HITTING THE ICE



The time has come to do it for real. We've walked you through the various classes offered by the club we'll be racing with, and we've shown you what it's like to drive at speed on the ice, so there's nothing left but to do it in anger. In this installment of An Introduction to Ice Racing we'll hit the first event of the season, tell you how to get ready to race once you're on the ice, and dazzle you with plenty of in-car video from first event's three heats – including footage of a few unfortunate incidents that left fenders crumpled and tensions flared.

It's all below, so click on through and check out the action. We promise not to put a single dent in your monitor.


Related GalleryIce Racing at Caroga Lake, NY



The first event

AMEC's first two events of the 2010 season were scheduled to take place in early January, but both were canceled due to inadequate ice. This was bad news for local racers, but good news for me since I was off playing at CES and wouldn't have been able to attend regardless. The first event with adequate conditions took place on January 17 at Caroga Lake, NY, a little town north of Interstate 90, somewhere between Albany and Syracuse. I was on the road early, car loaded down with my usual racing kit:
  • Helmet
  • Driving shoes
  • Wheels and tires
  • Floor jack
  • Breaker bar, torque wrench, sockets, and other miscellaneous tools
  • Magnetic numbers
  • Shipping tape
  • Portable air tank
  • Window cleaner & paper towels
  • Snacks and drinks
That's more or less the same stuff you'd bring to an autocross or the like, but in addition you'll want some seriously warm clothes, including the toastiest boots you have – standing on ice tends to make the tootsies cold. That sort of boot tends to be on the clumsy side, so you'll need a pair of proper driving shoes to change into.

Registration was at a restaurant just up the road, where you pay your money and get yourself a tech sheet. This gets filled out and handed to the inspectors later. If they like you and the shape your car is in, they'll exchange that tech sheet for a sticker on the windshield. If they don't, they'll send you home, as one unfortunate would-be racer discovered on this day when his car didn't make the cut.

Sheet in hand, it was time to head onto the lake, driving out a former boat launch to get to the pits. Feel free to be tentative your first time rolling out onto a lake – it's to be expected, but before long, you'll stop worrying about ice thickness and start focusing on finding a good grid spot. AMEC's pits are generally enormous and indeed there was plenty of room this Sunday despite an unusually huge turnout. There were a dozen Street Legal 4 entrants (more than half were newbies) and a seemingly endless string of Volkswagens, Dodge Neons, and Saabs running in the two-wheel-drive class.

All would be racing on-track at once, on a course less than a mile in length. Out of practice racers, new entrants and a crowded track. Not a good formula.


Race-day chores


There are a few things that should be done before, between and after the races to give you the greatest chance of having a good day on the ice.

Before races
  1. Pay and get your tech sheet
  2. Find a grid spot
  3. Heat up numbers and decals on the dash with engine idling
  4. Empty car of everything not firmly attached to something (floor mats, spare tire, fuzzy dice...)
  5. Jack up car and swap wheels (if you're swapping)
  6. Check tire pressures
  7. Apply numbers and other decals
  8. Pull ABS and airbag fuses (see below)
  9. Pass tech
If you're swapping wheels, jacking up a car on ice can be a little disconcerting at first. You can often feel the stuff shifting beneath your feet as much of the weight of your car gets focused beneath the jack. It's perfectly safe, but having the jack sink into the snow and ice is a bother. A piece of plywood will keep it from getting wedged in there – and might increase your peace of mind.

Pulling fuses is a topic of some debate. ABS and airbags are obviously important safety equipment on the road, but on the track, I've never been a fan of the ABS systems found in most cars – they can act unpredictably, and unpredictability is never a good thing. That said, many of the other racers leave their ABS on, so you'll want to try it out and see for yourself. In the Subaru, it's easily disabled with a fuse.

The other fuse is for the airbag. As we mentioned last week, airbags and full-face helmets don't get along, and triggering an airbag when hitting a soft snowbank would result in an expensive fix. For these reasons disabling the airbags while racing makes a lot of sense for a lot of people, but make sure you know what you're doing before you go pulling fuses – it is apparently possible to accidentally trigger airbag deployment in some scenarios. That's a surprise nobody wants.


Between races
  1. Leave engine idling for a bit to cool off
  2. Look for damage/hanging bodywork
  3. Ensure all numbers are still attached
  4. Check tire pressures
  5. Clean ice from wheels and wheelwells
  6. Re-torque wheels
Last season, I was asked whether re-torquing wheels between races was necessary and, because of the low grip, I confidently said it was not. The very next heat my front-left wheel went flying off in the middle of a race after the lugs backed themselves off. Thankfully no serious damage was done, and it was a very interesting experience to see my wheel go rolling over a snowbank without me.

The lateral loads you'll be putting on your wheels are indeed lower than those you'd experience on a paved track, but the ice is surprisingly rough and the combination of vibration and side-loads can work your lugs loose. Play it safe and break out that torque wrench between heats – you don't want to wind up like that guy.

End of the day
  1. Replace any pulled fuses
  2. Swap wheels
  3. Load up the car
  4. Clean up any trash or spills
  5. Mind the speed limits on the way home


Tire pressures and other setup secrets

Tire pressures are one of the few tweaks anyone can do, and you'll find people on the ice running anything from single digits all the way up over 40psi. Low pressures allow the rubber to conform to the shape of the ice, ultimately giving more grip. However, the lower you go the higher the risk of a tire coming off the rim in a hard corner or of bending a wheel on a bump in the ice. Yes, the surface can certainly be that rough and the shorter your sidewalls the higher the pressure you'll need to protect them. Having reasonably generous sidewalls, I start about 8psi lower than stock and go from there to adjust the balance, usually running 25psi up front and 28psi in the rear.

One other change you can make is to disconnect your front sway bar if you find your car understeering excessively. This will severely (and unsafely) compromise on-road handling, but on the ice will help you pivot the car without drastic inputs. It's something I did on the previous car I ran, a 98 Impreza L wagon, but haven't felt the need to do on the WRX just yet.




Heat race #1

Remember how I said that it's been 11 months since any of us have raced, and that most of us are rusty? I'll use that as my excuse. That and a general desire to keep my nose clean for the first heat. I didn't do well here. I started mid-pack, a randomly assigned grid position for the start of the year, and right off the start, the #71 black WRX wagon blew by me. I then proceeded to plow through a snowbank after having my vision obscured by his wash.



But, before long I was challenging the #88 blue STI, which I passed at the 5:15 mark in the first video above, and soon the #78 green Audi. After that, it was time to chase down the #76 silver Impreza RS, who I nearly got after a very, very close call with a green Saab at about the 8:50 mark. I would finally get by at around 2:15 in the second video, then promptly gave the position back when I ran wide and almost collected another WRX stuck in a very unfortunate position. We'd dice a few more times, but ultimately I'd lose out to him – and the #88 STI I'd passed before – and many others. I've included most of the first race so you can see the highs, not to mention the lows.

First heat result: eighth out of 12 SL4 competitors.



Heat race #2

This race was much more enjoyable. I finally started to get a better feel for things and the ice was a bit grippier after the studded boys did their thing for another round. I started in a miserable eighth but quickly nabbed a position on the #92 white Impreza, and then was passed under yellow by the #78 green Audi. (He would be later black flagged for this.) Things get interesting at the 2:30 mark in the video above, catching up to the #81 yellow WRX and #88 blue STI, who noses into the snowbank and nearly slides into me.

At 4:00, I run wide and barely miss a cone (would have been a stop-and-go penalty), then spent the rest of the race chasing down the #76 silver Impreza, the leader, who I came very close to passing but never could make it stick. Part of the reason were my brakes. Others had suggested I try running with ABS enabled, which I did in the first heat and found it to be acceptable. But, as the ice got more slick, I decided I didn't like the feel, so I vowed to pull the fuse before the final heat.

Second heat result: second place.



Heat race #3

The first thing I remembered when gridding for the final heat was that I hadn't pulled that fuse, meaning I was stuck with ABS for another race. I didn't think it would be a problem, so I continued on. Also, a scoring mix-up saw me starting further back in the pack than I should have, which meant I had to pass many of those cars I'd already dispatched in heat 2.

For this race we'll ride along with the #81 yellow WRX, who started right behind me. Things go well enough at the start, with me dicing with the #71 black WRX wagon, but not so well for others. At the 2:30 mark above the #76 silver Impreza is hit by the #97 blue STI in the braking zone. The damage was extensive but thankfully cosmetic. (You can see an in-car of the crash here, if you're into that sort of thing.)

The #81 car starts pulling up on me at the 2:00 mark. I run wide at 2:20 and he gets me, but I sneak back by in the next braking zone. At the 4:00 mark I get a run on the #92 white Impreza but my brake pedal goes hard and the car doesn't want to stop. I lay on my horn and thankfully he hears me, giving me room to zip on by and plow through a snowbank. Braking confidence lost, I retire myself, swearing at myself for forgetting that fuse.

#81 continues and chases down the #88 blue STI, toward the end of the video going for an outside pass. The #88 swings a little wide, forcing the yellow WRX into the snowbank and unfortunately they come together.

Final heat result: seventh, DNF.

Wrap-up

First day's racing over, I headed home. I was lucky to be driving an undamaged car, as four out of 12 SL4 entrants had incidents that day. Sadly, those wouldn't be the last of the season, but you'll have to wait for next time to read about that. In the next installment, we'll cover the following two days of racing with plenty more icy footage, then after that we'll be making a trip north of the border to take part in a very snowy track day.

Until then, enjoy the videos above and, as always, if you have any questions about ice racing feel free to throw them in the comments below.