Werner Berger first started racing go-karts when he was growing up in South Africa. He dropped racing during much of his adult life, but returned to it in 2013 and hasn’t looked back. (Grace Kennedy photo)

Delta auto racer on pace for his first championship win

Werner Berger is only six points behind Amir Kani, the Sports Car Club of B.C.’s overall champion.

Werner Berger has a need for speed.

It’s clear from the 1980s racing posters hanging in his Tilbury auto-shop, depicting Berger when he was the South African champion for 125CC go-karts. It’s clear from the Mission Raceway cards lying on the front counter, heralding the September long weekend races.

And it’s especially clear from the 1990 BMW Pro3 325is racecar sitting in the parking lot outside his shop.

“For me, it’s that acceleration of going down the straight flat out and bringing the car into the corner at the maximum capability of what I and the car are capable of doing,” Berger said. “It’s just a thrill.”

The Tsawwassen resident has been racing since 2013, when he finished his drivers’ training through the Sports Car Club of British Columbia (SCCBC) and won his first novice race — the last step of the course.

“I actually thought at the end of my novice races that would be it,” Berger said.

“I just wanted to get it out of my system … But then obviously I had that need for speed and that thrill.”

Berger impulsively purchased his Pro3 — a car that can cost between $16,000 and $25,000 — in November, 2013. Now he’s one of the top racers in the SCCBC, which hosts amateur racing at the Mission Raceway between May and October.

Berger won the Pro3 class in each of the last three years, beating last year’s Pro3 lap record by half a second. Not including the September long weekend races, which weren’t available before the Reporter’s print deadline, Berger sits at 158 points — 58 points above second-best Pro3 racer John Gillespie, and only six points behind Amir Kani, the SCCBC’s defending overall champion.

If Berger does well at the club’s next races, happening Oct. 14 and 15, he could snag his first championship win.

But it’s not all about the competition. Take Berger’s racing relationship with race team partner and fellow Deltan Gillespie.

“In a way, we kind of put on a little bit of a show,” Berger said.

“When we go around the track together, the car’s like a snake. Sometimes there’s only four or five inches separating the two of us, and that’s lap after lap after lap. His racing and my racing are really consistent.”

The reason Berger and Gillespie are able to put on such a competitive show is because they both know how the other drives. That’s key in a sport where fractions of seconds can mean the difference between a clean pass and a serious crash.

Berger’s only been in two: the first was during the 2014 September long weekend races, when he clipped an American driver during the second corner.

“All the traffic bottlenecks — you’ve got 35 cars on the track and everyone wants to go into the corner at the same time,” he said. Berger had come into the corner too fast, and swerved to the right.

In racing, drivers hold their lines, only moving to the side to pass other cars. By moving to the right, Berger put his car into the American’s lane. And because Mission Raceway is mostly encircled by concrete walls, there was nowhere for the other driver to go but up.

“He kind of just nudged me on the door and his car basically got airborne and landed on top of the concrete wall,” Berger said. “It basically bowed his car and his car was a total write off.”

Berger was able to complete his race, but it made him more aware of other drivers on the track.

The other crash was last year, when Berger misjudged a corner and slammed into one of the concrete walls. His car took a beating, requiring six weeks of work in Berger’s shop, but he came out unscathed.

It’s accidents like that, though, which make his wife nervous.

“There’s always that fear,” Berger said.

“It’s like when I had my accident, right, the day that I hit the wall. She wasn’t there, but … I phoned and I told her immediately. She was upset and crying and tears, and she wanted to put an end to racing completely.”

But, “I feel safer in my racecar, strapped in with all my safety gear, than I do driving on the public roads.”

On Monday mornings after a race weekend, Berger has bruises on his shoulders from where the seatbelts were strapping him in. During races, he dons fire-proof underwear and has a mesh cloth up against his window so he won’t fall through glass if his car rolls.

So even though his wife worries — and emerged from her first passenger ride in a race car with the blood having run out of her face — Berger will still be on the track.

“Every lap I come around I’ve got this huge grin from ear to ear. I’m in my world, it’s my element,” he said. “And the saddest time of my racing is when I see the checkered flag on my last day, and you have to wait until the next race weekend.”

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