Subaru Ice Racing School - Click above for high-res image gallery
John Haugland, the man tasked with turning us flacks into ice racers, advised us to do several things the night before our instruction. For whatever reason, being "water positive" stuck with me the most. So before heading to bed I chugged a bottle and a half of water, woke up in the middle of the night, downed the other half and then drank another bottle before heading out to the makeshift circuit. When the time came to man-up in one slightly modified Subaru WRX, I had to liberate some liquid... badly.
Exacerbating my bursting bladder was the near-freezing temps of Park City, Utah, but despite the mid-30s weather and an early morning departure, by the time I rolled up to the staging lights, a fair amount of the course had succumbed to the sun. The result was a circuit comprised of equal parts snow and ice, with a few mud pits thrown in for dramatic measure.
But no matter the state of terra firma, sliding is sliding, grip is grip and opposite lock antics were mine for the taking, so after a quick trip to the port-o-potty I dialed in a few thousand revs, dropped the clutch and sped my way towards the first chicane. It took all of two turns and several muffled orders from Haugland to begin to see the allure of ice racing and understand what our man Tim has been proselytizing in his ongoing series.
My first go-round was suitably slow and occasionally sideways, but for the most part it was an exercise in anticlimactic understeering. And then... epiphany!
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I've toyed with left-foot braking before with varying degrees of success, but the precise mechanics have continued to allude me. Despite considerable studying and endless late-night practice, the precise timing and pressure necessary to quell understeer never quite clicked. Until now.
On my second run around the course I blew through the first right-left-right chicane using every fiber of my being to avoid completely lifting off the the throttle. By the time I hit the braking zone the ABS was in full chatter, pulsing through the pedal as I questioned just how quickly I should've entered the right-hander. I turned in, got on the power almost immediately and felt the front end begin to slide towards the snow bank. I consciously pulled my left foot off the floorboard and gave the middle pedal a stab. Too much and too slow. My left foot, which has been playing solely with the clutch for half my life, failed to take direction as well as its counterpart. But there was a fleeting moment right before my instructor's head slammed into the dash that I felt the front tires dig in and stop sliding. That's the point I was after, so on to the next bend.
But first, a quick word about cornering.
Nearly everything I've been taught about taking a turn on a road course has been thrown out the window. Yes, laying into the stoppers in a straight line still holds true and a certain amount of trail braking is a must to get the rear end rotating, but the cornering angles are completely and utterly different. And flummoxing.
Check out that corner map above. See the orange racing line? Fuggetaboutit. With rallying it's late apexing uber alles. In order to take the turn at speed, you've got to be on the gas milliseconds after you turn into the bend. It's part throttle at first and by the time you're eyeing the (way late) apex on the other end you've got the long pedal buried into the carpet and a dab of oppo dialed into the wheel. You've got to make the corner your bitch. And spank it.
Naturally, the first time I bomb my way through a bend I turn in too early, understeer my way towards the foreboding wall o' snow and completely forget that I should've been on the power the entire time. By the time I've made one lap around, the line is starting to make sense. Brake hard, turn in slightly, lift off the stoppers and then starting feeding in the throttle while keeping the wheel cranked over. Full power mid-bend and gracefully slide to the corner out. It's all starting to gel, but as my mid-turn speeds increase the front tires are failing to grip, despite the small studs coating the outside of the snow tires. Time to dust off that left foot and climb into an STI.
The first outing is predictably deplorable, but Haugland sees what I'm trying to do an offers some advice through his thick Norwegian accent. "Lift your heel off the floor," I hear him crackle through the helmet-mounted speakers, "You want to move your leg, not your foot." Sure, but my leg and calf muscles are barely up to the task of articulating at that angle, not to mention with the delicacy necessary to apply a precise amount of braking. Regardless, I give it a try and, miraculously, I'm getting a feel for it.
"Now!" he commands as I straighten the wheel and start applying the throttle. The trick – as he mentioned earlier in the day – is to give the brakes a slight push just as the wheel returns to center. The grip is greater and not only does it keep understeer at bay, but the back end unloads just enough to provide the right amount of rotation.
On my final lap in the bestudded STI I come up to the same corner I flubbed earlier in the WRX, brake, turn in, go-pedal and breathe on the brake. The front end bites into the ice-turned-snow, I feel the back end go ever-so-slightly light and then punch it, fully committed to the corner. I slide out, nick the rear bumper on the snow pack and do it again on the next corner, followed by a fascia pummeling blast through a foot-deep slush pit. When I emerge on the other end of my muddy baptism, I'm reborn. Rally racer? Hardly. Ice aficionado? Not quite. But educated in the ways of stout Subarus, all-wheel drive, powerslides and physics hacking. Most definitely. Now, off to the restroom... again.