This is how we do it

Jani Ylipahkala bought his first car when he was eight years old. Now he runs Lapland Driving, a company that has three driving centres and clients such as Porsche and Audi. It has taken pluck and endurance – that certain something that can be found in Lapland.

The electric gate by the highway opens silently. A big, white van drives through, goes around the puddles on the small dirt road and parks in front of a huge restaurant made from logs. The car door opens and blue sneakers step onto the gravel.

Jani Ylipahkala has arrived. This is his kingdom.

This kingdom of his, it’s not a small one: over 400 hectares of marshes and forest that, come winter, turn into track areas used by international car and tyre manufacturers to test their equipment, train drivers and launch their latest models. There are also heated and cold maintenance facilities, a kota hut and three restaurants towards one of which Jari is now heading.

- This is where, one summer, I cut down all the trees all by myself with a chainsaw, he says and pointing towards an open area in front of the log building.

If this was anyone else, you would take it as a joke. With Ylipahkala you know that’s not the case.

IT ALL BEGAN with 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Ylipahkala’s father, an entrepreneur, told his two sons that they could join him on the trip if they came up with 500 Finnish Marks each. Eight-year-old Jani strode into the woods of the capital, Helsinki, made sauna whisks, and headed to the market place to sell them. When they were not selling he wrote on a sheet “Proceeds will be used for Jani’s travel fund for America”.

It was Jani who travelled to the US, not his brother.

The earnings from selling sauna whisks and berries also enabled the eight-year-old to buy his first car, the neighbour’s blue Ford Taunus.

When Jani was 15 years old he moved to Rovaniemi, northern Finland, due his father’s work. When he had to come up with ways to finance his race car hobby, Jani had a stellar idea: fire alarms that had recently been made compulsory for all households. Jani searched the yellow pages and put all his money in alarms. Every evening after school he went door to door selling them.

THE ALARM SYSTEM beeps a couple of times as a warning before Jani types in the code and switches the lights on in the restaurant. There is a big fireplace surrounded by tree stumps with reindeer hides on them. Sophisticated black lamps are hanging from the ceiling high above.

Everything is in place, organised and prompt. Things were not like that always. At least not in the life of an entrepreneur. At 18, Jani forgot the second most important rule his father had taught him:

  1. Even the best ideas are useless until you execute them.
  2. Nothing is as expensive as a cheap accountant.

After completing his military service, Jani founded an ad paper. He sold the ad space and delivered the paper himself. Accounting was not on the forefront of the young man’s mind which led to the tax administration contacting him.

It took quite a few working hours to cover the tax debt: slicing bread at a bakery, cleaning with a pressure washer, diving, construction, applying window graphics, ads, car repair and building rally cars, assembling sleighs at a factory.

At the same time, he had to figure out how to pay for a rally car and competing.

- As the level got higher and higher, it demanded more and more money. I was working like crazy. There was a week when I slept for 15 hours only.

One day when Jani was working driving a truck from Rovaniemi to Levi, he felt fluttering in his chest. He looked at the side of the road, saw a P sign and steered towards it. Then the 28-year-old passed out.

AFTER THE ARRYTHMIA Jani made a decision. That was it with the car racing. Unless there was a way to get paid to do it.

- I started thinking how would I do that.

Jani started driving tourists and training drivers in Juha Kankkunen’s driving school. This is when he got an idea. A piece of land, 17 hectares of mostly wetlands, was up for sale near Levi. Jani sold his old race car, bought the land and went to see if it was possible to clear it turning it into a wintertime track area.

It sure was. During the first winter, on top of snow and ice, a track 1,5 kilometres long was ploughed. There were two garage tents next to it. No electricity, no heating, nothing. The gas heater in the corner was for the customers.

Then arrived the email that changed everything.

Jani Ylipahkala held the world record for going the fastest on two wheels recording a speed of 200 km/h. For a while he also held the world record for tightest parallel parking.

- I could reclaim the record if I had the time to concentrate on it.

A TIMID SMILE appears on Jari Ylipahkala’s face as he is rocking on the balls of his feet thinking back to that.

An agent in the auto industry was looking for a wintertime driving centre for a German client. They would need garage facilities of at least 2000m2, a restaurant of around 600m2 and a driving track of 250 hectares. Levi Rally Center had a kota hut and 20 hectares of swamp.

- I replied that we are in the middle of extension work, when do you need it done.

In spring 2013, after months of back-and-forth, Jani Ylipahkala and Porsche signed the contract. It took 16-hour days and the legendary chainsaw before everything was finished.

The day when the Porsches roared through the electric gate for the first time, an employee called that a reindeer has managed to wander in the middle of the course. Usually during the winter there weren’t any there. Jani hopped on a dune buggy, drove next to the reindeer, jumped onto the reindeer’s back and stopped it.

- I hadn’t even petted a reindeer till that day.

Jani glances at the projector attached on the ceiling beam. There is a story there, too. One day Porsche’s media manager was squinting trying to find out the projector’s model number asking what it might be. Ylipahkala took one look, grabbed a hold of a supporting log beam hoisting himself up, then climbed a couple metres up onto the ceiling beam and proceeded to read the model number to the client staring at him from below.

- We provide service always. It’s in my nature that I see challenges, not problems. The attitude is the customer gets what the customer wants.

PORSCHE, AUDI, SUBARU, Continental, Bridgestone… The business has grown into a hundreds of kilometres of driving tracks becoming Lapland Driving, a company with two driving centres in Levi and one in Rovaniemi.

What is it like to provide services for international luxury brands and jetsetters used to high quality?

Jani grins.

- It’s all about the attitude, that you are willing to give your everything to each customer. A small boy who comes in to drive ice karts gets the same kind of service as a CEO.

DID YOU KNOW? Lapland Driving consists of three driving centres: Levi Rally Center, Area X Levi and Rovaniemi Driving Center.

Once Ylipahkala’s client wanted thirty flagpoles alongside the course.

- I made phone calls throughout Finland but in the middle of December there were no flagpoles available. We ended up making them ourselves.