“Concrete” and “toboggan” are two words that normally don’t go together. But, for engineering students across Canada, building concrete toboggans and racing them down steep, snowy hills is part of a yearly tradition since 1974 when the first race was held in Alberta. And PCL Construction makes sure things run safely and smoothly.

From February 7 to 11, 2024, more than 380 students from 16 post-secondary institutions will converge on St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador for the 50th edition of the Great Northern Concrete Toboggan Race (GNCTR). Since September, teams have been designing, building and testing their toboggans, which must weigh less than 350 pounds and safely carry five people down the hill. The toboggan’s running surfaces must be made of concrete, and each sled also must have a roll cage, mechanical steering and braking systems. Some teams even elect to incorporate suspension systems.

“It’s a unique spectacle. There’s no other design competition like it for university students, especially when you incorporate the teams’ themes and the spirit and the camaraderie,” says Mark Rowsell, a project coordinator with PCL Calgary and co-chair of the 2024 GNCTR organizing committee. “There’s one chant that goes, ‘We are all best friends!’ And that’s what it’s truly like. Everyone’s rooting for each other.” 

As co-chair, Rowsell is involved with just about every aspect of the event and says his experience with PCL — managing subcontractors on projects and building relationships — has helped immensely with his work on the committee. But PCL’s influence on the GNCTR goes far beyond the organizing committee. Michel Servant, a business development manager with PCL in Edmonton, is one of four safety judges for this year’s event. The panel — which also includes PCL Calgary project coordinator Parker Gavey — has reviewed multiple design reports from each team over the past few months, and they’ll clear each toboggan during the pre-race weigh-in and final safety inspection.

Servant has been a safety judge since 2020. He says the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the participants is infectious, and it only makes him want to work harder to make the race safer every year.

“Our goal every year is to raise the safety standards and, in turn, the caliber of the event. The safer the toboggans are, the more they can push the limit on speed and slalom performance,” he says. “That pushes teams to innovate, have a great time and return home safely.”

Prior to 2014, the GNCTR had a reputation for danger; videos of spectacular crashes were all over YouTube and injuries were common. That’s when Mitch Soetaert and PCL got involved.

Soetaert is the vice president and district manager for Melloy Industrial Services Inc., part of the PCL family of companies. He didn’t know anything about the GNCTR before getting involved — “it kind of blew my mind,” he says of his first reaction to seeing it — but he immediately recognized the need for stringent safety protocols.

“It’s great to have all this fun, but you’ve got to look after people. That’s a big part of our culture at PCL,” he says. “PCL’s been really important in making safety a strong part of the race while only adding positive energy.”

The biggest safety improvements Soetaert spearheaded included requiring riders’ limbs to be contained in the toboggan; requiring steering mechanisms that don’t allow skis to jackknife; and requiring brakes behind the toboggan’s center of gravity that default to being deployed when they fail.

Soetaert remembers there being some resistance from participants the first year of the new safety measures. “We said to a couple of teams: ‘Look, if you don't get this solved, we're not going to let you race.’ They were pretty upset about that,” he says. “We worked really hard with them over the next 24 hours to get their machines compliant. After the race, they thanked us because they saw a couple of the rollovers and saw that what we were doing made sense.”

Soetaert is proud to say that, when he stepped away from the GNCTR in 2020, there hadn’t been any serious injuries in those six years.

Today, if a toboggan fails an inspection, Servant says PCL’s solution provider mindset comes into play. “We’re strict about enforcing the design rules but we don’t just reject them and leave them to their own devices to figure it out,” he says. “With a background in welding and fabrication, I’m a huge proponent of guiding them toward solutions to resolve their deficiencies. Most teams are finishing their toboggans as they’re being put in a crate to be shipped to the event, and it’s not uncommon for the final components to actually come together at the event.”

Because the organizing committee changes almost completely each year, Servant says continuity among safety personnel is key.

“We’re the only constant piece that’s followed the event year to year since 2014; we’re kind of the glue on the safety and event learning side,” he says. “I’ll do a lessons-learned report each year for the current and incoming organizing committees to ensure continuous improvement of the design rules.”

Coming out of the 2020 event, Servant leveraged his own experience with the SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge to implement a physical center of gravity verification tilt table. “Implementation has been challenging but we’re committed to finding opportunities like that, for physical verification of the theoretical design, incentivizing teams to design for real life and making the toboggans safer,” he says. “In the last couple years, we’ve helped organizing committees ensure they have an emergency response plan, pushed for neck braces to be recommended in the rules and introduced a host of other requirements. Every year is an opportunity to keep dialing in the rules.”

Zoe Philpott is another PCL employee involved with the 2024 GNCTR organizing committee. As spirit coordinator, Philpott coordinates with the race’s spirit judges — a group of race alumni from across Canada — who create spirit challenges for the teams before and during the competition. This year, some of the challenges have seen teams creating a movie poster or composing a sea shanty that reflect their school and their theme. Both Philpott and Rowsell are graduates of Memorial University of Newfoundland and are excited to bring the GNCTR to their home province. “It’s cool to see the teams get together and do this fun stuff,” Philpott says. “Obviously it’s a lot of work too, so it’s nice to have that bonding.”

Soetaert had experienced the event’s energy firsthand, too, and after his first GNCTR, he wanted to bring that energy back. He advocated for sending recruiters to the event to talk to students about working for PCL.

“They’re really driven, and those are the kind of people we want working for us,” Soetaert says. “They’re out-of-the-box thinkers; they’re high-energy. They run at problems instead of running away.”

“It’s a good litmus test to find out who might fit in well on a construction site,” Servant adds. “It’s all the same disciplines: structural, concrete, mechanical, teamwork, solving problems under pressure and working with specs, schedules and project controls.”

Philpott had already secured a work term with PCL when she competed in the 2020 GNCTR in Toronto, but talking with other PCL representatives at the race cemented her feeling that it was the right fit. “It really shows PCL’s culture and how, no matter where you are, you always have that PCL connection,” she says.

Rowsell, too, had a nice full-circle moment when Scott Klinger — the co-chair from his first GNCTR in Waterloo, Ontario, in 2018 — ended up being his first supervisor at PCL after graduating university.

“PCL’s involvement and its commitment to improving the race definitely spoke volumes to me,” he says.