerful machine.

The first step is convincing yourself that you are not losing control; that you are still in charge, even as the car reacts with the ice and snow and moves in directions you did not intend.

Eventually, this accepted delusion gives way to real driving ability, as you learn to better predict what the car will do.

We would be driving a Boxster S, a 911 Carrera and a 911 Carrera 4S (4WD). The new 4S was the star of the show; the all-wheel drive provides increased traction and agility.

But you can also choose to disengage the traction control and that’s when you really get engaged with the drift.

All the cars had a steering-wheel paddle shifter or, as I like to call it, standard for dummies. There is no clutch; you shift gears using the paddle. Brad had not prepared me for this. But it was no matter, because when you are drifting, it doesn’t matter what gear you are in.

We were paired up in the cars and took turns with the driving. Our instructor, Case, communicated instructions through a walkie-talkie on the dashboard.

At first, I couldn’t get over the fear of hurting this gorgeous car and I handled it quite gingerly. But the instructors wanted us to test the limits and encouraged us to accelerate around the corners. Soft snowbanks provided a cushion if we needed it.

We started around the icy tracks, weaving through pilons and up and down hills, as we began to get a taste for what the cars could do.

The key was not to panic and hit the brakes when I started to drift, but to just keep going, keep steering, keep accelerating.

“Look left!” Case commanded. Looking at the road ahead forced me to keep steering, keep controlling the car.

The track had one sharp corner we affectionately called the Bermuda Triangle because it was tough to get through without getting hung up on a snowbank.

With my partner at the wheel, we hit the sharp corner and, with a soft thud, drifted into the snowbank.

“Everyone stop!” We heard Case command.

We tried to reverse but it was no use, we were stuck.

Porsche was prepared for this and dispatched a helper in a Cayenne with some tow ropes. He pulled us out and we were on our way.

Next, it was my turn to drive through the Bermuda triangle and I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.

I was relaxed but determined as I coasted up the hill and accelerated into the turn. Drift, then recover and keep going. I started to slide into the snowbank but just kept going and steered through it, never backing down or giving up.

Once I felt the drift, I embraced it, enjoyed it, used it to get me where I was going.

I wasn’t in Rexdale anymore! It seemed that Porsche and the mountains agreed with me. I wish Brad could see me now!

A day of driving Porsches in the mountains is every bit as amazing as it sounds. And I learned how to drive with style.

Anyone can make a car go, but now and then you get a chance to be the driver as poetry takes motion.

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