The new president and managing director of General Motors Canada, Travis Hester, likes fast cars. He especially likes fast cars on racetracks and needs very little persuasion to drive up from Oshawa, Ont., to race around Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., where Chevrolet is the official car-maker sponsor.
In his previous role as global head of GM’s chief engineering and program management group based in Michigan, it was in his job description to drive fast cars on tracks and look for their limits. Now that he’s the boss here in Canada it still is, because, well – he’s the boss.
Hester is from Melbourne, Australia, though he’s not lived there for the past 13 years while bouncing around the globe with General Motors. He asked for the move to Canada when former president Steve Carlisle moved on to head up Cadillac this spring, and he was happy to discover the racetrack so close to his office.
“The only way to truly understand the capabilities of a car is to get out and drive it,” Hester says. “Cars like this are developed on tracks like this.”
He’s talking about the Chevrolet Corvette Z06s and Camaro SSs that are lined up in pit row as part of the visiting Ron Fellows Driving Experience, as well as the Cadillac CTS-Vs in the parking lot alongside.
Hester’s here to drive on the track with me, where we each get behind the wheel of a Camaro and then a Z06 and follow an instructor in a pace car.
The Corvettes have a Sport driving mode and a Track driving mode, and I’m flipping between Sport and Track to gauge the difference. Within Track, there are four different, settable levels of stability assistance that range from No. 1, “pretty slippery,” to No. 4, “nothing whatsoever.”
Out on the asphalt, I don’t dare change out of No. 1, and the instructor in the pace car, Ron’s son, Sam Fellows, is also at 1 or 2. “I’m not allowed to switch it all off,” Fellows says.
Hester, though, is at “nothing whatsoever” right out of the gate. He is the boss, after all, and he’s braking very late into the corners and pulling away on every exit.
“We didn’t really realize it at first, but he’s one of GM’s most qualified drivers,” says Mathew Palmer, director of special projects for General Motors Canada. “He doesn’t make a big deal of it, but he knows what he’s doing out there and he’s really, really quick.”
There’s no doubt of this. I’m following at a comfortable, sensible distance behind both Sam Fellows in the pace car and Hester, and Hester is about a car’s length behind Fellows. Racers do this with drivers they trust because they know the lead car will not brake unexpectedly and they’re always preparing to overtake. Non-racers, such as myself, are less trusting and content to follow. On the back straight, our speeds are touching 240 kilometres an hour.
“I do enjoy racing, and I’ve always followed it and participated whenever I can,” Hester says. “I’m one of GM’s qualified drivers. In my prior role, I would have to help with evaluations.”
What he means is, he would sign off on the engineering of all GM’s vehicles, whether a Chevrolet Bolt or a Corvette. To properly assess a performance car, you need to take it to its limits in real time, on a real track, and that’s what he’d do, around the world.
Some of those limits are hard to reach indeed – such as the Z06, which theoretically creates so much downforce it can be driven upside down at speed. And the new, as-yet-unrevealed Corvette C8, which Hester’s driven and calls “remarkable.” He won’t comment further on it, though it’s been seen in camouflage in spy shots. It’s believed to be a mid-engine sports car to debut next year, perhaps at the Detroit auto show.
General Motors has its own track in Michigan, the Milford Road Course, which is specifically designed to create unstable conditions, with bumps and ruts and off-camber corners. High-performance cars, however, are then taken to international tracks for testing in different conditions.
“They’re validated specifically to make sure they do exactly what we want, and better,” Hester says. “Then, when people drive them in a spirited fashion no matter where they are in the world, the cars perform and exceed what people expect. That’s why we’re here.”
And Canadian Tire Motorsport Park? How does it compare?
“The thing that I like about this track is that there’s a lot of elevation and there are some blind corners that if you don’t drive properly, it could put the car into an out-of-shape position,” he says. “So even though it’s a relatively short track, it has the ability to separate a great driver from a good driver and it allows people to really display their skills.”
At the end of the day, Sam Fellows takes me for a “fast lap” in the Corvette to show how much more quickly the track can be driven when he doesn’t need to guide other vehicles. We slide through the hairpin and pull really hard out of Turns 8 and 9 onto the final straight. “He gave me a good run,” says Fellows of leading the way earlier with Hester. “He knew what he was doing in that car, that’s for sure.”
And so he should. He signed off on it.