All photos Copyright ©2009 Jackie Owen Photography / Michael C. Harley, Weblogs, Inc.
Steamboat Springs is located just west of the Continental Divide in northwestern Colorado. Situated about 7,000 feet above sea level, legend says the town was named after a bubbling geothermal hot spring that mimicked sounds of a steamboat to early pioneers (unfortunately, an errantly-placed stick of dynamite during railroad expansion ended the chugging sound in 1908). Hot springs aside, Steamboat is most famous as a world-class ski resort due to their abundant "champagne powder" snow. In layman's terms, champagne powder is very smooth and dry snow -- nearly perfect for skiing. All told, Steamboat averages about 350 inches of the fluffy white stuff each year.
Twenty-six years ago, the Bridgestone Winter Driving School opened its doors to teach drivers how to competently, and confidently, drive in treacherous winter conditions. With seemingly unlimited "champagne powder" falling from the sky during winter months Steamboat offered the perfect environment for the school and their purpose-built snow and ice track. The curvy road circuit is situated on a farmer's sprawling hay field, just a few miles from the main ski area. Each winter, as the snow naturally accumulates, the school painstakingly cuts, plows, and compresses the snow into their custom "road course." It is unlike anything you have ever seen before.
The huge track (there are actually three completely independent circuits on the property) follows the natural contours of the land, rising and dropping with the terrain. Making things more interesting, the school has sculpted both banked and off-camber turns into the plowed snow. Then, to challenge even the most skilled driver, they pour more than 250,000 gallons of water into the frozen brew. The result is a formidable compacted surface of powered snow checkered with sheets of polished ice. You can barely stand up on it, let alone drive around it.
The Bridgestone Winter Driving School (it's not actually owned by Bridgestone -- they are just the title sponsor) opens each winter in December. Participants include students with learner's permits, professional rally drivers, truckers, and even military special operations agents. Participants learn everything from the basic fundamentals of winter driving to advanced world-class rally racing techniques. We were invited to Steamboat to take the "Second Gear: Full-Day Safety" class.
All instruction is done in Toyota vehicles (the company is another major school sponsor). Each winter, the automaker supplies new vehicles to the school. Upon their arrival, the all-season tires are promptly removed and replaced with full sets of Bridgestone Blizzak tires. According to the pros that run the school, it's their tire choice, and it is the best winter tire available. While we spied some other models around the paddock, our class instruction was all done in brand-new 2009 Toyota 4Runner 4WD SR5 models (shod with Bridgestone Blizzak DM-Z3 tires) and brand-new 2009 Toyota Camry LE V6 models (wearing Bridgestone Blizzak WS-60 tires).
The first part of the Winter Driving School instruction is held in a traditional classroom at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort. Discussion topics include understeer, oversteer, vehicle balance and weight transfer under different surface conditions. Anti-lock brakes, and their proper operation, are also reviewed. And of course, we learn a lot about Bridgestone snow tires.
Like a shoe, there is no such thing as a tire that is perfect for all conditions. While outward appearances may make all tires look alike (black and round, right?), there are internal construction differences, compound differences, and tread pattern differences. These variables determine the service temperature, speed rating, load rating, and traction of the tire. Without diving too deeply into the technical minutiae (we can, if you'd like), a snow tire is designed for high traction under cold and slippery conditions. Just two decades ago, your typical snow tire was constructed with big tread blocks and small metal cleats called "studs" for traction on ice. While "studded" snow tires were a huge improvement over regular passenger tires, they destroyed the road underneath the tire and were not comfortable to drive on. Eventually, municipalities around the world began banning the use of metal studded tires.
The Bridgestone team first addressed the issue in the mid-1980s in an attempt to develop a "studless" snow tire for the Japanese market. The result of their hard work and engineering prowess was the first-generation "Blizzak" tire. The popularity of the Blizzak specialty tire snowballed globally over the next two decades as Bridgestone continued to refine and push the technical envelope on winter tires. Today, after manufacturing more than 100 million Blizzak tires and with fitments available for nearly every type of passenger vehicle, they are justifiably considered the industry leader in the segment.
Blizzak snow tires utilize patented technologies to address two major issues with winter driving: temperature and traction. When ambient temperatures fall below 40 degrees, the rubber compound in all-season and summer tires stiffens to become hard and inflexible (it literally freezes) preventing the tire from properly adhering to the road surface. Blizzak tires utilize a rubber compound that maintains its flexibility in sub-zero temperatures, allowing the tread blocks to conform to the road surface. The issue of traction is addressed by the patented Tube Multicell® tread compound. On a microscopic level, the tread blocks resemble Swiss cheese with tiny tubes and pores that create thousands of biting edges to grip the road. The thin slippery water layer between the road and tire (created by the compression of the snow) is evacuated and "absorbed" by these small voids to improve traction even further. Lastly, thousands of "sipes" (tiny cuts in the tread) grab and hold the snow firmly to the tread surface while the vehicle is driving. Research has proven that snow grips snow more effectively than any current rubber compound.
[While you'd think a winter driving program would want slippery all-season tires on their cars, there is logic behind the decision to run the Blizzaks at the school. The snow and ice traction offered by the Blizzaks allow the vehicles to accelerate, corner, and brake in a controlled fashion around the circuit. When pushed beyond their capabilities, they break loose just like any other tire... allowing the gentle spins that are critical to the learning.]
Armed with the knowledge, we bundled up and exited to put our hour of classroom learning to practice. A warm bus ride took us the few short miles to the track. When we arrived at the frozen circuit, it was a brisk 18 degrees outside (Fahrenheit). The sun was shining brightly on the blinding white snow, but there wasn't a trace of wind. Thankfully, all of the cars were warmed up, running, and waiting for us to strap in. We split into pairs (romantically involved couples are encouraged not to ride together as emotions have been known to get rather explosive). All cars are fitted with two-way radios so the instructors can station themselves strategically around the course, watch the proceedings, and issue Obi-Wan Kenobi-like commands out of the speakers. It is eerily effective.
Being a sports car guy, I chose a Camry sedan over the 4Runner for the first round. Fitted with a 3.5-liter V6, the 268-hp 4-door will hit 60 mph in just over 6 seconds on dry pavement. On the slick stark-white frozen track, my normal throttle application was immediately met by a spinning tires and absolutely zero forward movement. It was painfully obvious that this Southern Californian native was going to have to do some adjustments to his driving techniques.
Slowing down, and seriously modifying my aggressive driving style, I was soon comfortable enough to crawl the Camry around the frozen track following an instructor in another vehicle. After we were familiar with the course layout, we began our exercises. All of the vehicles have been custom wired with an "ABS-defeat" switch to effectively kill the electronic braking aid. We took some time practicing and getting used to the braking with and without the system. Then we moved on to more exciting exercises such as deliberately inducing severe oversteer and understeer, and learning how to recover. The school teaches that if a driver is able to anticipate a loss of control (such as a patch of ice breaking the rear wheels loose), it is easier to recognize the problem, input the proper vehicle controls, and drive out of the problem safely.
It is worth mentioning that the school has brilliantly engineered "soft" sculpted berms of snow on each side of the 50-foot wide track. The "champagne powder" that makes skiing so enjoyable just happens to be car friendly when hit at reasonable speeds. (The powder is forgiving, but if you do something really stupid, like somehow launching your car over the barrier and land on your roof, you are going to buy yourself a Toyota after your headache subsides.)
The oversteer "skid pad" was actually a large loop in the track with an off-camber downhill section checkered by several huge polished sheets of ice thinly disguised under a dusting of snow. Short of a hiker wearing crampons, nothing had traction in those areas. We swapped cars for this exercise, as the heavy 4WD 4Runners were a cinch to spin. Coming around the bend, we'd apply hard throttle to build up the speed to about 30 mph. The steering wheel would be cranked all the way over (180 degrees) and held as the throttle was released. After a second or two, the back end would predictably come around. Catching the skid required opposite steering wheel input and a careful bit of throttle. We did this exercise countless times until it became nearly second nature.
The understeer exercise worked in a similar manner. We'd build up speed before a corner and then generously apply steering input. The front wheels would instantly lose traction, and the vehicle would plow ahead. By gently unwinding the steering wheel, the front wheels would slowly spin again thus restoring our turning capabilities. In another exercise, we learned how to threshold brake on the slippery surface (with ABS disabled) while dodging cones. As before, we repeated the drills until it become comfortable.
After lunch in the heated yurt (you'll have to look that one up), we hit the track to run more exercises and apply what we had learned during the morning sessions. The ambient temperature was now in the mid-30s, meaning the track conditions had changed rather significantly. We practiced adjusting our techniques to the softer snow (cold, dry snow offers much more traction than wet and slushy snow) while doing laps around the track. The instructors on the radios helped maintain the gap between the vehicles, but we were free to drive as fast as our skill levels permitted. The speeds were blindingly fast compared to the morning. At one point, I saw nearly 60 mph on the straights before braking for the 90-degree corner.
With several hours of instructed winter driving under our belts on Blizzaks, the school brought out another Toyota Camry with brand-new Michelin MXV4 Plus all-season tires for our media group to try. It took only a fraction of a second to realize that the tires were out of their element and nearly useless on the track. While the throttle could be lightly feathered to eventually bring the car up to speed, the braking and steering ability of the all-season tires was miserable at best. Compared back-to-back with the dedicated winter tire, the all-season tires were completely unacceptable and very dangerous for driving on the track. The difference was drastic, and it was a serious wake-up call for all of us. (Bridgestone officials were very quick to point out that any brand of all-season tire, even theirs, would have performed no better than the Michelin tires under the same conditions.)
Although a winter driving school may sound a bit frivolous to someone who doesn't live in an area that receives significant snowfall, each of the exercises the school taught were equally applicable to driving in snow, rain, or even on a dry race track. Losing control of a car can happen at nearly any speed and under many conditions. Addressing the dangers, the purpose-built snow and ice track at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School allows students to learn hands-on how to anticipate, correct, and regain control of a skidding car under safe conditions and at low speeds. It's a skill that saves money, property, and maybe even lives. Autoblog had a very unique and highly enjoyable day in Steamboat Springs. Our one regret was that we didn't stay an extra day to ski!
The school's site: Bridgestone Winter Driving School
All photos Copyright ©2009 Jackie Owen Photography / Michael C. Harley, Weblogs, Inc.