Luke Chudleigh: On the fast track

Philip Haynes/Sportsnet

The son of an apple farmer from Milton, Ont., is convinced he can crack the world’s most glamorous race car series.

THE NEXT TIME LUKE CHUDLEIGH is on this track, the mountains in the distance won’t enter his field of vision and the palm trees that shade the tarmac will be a screaming blur. But for the moment, Chudleigh can spare a few seconds to drink in the splendour on a warm, sun-soaked day in early May. The sleek 19-year-old stands about five-foot-eight and weighs just over 140 lb. in full racing kit, but he’s a little lighter right now walking in shorts beside his race engineer, Joffrey Guillemat, tracing the 2.7 kilometres he’ll soon be navigating at speeds in excess of 200 km/h. Occasionally, they have to move aside for local traffic because the streets of Pau—a small city in the southwest corner of France—haven’t yet been completely closed for one of the country’s most historic races. When they’re not avoiding cars that sneak through temporary Fiat-size gaps in the tire barriers, Chudleigh and Guillemat talk about a lot of things, most notably braking points. When and how hard you brake entering a corner determines the speed at which you can emerge from it. And in racing, all you’re ever looking to do is maintain momentum.

As they round the final turn, Chudleigh’s gait borders on bounding. He’s turning for home onto the longest straightaway of this magnificent street circuit that shares an undeniable aesthetic with its more prestigious Formula One cousin, the Monaco Grand Prix. That’s where Chudleigh would like to be, eventually. It’s a long way from Southern Ontario and his family’s famous apple farm, and the coming days will reinforce the daunting challenge of chasing that dream. The odds are extremely long and the cost absurdly high, but that hasn’t stopped Chudleigh’s relentless pursuit of one of the 22 spots available on the world’s most glamorous racing series.

It’s remixes of The Black Eyed Peas—not Lynyrd Skynyrd—on the radio, last guy to work always brings the croissants, and yogurt break is at precisely 10 a.m. each day. Other than that, much of what goes on at the Tech1 Racing headquarters would be similar to any other large-scale garage from Ottawa to Alabama. Most days, Chudleigh makes the 20-minute subway ride from his small apartment in the heart of Toulouse—a city of just under half a million people in the central part of southern France—to Bellefontaine Station. It’s the second-last stop on the A line and leaves him just a short walk to the shop. This marks Chudleigh’s second season racing for Tech1 on the Formula Renault 2.0 ALPS series, a credible entry point for young drivers looking to climb the ranks in Europe, open-wheel racing’s traditional proving ground. On this Wednesday before a race weekend, Chudleigh works in a little side room at the Tech1 building, away from the constant hustle of mechanics, engineers and a brother-sister ownership duo who are all preparing to head to Pau (pronounced “Poe”) the next day. It’s here where Chudleigh makes one of the most important additions you can put on a race car: a sticker. The fledgling company Vitamindrip has just come on board as a primary sponsor. Beyond a hugely valuable cash injection, that means Chudleigh’s car now needs to be changed from its orange Tech1 colors to Vitamindrip’s teal scheme. Most drivers would be happy to let someone else worry about applying a sponsor’s stickers, but Chudleigh can’t stomach not being involved. He’s been right in there with his mechanic, Louis-Marc Nauton-Forteu—known exclusively as “Kiki”—trying to get the new stickers arranged perfectly. The first attempt at putting Vitamindrip’s logo on the rear wing didn’t meet anyone’s satisfaction, so Chudleigh is back in a cramped room surrounded by sticker spools of various colours, programming a machine to carve out larger letters.

A few doors down the hall, 36-year-old Simon and 39-year-old Sarah Abadie are doing what most siblings refuse to do past their 10th birthday: living their lives in the same room. The pair work furiously to run Tech1 from a shared office with cluttered desks at either end. While Chudleigh’s relationship with the Abadies is first and foremost a business arrangement, he is the only Tech1 driver—there are eight all together competing in three different series—who lives in Toulouse. When Chudleigh moved to Europe in 2013 from his Toronto-area home of Milton, Ont., he spent time living with the Abadies’ mom, as the whole family tried to ease a difficult transition. That’s nurtured a bit of a bond between the driver and the owners, who often find themselves repeating the same message to a young man whose potential they’ve continued to believe in through some on-track ups and downs. Whether around the workshop or on the radio when he’s in the car, two words that couldn’t be more wonderfully French in spirit are stressed: Take pleasure.

“He’s getting better and better because now he knows he thinks too much,” says Sarah. “He needs to take good feelings and joy. To get the good results, you have to enjoy yourself, get pleasure. Take the pleasure, and give the pleasure as well.”

There’s definitely a give and take with Luke’s high-RPM brain. On one hand, it’s what sets him apart, what drives him to devour and process important data at a higher rate than most any young driver out there. But when his mind starts turning over too many things, it can get more tangled than the floppy curls above his boyish face.

“It’s the story of my life,” he says between sips of tea at a café close to his apartment. “It’s just how I’ve been and how I am.”

Should the story of Chudleigh’s life become that of an F1 driver, the genesis of his journey will quickly make the rounds. His father, Scott Chudleigh, enjoyed bombing around the family apple orchard in dune buggies and other recreational vehicles as a kid, but there was certainly no in-the-bone love of motorsport to pass down to Luke or William, three years Luke’s junior. William always landed his jumps off the couch with a little more aplomb than Luke, making it fairly easy for Scott to peg him as the more traditional athlete and aspiring hockey player he’s become. Though Luke was a quick study at math and the piano, the path wasn’t as obvious.

That changed when, around the age of 11, Luke suddenly became consumed by the PlayStation game Need for Speed. Soon, guiding virtual cars around some of the world’s most famous racetracks wasn’t enough, and Luke began lobbying his dad for a crack at karting. It was more than hollow pleading. “He had already done the research and found out where I had to go,” Scott says.

One summer in the introductory program at Cameron Motorsports Karting Complex just outside Hamilton was all Chudleigh required to know he’d found his calling. What he needed next was guidance, which is exactly what the Wickens brothers, Trevor and Robert, had on offer. Trevor, 30, is a fixture at Cameron Motorsports and coached Luke through his karting years before becoming his manager. Robert is a 25-year-old driver who, like Luke, moved to Europe in pursuit of an F1 dream. While that hasn’t come to fruition yet, it’s fair to say Robert has carved out a successful career, earning a very good living driving for Mercedes on the popular DTM series.

That Chudleigh has soaked in so much from Robert—they’re in constant contact and attend each other’s races when schedules allow—speaks to the former’s unrelenting search for knowledge. It may seem natural for the up-and-comer to lean on the seasoned vet, but the individual and often egotistical nature of motorsport means its participants aren’t always warm to tutorials. “A lot of drivers almost refuse help and he just took it upon himself to basically gather in any experience or input I have and build from it,” Robert says. “He always had that different mindset and I always respected him for it.”

It’s all the more important for Chudleigh because he got a late jump off the line. Most kids who chase a life in professional racing start karting when they’re about eight years old, as was the case with Robert. By entering the field at 12, Luke had some ground to make up. As Trevor notes, it was almost like starting school in Grade 9. “There’s a lot of background work you have to learn before you’re in calculus,” he says.

To compensate for lost time, Chudleigh and Trevor would spend most summer days at the track. Because the two-hour round trip to Cameron Motorsports was a bit burdensome, Luke spent a lot of nights at Trevor’s house in Hamilton, peppering him with questions through the evening. Beyond his knowledge of tires and turns, Trevor helped cultivate Luke’s singular focus. When Scott mused about getting an RV for weekend-long trips to tracks around North America so the whole family had a place to hang out, Trevor advised against it. Aspiring drivers shouldn’t be spending downtime watching TV, they should be hanging around the mechanics, learning just one more thing about the kart. “We don’t talk about anything except racing,” Luke says. “It made me amazing in a go-kart.”

It was as a teenager earning his karting chops against more seasoned competition that Chudleigh began the process of learning to deal with the cruel nature of motorsport. Though kids are rarely injured in karting, the track is usually mayhem, with 50 percent of the field often ending the race on the grass. “They’re epic letdowns,” Scott says. “You put in tons and tons of time training and practising and you get taken out in the first corner. You don’t even get to race.”

Because he and his wife, Mary, were happy to see their son develop a deep passion for something, Scott went a few years without asking Luke exactly what it was about racing that lured him in. But as time went by and Luke’s devotion to the sport took even greater hold, Scott decided to wade in. The answer had nothing to do with speed or fame. “This doesn’t come easily,” Luke told his dad. “I really have to try hard. And I think that’s what attracts me.”

Things were likely never more difficult than during a crash-filled stretch last summer. By his own admission, Chudleigh’s rookie season in ALPS began better than it should have. Right off the hop, he had a 10th-place finish, when he and his team would have been satisfied with 20 spots lower. Then the crashes started. In Belgium, Chudleigh touched tires entering a famously fast corner dubbed “Eau Rouge” at the celebrated Spa-Francorchamps circuit. Five metres before he hit the wall, Chudleigh was doing 260 km/h. He had the presence of mind to bring his hands and arms into his body so they weren’t on the steering wheel when the incredible G-force involved started violently shaking it in every direction. There was a moment of blackout on impact and it took a minute for Chudleigh to realize he’d come through unscathed. Simon couldn’t attend that race, but he made sure to quickly get on the phone and speak with his young driver. From the rate at which he knocks back espresso to the way he instantly decides to park on a sidewalk when there are no spaces available close to a lunchtime destination, Simon exudes the take-charge attitude of a former driver who’s seen it all and doesn’t waste time getting lost in “what ifs?” That assertiveness rang though in his message to Chudleigh: Don’t worry, everybody who guides a single-seater absorbs a serious hit eventually. And no matter what you do tomorrow, get back in the car and drive. “It actually improved my confidence,” Chudleigh says of the experience.

Banging up a few cars isn’t the worst thing in the world because it means a driver is searching for his own and the car’s limits. But as the wrecks added up and he was bouncing between hotel rooms in a foreign land without having seen his dad or Trevor in a month, Chudleigh’s mind got away from him. He started to think he’d lost whatever it was that allowed him to succeed in the first place.

“When I’m relaxed and things are going well, it’s easy to manage,” he says of his own spinning wheels. “When we run into problems, when I’m not performing my best, it’s difficult to come to grips with it because the actual solution is to relax and, like Simon will tell you, take pleasure.”

That got easier late in the year, when Chudleigh’s showings improved. At the final race of the season, he was poised to finish fourth before his own small mistake dropped him back to seventh. Regardless, he and Tech1 decided right after that competition to again join forces in 2014. Simon and Sarah have seen potential in Luke since he wowed them with a scorching testing session that led to his initial agreement and they have come to believe in his capacity to learn, implement and improve. “When he understands one thing,” says Simon, “it’s for all the life.”

Scott Chudleigh is an outdoorsman with an adventurous spirit. He left home at 18 on a journey that took him all over the world, often working for Outward Bound to help fund his wanderlust. At 21, he and a buddy sailed a 25-foot boat from Toronto to mainland Portugal. He didn’t really have any designs on getting involved in the family business, but when a fire in 1990 burned down the barn that his dad, Tom, used as home base for Chudleigh’s Apple Farm, things changed. Still a young man, a sense of obligation called Scott home and it turned out to be a great decision. He and his brother, Dean, are 50-50 partners in Chudleigh’s, and the business has grown from a local orchard where people pick their own apples to a global brand that’s delivering desserts all over the world. Had Scott, now 49, known things were going to turn out this well when he was young, he would have likely assumed the disposable income his job generates would be put toward those outdoor activities—sailing, skiing, climbing—he still treasures. Instead, he happily doles out significant dollars to keep his son’s dream on track, while a good portion of his business savvy is devoted to ways he and Luke can drum up vital sponsorship money.

When Luke was doing high-level karting, including spending some winter months racing in Florida, the annual tab fell in the $25,000 range. But things are at an entirely different level now. The decision to move to Europe before his 18th birthday was a big, but necessary, leap for Chudleigh, because he couldn’t go much longer without learning to drive a proper race car. The key difference between karts and cars is the massive grip created by the diffuser, an apparatus that funnels air underneath the machine and pins it to the track. In karts, you can drive like a madman and get away with it. In cars, it’s impossible to slosh all over the place without losing the grip that enables you to hold the proper racing line. “When you’re vacuuming on a flat surface, you can feel the suction,” Trevor says. “But if you go over the edge of the carpet or you pick up the one corner and you lose that suction, you can feel it in the vacuum.”

Adjusting to that kind of ride is a challenge. So is paying for it. The cost for Chudleigh to race a season on the 2.0 ALPS series is in the neighborhood of $500,000. That allows a team like Tech1 to provide a car, and the mechanics and engineers required to keep it moving. It only goes up from there. If Chudleigh makes the jump to a higher development series—like the Formula Renault 3.5 championship Tech1 also competes in, where the cars are bigger, faster and more complex—you’re officially past the million-dollar mark. At the F1 level, ultra-wealthy teams like Ferrari and McLaren pay the best drivers astronomical salaries to guide their cars to podium finishes. But at the back of the grid, teams often reserve seats for whoever can bring the biggest cheque. That’s how a situation like Sergey Sirotkin’s comes up. Last summer, there were whispers that the Sauber team would make a then 17-year-old Sirotkin—backed by a mountain of Russian sponsorship money—the youngest driver ever to appear on an F1 grid, despite the fact he wasn’t all that accomplished in feeder formulas. Ultimately, it didn’t happen, but the incident still reinforced the notion of motorsport as moneysport.

“When it came time to move to cars, we said, OK, finding sponsorship is part of my life,” Chudleigh says. “Probably a bigger part of my life than the actual racing.” When you’re in the racing gods’ good graces, sometimes the sponsors find you. Earlier this season, Adidas—which isn’t normally associated with the sport—reached out to Chudleigh’s camp because his floppy hair and easy smile were in line with the look of the company’s ideal athlete. Now, the brand with the three stripes supplies much of Chudleigh’s racing kit, including the gloves. Of course, things rarely come together that easily, and when he signed on to remain with Tech1 after his rookie campaign, Chudleigh knew they had to scrounge up more money if he was going to stay afloat in 2014. A couple of deals came through that would likely have allowed him to get by, assuming he didn’t have to come up with more funds for added insurance costs if there were a few too many crashed cars. That was the state of things before Vitamindrip came aboard in advance of the race in Pau. The Canadian company’s CEO and president, Frank Stillo, is a racing enthusiast who was willing to put money behind a focused young man who carries himself with genuine confidence.

“You can’t possibly know where Luke’s going to go right now,” says Scott. “But the people who we’re attracting, it’s because of his ability to communicate, it’s because he’s a likeable kid and they believe in him and they see he’s not horsing around. He’s out there to make this happen.”

The funicular track that sits just a short distance from Pau’s train station measures about 100 metres in length. The two cars that go up and down the rails carry some 30 people at a time and, like many French restaurant servers, they move at their own leisurely pace. At the top is Pau’s elevated city centre and the Boulevard des Pyrénées, named for the mountains that offer a stunning view to the south. At the bottom, for one weekend each year, is the street circuit that’s been home to racing of all kinds since the 1930s. This year, it’s the second of seven stops on the ALPS series. Everybody who takes part in the annual event—from drivers to media members to fans—gushes abut the charm of this darling old course. Then they talk about its dangers. Former F1 driver Nelson Piquet once likened racing in Monaco’s streets to riding a bicycle around your living room. It’s the same in Pau. “You have the racing line, probably about five centimetres of white paint, and then you have a guardrail,” Trevor says.

Given the unforgiving circumstances, maybe it’s not surprising Chudleigh’s first experience on the track ended poorly. During a Friday practice session in advance of the two races the ALPS series runs at each stop, Chudleigh’s team told him he was a significant four-10ths of a second off the pace coming around Turn 1. He pushed his 230-horsepower engine a little harder and wound up hitting the wall. Pau is a beautiful race site until you’re watching your car being lifted off the track by a crane, moving about the same speed as the funicular cars in the background. Crashing in practice won’t necessarily derail a driver’s race, but it does limit how much precious track time he gets. Racing isn’t basketball; you can’t just grab a ball and head to the nearest hoop to start refining your jump shot. It’s critical that a driver actually gets to be on a track, finding out what he and the car can do.

Of course, there are two parts to that combination, and after a frustrating race Saturday, Chudleigh was at his wits’ end, while devoted mechanic Kiki searched endlessly for a metaphorical black cat—that mischievous element bringing bad fortune. Things started out well enough, with Chudleigh having qualified on the fourth row of a 24-car field. Watching from a steep embankment near the first corner, Scott was doing what he always does whenever he can get to Europe to take in a race: hoping his son would make it through the initial two laps. Typically, contact occurs in the early stages because the cars are bunched and drivers know it’s their best chance to jump forward. Chudleigh came through the first pair of laps clean but had a hard time holding off the cars behind him, eventually finishing eighth in a race that runs one more lap after the 25-minute mark. It’s one thing for a driver to know he made mistakes that contributed to his own demise and quite another to feel like the car was just losing power around 6,000 rpm. For drivers—especially those forking out huge dollars for their cars, feeling like the equipment failed you is the most maddening thing in motorsport. “Is a bad baseball bat going to DNF a baseball player? No, not really,” Chudleigh says. “But a bad car or a broken car, it’s game over.”

Drivers hate mechanical problems, but mechanics almost consider them a personal insult. That’s why, under the awning that juts out from the trailer that serves as Tech1’s headquarters on race weekends, Kiki worked until 1 a.m. tearing apart the car, reworking the electrical and hoping to find or scare off his black cat.

Chudleigh finally found some luck in Pau when the skies opened up for an early morning race on Sunday. Rain does different things to different drivers—for Chudleigh, it’s always been a boon. On a couple occasions in karting, he danced through the rain like Fred Astaire, moving from the back of the pack to a podium position. The reason for his success in the rain may be that there’s less opportunity to overthink. On a wet course, all the information that’s been mined on where to break and where to accelerate goes out the window because it is based on a dry track. Instead, you just hop in the cockpit and go, which is exactly what Chudleigh was doing for most of the second race.

From 14th on the grid, he began carving his way up, moving past three cars almost immediately. He continued to pick his way through the traffic, getting all the way to sixth place before a light on the steering wheel let him know something was wrong. He tried to override it by hitting the power button, but that only works for so long. When the engine isn’t getting enough fuel, it shuts down to avoid burning up. All he could do was pull over and let the race marshals guide him to the grass, then walk back to the pits, where Kiki was fighting back tears.

Overcoming those emotional lows is an accepted part of Luke’s reality now and he’s getting pretty good at it. A French beer tent offers a relatively refined menu, and a couple hours after his car clunked out, Luke is getting increasingly upbeat while savouring some mussels and calamari. He’s already talking about moving forward, though at the moment, he’s looking back at GoPro footage of his race on the iPad he carries everywhere. It’s actually shocking how little a driver can see in the rain. The spit kicked up forms a two-foot wall on either side of the cockpit and all that’s really visible is the red rear light of the car directly in front of you. But tunnel vision is Luke’s specialty, and his father has marvelled at it from day one of this journey.

“Luke believes 100 percent that he’s capable,” Scott says. “It’s not even a fading thought that he’s not going to get there. You don’t take that out of the kid. It’ll come out way too soon, anyway. [We want to] just let him go as far as we can possibly help him. And that’s what we’re pushing him to do. Don’t think about the reality of the world. You’ve got to follow a dream.”

The next morning, that path will take Chudleigh east on the two-hour train ride back to Toulouse, where he’ll regroup with Tech1 and prepare for races at some of Europe’s most famous tracks. It means more work, more money and not a single second thought.

“It’s fun to be in the journey and to know you’re in the journey,” Luke says. “To know you’re in the good ol’ days when they’re happening.”

In other words, to take pleasure.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.