Ian Coristine: From race driver to aerial photographer

By Allan De La Plante Wheels.ca

Jun 8, 2013 10 min. read

Article was updated 10 years ago

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Next weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the 2013 Canadian Historic Grand Prix will be held. It?s Canada?s largest and most prestigious annual historic racing event and will feature 200 cars competing in six classes, classic car cruises and special attractions such as the Toronto Star Great Canadian Racers and Legends of Mosport reunion. One of the ex-racers expected to attend is Ian Coristine. Allan de la Plante, who was Gilles Villeneuve?s biographer, brings us up to date on what Ian?s been doing since he stopped racing.

Over the past decade, Ian Coristine has become a noted photographer and recorder of the beauty of the Thousand Islands. At the controls of his sleek and beautiful ultra-light aircraft, Coristine has shot photos for a series of award-winning books. Coristine wasn?t always at the controls of an ultralight and the camera was not the first precision instrument he enjoyed. He used his firm and gentle touch to guide a racing car to the top levels of Canadian motor sport.

How does a racing driver switch gears and become an exceptional photographer and best-selling author?

Wheels.ca?s Allan de la Plante sat down and chatted with Coristine about the transition:

De la Plante: Until a few years ago, I knew Ian Coristine as a wild and very fast racing driver who was rising to the top, but suddenly disappeared from the track, only to turn up at the top of another tough profession: photography. What happened?

Coristine: When I was very young, I had a burning passion to race cars and to fly airplanes. The racing came first, but it was the second that led to the photography. Twenty years ago, I happened to fly up the St. Lawrence River in my Challenger floatplane, and when I looked down at the Thousand Islands for the first time, I couldn?t believe the beauty. How could this place be unknown to me, when, for most of my life, I had lived, just a couple of hours away? It was one of those transitional moments that change your life forever. I ended up buying an island and began photographing it from the plane, simply to show my friends how amazing the region was.

During my career marketing Challengers across Canada, I learned the techniques of air-to-air photography, shooting with one eye in the camera while the other eye was on flying the plane. The River responds, more than most places, to an aerial view. The Thousand Islands are a labyrinth, and to see the islands, you need to get above ground level, with 50 to 100 feet of air beneath you. I was also comfortable flying low and slow, very close to my subject, which gives the images greater impact.

De la Plante: Were you the rich kid playing at racing or did you scrape your way to the top through sweat and sacrifice?

Coristine: Rich kid? Ha! Now there?s a joke. Perhaps because of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder, my father brought home a drinking problem from World War II. To say we didn?t get along was a vast understatement. These days, it seems a prerequisite to have a caring father to support and foster your career. In those days, there had been little racing in Canada, so there weren?t many fathers with any interest in the sport, and, worse, mine was determined to prevent me from racing. Looking back, I believe it served as a catalyst to cement my determination, an asset in many things I?ve done since.

De la Plante: Did you go out and find your own sponsorship?

Coristine: I knew I needed to start young to have any chance of building a career. Because I was 18, I forged my father?s signature to get my driver?s license and went to racing school with a Mini that was cobbled together with high school friends from six junkyard wrecks. I was almost laughed off the track, but I guess they realized this was all I could manage, so they actually gave me a license. Two years were spent driving my heart out in uncompetitive cars with nothing to show for it. By year three, my mother, who was very supportive, realized I wasn?t going to pursue my education, so she gave me the money she had saved for it, about five thousand dollars.

Gary Magwood generously took my beat-up Mini as a trade-in for a Merlyn Formula Ford, my first real race car. And it was a giant killer! We had a lot of fun with it in the Molson Series, harassing much more powerful Formula B cars. Two FF Championships in two years attracted a little sponsorship. In year five, March Engineering and Gordie Dewar (their Canadian agent), wanting representation in Canada?s national Championship, the Player?s Challenge Series, offered me a Formula B March at a ridiculously low price.

When I was too poor to afford even that, I sold the car to Reg Scullion on the condition that he take delivery in six months. After putting it on the pole for the last Molson race of the year, I stuffed it on the slow down lap and destroyed it. Nevertheless, we managed 5th (and Rookie of the Year) in the Player?s Series and 4th in the Molson Championship and that prize money allowed me to make good with Reggie. We became fast friends after that.

De la Plante: Did racing suddenly lose its charm?

Coristine: It was an incredibly difficult struggle, the most difficult of my life. One year, I drove to a race in Edmonton with my mechanic and just $75 to feed us and the car for 10 days on a 6,000 km. trip. A sponsor (Paul Seitz) had given me his Esso credit card (because you could only buy gas with it). Fortunately, Esso had a promotion giving away a coupon for an A&W Teenburger with each fill up. That?s all we ate, literally. Each year brought a few tantalizing results, which brought in some backing, but I always had to dig deeper to make up the difference, particularly with the inevitable dramas and challenges that racing presents. I was always going back to the bank to make up the difference. It was perhaps unfortunate that my bank manager was a big fan. He definitely let me go too far.

In 1973, Ecurie Canada?s Kris Harrison asked me to drive for them. He had half the budget from Schweppes, but I had to try to come up with the rest. He asked me back for 1974, but by then I was 24, totally burned out and $51,000 in debt, an enormous amount back then, particularly for a kid with no education and no prospects for a job. Until that moment, I had naively believed that if you really wanted something badly enough and were willing to sacrifice everything to make it happen, you would succeed. It was desperately discouraging, but, in retrospect, it was the best education I could have had. Everything since has seemed so much easier than racing.

De la Plante: So where did life lead you from there?

Coristine: I started a video business with Paul Seitz, who had helped with my racing, and, for seven years, slowly ground down the debt to zero. The same week it was finally paid off, I went to a gliding club to begin to learn to fly. After seven years of boredom, I threw myself into it. The club?s members were a little taken aback when I went through their five-year program to fly their most sophisticated airplane in two and a half months. It was the habits and attitude which I learned in racing that enabled me to accomplish that.

Soaring was wonderful, but was essentially a sunny summer afternoon activity when a tow pilot was available. About that time, the first ultralights were evolving. I was soon hooked, initially opening a flying school and then taking on the Canadian distribution for the Challenger. A lot of the marketing was accomplished through writing articles for flying magazines which included air-to-air photography. I had no idea that the techniques I was learning from that would later serve another, totally unexpected career.

Following that random flight in 1992, I began living a fascinating story, similar to others I had read in books such as A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun. I restored an abandoned 1917 cottage on an island, and then began my quest to show the world this remarkable place. I recognized that several unlikely ingredients had come together: having the perfect plane for aerial photography; many years of learning to fly and photograph intuitively, and, significantly, finding the one in a thousand, the only island in the Thousand Islands with a natural harbour that could protect the plane from marauding storms. Lastly, I realized I was living in the assignment, was deeply passionate about the place, and had a remarkable opportunity to do this right.

De la Plante: What did you have in mind?

Coristine: A wonderful friend, who had written a trilogy of books about the Gilded Age at the River, had explained how this place was once one of the most celebrated on the continent, but, following World War I and the Depression, it had slipped under the radar. His mission, now mine, was to build a greater appreciation for the place. I ended up publishing five books of photography of the Thousand Islands, which I hope helped accomplish that.

De la Plante: Those books won international awards and sold in quantities, despite being available only in the Thousand Islands. Your latest, an iPad app., seems the most ambitious of all.

Coristine: For certain, it?s the book I am most proud of, and, like racing, required a team to make happen. During the decade-and-a-half of shooting images from my plane, I experienced a lot of crazy adventures, so I started writing about them. As I began to think more seriously about my manuscript, I met a talented writer, Donna Walsh Inglehart, author of the acclaimed Civil War novel, Grindstone. She helped me to see that my story started long before I found the river, that my early days as a racer had propelled me in this direction. So I wrote some more, about the early days in racing and flying, and I dug up many photos from those years.

Together Donna and I raised the bar far higher than I could have managed alone. I had accumulated over 40,000 images, some HD video that I had shot, plus more that the History Channel had shot of me for a show about the history of ultralights in Canada. Meanwhile, I had developed a friendship with Tony Dekker and his outstanding band that CBC calls ?Canada?s national treasure,? Great Lake Swimmers. They ended up recording an album here (Lost Channels) that was nominated for several awards. As the project was evolving, Tony gave me the use of instrumental versions of their hits to marry beautifully with the moods of the river. By then, I knew I had the ingredients to produce something extraordinary.

When the iPad appeared, I recognized it as the perfect medium, but, because the software I needed didn?t exist, I spent two years chasing dead ends with app. developers around the world. Then, in another moment of serendipity, I met another passionate islander, former TV producer Doug McLellan, CEO of the Distillery District?s McLellan Group. He saw my print books as ?a gift to the community? that would remain long after I was gone, and he wanted to leave his own gift, so he put his team of software and graphics geniuses onto it full time.

Six months later, on May 1, 2012, One in a Thousand was launched on Apple?s iTunes Store. Since then, One has been downloaded in 32 countries, earning high (rare) praise from Kirkus Reviews and two Platinum Marcom awards for excellence in publishing. I?m really proud of One in a Thousand, which is a true and remarkable collaboration of kindred spirits who love the river and were excited about telling a story in a new way. Because One is available only as an iPad app. e-book, however, we?re a bit ahead of the curve, waiting for readers to catch up with us!

For more: OneinaThousand.ca; 1000IslandsPhotoArt.com, and ThousandIslandsLife.com

Ian Coristine lives on Raleigh Island in the Thousand Islands with the mighty St. Lawrence River flowing past his door, bringing him inspiration and projects on its current.

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