Jordan and Jess Van Hal: Two Young Drivers taking on Southern Ontario Motor Speedway
By Thomas Slager / candidbadger.com
The 2021 racing season is underway at Southern Ontario Motor Speedway.
Gone is the “Devil’s D”, replaced by a new racing facility. New grandstands, lighting, and walls surround the newly profiled high-banked 3/8s mile dirt oval. With wide banked turns and long straights, it’s a brand new challenge for racers, and even more so if you’re a fairly new driver.
Jess and Jordan Van Hal are sister and brother, racing on an all family and friends team. Jordan, 21, has been racing a little longer than his sister, Jess who is 24. They both got the racing bug from their father, Todd, who last drove competitively in 2012. Corrina, their mother, rounds out the team. They work out of their racing shop, a large garage behind their house, in Chatham.
Jordan says, “When dad raced, I would get home from school earlier and when he would come home I’d be sitting in his car inside the garage.” After following his dad around and attending races with the family, he finally got his shot to take to the track in 2015. “Dad raced, and I think he ended up selling in 2012. I was like, ‘gee, I’d like to race.’ Jess was at the age where she was getting a streetcar. She was working at a summer camp with a stick shift and didn’t want to drive a stick shift for the daily driver. I texted her, and I said, “Can I turn your car into a race car?” Jess said ok. It took a little pursuing before mom was ok with it. Me and dad built the car in the driveway and basically, you’re hooked from there.”
Jordan started out in what was called the “Bomber” class, which is essentially road cars that have been modified to be safe for racing. After about a year, he wanted to try something different and the family purchased a mini-mod. These are purpose-built race cars, but they have smaller engines and tighter rules which keep costs down. They are a great place to continue to learn racecraft as rules allow for a lot more adjustments than the bombers.
Jordan’s desire to keep moving up classes opened the door for Jess. “ I was two and a half years in the bomber,” Jordan said. “Then I had a half-season in the mini-mod. I did one season in just the mini-mod, got half a season driving the mini-mod and the late model. I was doing double-duty which is a lot of work.” When he decided it was time to pick one or the other, his sister got her chance. “We asked jess, do you want to drive the mini-mod? She said, ‘Sure!’”
Jess picks up the story here. “Jordan had the bomber, and he decided he wanted to get the mini-mod. I got a text from dad, ‘before we get rid of the bomber, do you want to hop in and see how it goes?” I’m at camp, they are going on vacation, but I was like, “Sure, let’s go!” he raced the mid-season championship. Won that race, and then the following week I hopped in.
“I got my half-season and then they announced they were getting rid of the bomber class. I went a year without racing. I liked it, but I didn’t get enough practice in it to want to purchase another car.”
Once Jordan decided he wanted to concentrate on only driving the late model, Jess was offered a chance to drive again, this time in the mini-mod. “He raced it until the midseason championship and then the following week I took over. I did the half a season and then we had COVID Year. This is my first full season, I’ve only run a handful of nights in it so far. I’m still a rookie.”
Jordan, too, is pretty much a rookie. The last season they were able to race was cut short by a fire that shut down the track. That season was followed by a lost year due to covid. He now finds himself in a car he has little seat time in, on a track that is essentially brand new. It hasn’t caused him to change his “pedal to the floor, let’s see what happens” driving style.
“The track is completely different. Your setup books are basically garbage,” says Jordan. But he and his dad are constantly working to figure out the setup that will let him get the most out of his track time. “We’ll drive around under caution and I will have my thumb up or down to see how the car is doing.” Between his father and some of the more experienced drivers, he is getting a lot of tips and pointers. “I haven’t even raced a full season in the late model yet. I’m still learning, too.”
For Jess, with not even a full season under the belt, the goals are a bit more modest in terms of racing, but big when it comes to learning racecraft. “The focus for Jess on this first year is to learn everything,’ says her father, Todd. “Control the car, hold a steady line, and learn track presence. She’s doing an amazing job at it.”
Jess says that compared to Jordan, “I wasn’t pushing near as hard. Now, I finally found the floor with the gas pedal. I’m still working on the corners, but I got the straights figured out.” As Jordan and Todd make changes to the car to help with the handling, Jess says, I’m slowly noticing. Before, I would drive around the corners like a streetcar. Now the rear end is starting to slide around and I can feel that more. “ Says Jordan, “We try to do big changes so she will know the difference!”
Being a rookie, learning a new track, are all steep challenges. Jess is also doing it in a male-dominated sport. She is quick to point out that the atmosphere at Southern Ontario Motor Speedway is really good. “I’m slower, but I stick to my line so they can still run their race while I run my race. A lot of them will reach out and go, ‘how did you do this week, how did it feel?’ They give their pointers.”
She hasn’t seen much of the old school “women shouldn’t drive race cars” mentality. “That’s not our track at all! Then you got little junior fans. They got little girls out there that want to race cars, too. If you don’t have those young kids idolizing us, then you don’t have the next generation of drivers.”
Soon, fans will be welcomed back to tracks all around Canada. The Van Hals are very impressed with the direction and changes that the new owner, Henry Kroker as made at Southern Ontario Motor Speedway. Looking forward to more seat time, more improvement, and more fun with their family, Jess and Jordan can’t wait for the next night of racing.