Gimli Motorsports Park is a multi-track motorsports facility which forms the hub of racing activity for the Manitoba region. Boasting a 1.3-mile road course, a quarter-mile drag strip, separate kart track and a two kilometre drag strip, the 95-hectare facility is based on one corner of a former Royal Canadian Air Force base.
It was events in the sky that shot what would otherwise have remained a rather sleepy regional racing facility to international fame, when in 1983 an out of fuel airliner landed on the runway in the middle of a race meeting...
More conventional activities are the order of the day in modern times and the circuit continues to host events for motorsports groups including the Winnipeg Sports Car Club, Manitoba Roadracing Association (Superbikes), Drag Racing Association of Manitoba and the Manitoba Karting Association.
Gimli began life as a military airfield, built in 1942 to train aircrew before going to battle in the European theatre in World War 2. After the war it was briefly mothballed until the threat of the Cold War prompted its reactivation in 1950, this time as a jet training facility. At some point during this period the runways were rebuilt, creating two long parallel asphalt landing strips, which would later prove useful for racing. The facility continued as a training school until September 1971, when it closed and operations moved elsewhere. The airbase passed into the ownership of the Rural Municipality of Gimli, which would later use its Community Development Corporation to develop the facilities.
It didn't take long before the long strips of asphalt and associated roadways were gathering the attention of local club racers, keen to have a facility of their own to drive their machines competitively on. Just under a year after the base's closure, on 6 August 1972, the Winnipeg Sports Car Club (WSCC) organised the first road racing event on a rudimentary course marked out with cones and straw bales on the runway nearest to the hangers. The Player's Manitoba race counted for the brand new Canadian Player's Championship for Formula B and Craig Hill of Mississauga, Ontario, had the honour of becoming the first victor at the track in a Lotus 69B.
One of the drawbacks of the 'Hangar Course' used for that first meeting was that it used the main runway of the airfield, which was still in active operation outside of the race events; in fact it is still in use today as the Gimli Industrial Park Airport. To solve this problem, G.L. Gibson, President of the WSCC, announced the construction of a permanent circuit for use in future years, which would be located on the other, now deactivated runway, 300 metres to the west.
A permanent circuit is born
The new circuit used the northern end of the former runway for its main straight and pit area, which also doubled as a drag racing strip. A section of armco barrier was erected along the centre of the runway at its northern end, demarcating the various different uses, before the tracked departed onto a new section of paved permanent circuit, comprising nine turns leading back to the pits. It was short and flat (as invariably airfield courses are) but it served its new purpose well.
The first race for the new facility took place on August 5, 1973 with the return visit of the Formula B cars of the Players Challenge series. This time it was Ric Forest of Edmonton who took the spoils in a BT35.
These Formula B and later Formula Atlantic races would continue through to 1977 and were probably the high point for competition in Gimli. Indeed, the circuit can boast being the place where Gilles Villeneuve took his first victory in Formula Atlantic on June 22, 1975 during a torrential downpour. It was also host to the Canadian Run-Offs in both 1981 and 1982, as well as several MolySlip Endurance Championship races between 1975 and 1982, the latter of which was a double-header. After this, the track failed to host any further events of national significance but continued to be the hub for the Manitoban racing scene.
Fame glides into Gimli
It wasn't motorsport which rocketed the track to worldwide attention in 1983, however. Instead, events which began unfolding some 80 kms away on a summer's day would seal Gimli's place in history. On the ground, a Formula Ford meeting was under way, with competitors and their families enjoying the evening sunshine in the outfield areas. Little did they know of the drama about to unfold.
In the skies above, Air Canada Flight 143's captain Bob Pearson was dealing with an alarm in the cockpit of his almost new Boeing 767. An amber low fuel pressure warning was the cause but while Pearson and his First Officer Maurice Quintal began working through the manufacturer's troubleshooting list a second alarm sounded; low fuel pressure in the second wing's tanks. Then, to the crew's surprise, both engines shut down; the giant airliner had run out of fuel.
All aboard that plane could count on two quirks of fate that would ensure they would land with no injuries; Pearson was a former glider pilot, well-acquainted with non-powered flight, while Quintal was a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, who was once stationed at Gimli. With options to land elsewhere out of range, Gimli was to be the place the crew would select as the only viable place touch down. They were, however, completely unaware of the runway's new use as a racing circuit, however...
Down below, the race meeting was wrapping up for the day, oblivious to the drama above. As the 132-ton Boeing appeared on the horizon, the penny began to drop and as it began its silent landing approach, a degree of panicked scattering began, especially for a group of children on bicycles on the southern portion of the abandoned runway. The plane touched down and, with little in the way of hydraulic pressure available, the nose gear collapsed, having failed to lock in position. For another 2,900 yards the plane slid on its nose with sparks flying before, mercifully, coming to a halt mere feet away from where the old runway was cleaved in two by the armco barrier of the race circuit.
Race officials were quick to make their way to the aircraft and emptied their fire extinguishers on the overheated nose area as the plane's doors opened and the emergency chutes deployed. One-by-one the plane's startled occupants emerged. None, it transpired, had suffered any significant injuries. The crew's quick thinking and deft flying skills had saved all on board.
The story of how Pearson, a former glider pilot, brought the stricken airliner safely to the ground is recounted well in documentary below, as is the explanation of the chain of events which led to a brand new jet aircraft running completely dry mid-flight.
As a postscript to this story, Air Canada dispatched a ground crew to patch up the plane and enable it to fly out of Gimli for full repairs elsewhere. Rather unbelievably, their van ran out of fuel en route...
Once fully repaired, the 'Gimli Glider' re-entered service and enjoyed another 25 years of thankfully uneventful service, before being retired to the desert, where it was broken up for parts. Metal from its outer skin was turned into plane tags which souvenir hunters can purchase over the internet. Meanwhile the underwing fuselage panel and the controls in the cockpit that mix the fuel were purchased in 2015 by locals and put on display at the raceway.
Gimli itself continues to this day as the only combined drag strip and racing circuit in Manitoba, with a strong grassroots motorsports following under the continued stewardship of the WSCC. Alongside the road course are a karting track and a two kilometre motocross track, allowing the facility to be in regular use by WSCC members and other events run by the Drag Racing Association of Manitoba, Manitoba Roadracing Association (Superbikes) and the Manitoba Karting Association.
The circuit continues in near-original specification, the only change occurring in 2007 when a chicane was added prior to the last turn to slow racers as they entered onto the long main straight, also providing a better angle to keep away from the wall at pit entry.
Track resurfacing was carried out at several very worn out patches in 2018 and 2019, funded by the Winnipeg Sports Car Club, but the circuit's future was thrown into doubt in 2021 when the Regional Municipality announced it was to put out a Request for Proposal document for the site, citing a desire to see a better management of the facility overall than its current leasing arrangement offered.
There was initial concern that this had been announced without prior consultation with WSCC and after a decade of no investment by the Regional Municipality. Happily, talks in early 2022 resulted in the withdrawal of the RFC and progress made on scheduling a full schedule of events. While the longer-term future of the circuit is still not fully resolved, it does appear that lines of communication have considerably improved and this could lead to new investment in the ageing facility. That would be of great benefit to an under-served part of the country and help ensure the viability of the WSCC.
- Gimli Motorsports Park, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada
- +1 204-642-6697
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