It's time to delve a little further into the crazy, sideways world of ice racing – where grip is at a premium but the grins come cheap. In last week's first article in the series we gave you a little bit of information about the sport in general, or rather sports, and talked about the class structure used by AMEC, the club we'll be running with. We'll be participating in the street legal class with a 2002 Subaru WRX, a very early model purchased right after it finally hit American shores in 2001. It's mostly stock, but the club does have some required changes we'll cover here, and there are some other things you'll want to know before you show up on the ice.
What sorts of things? Well, one important thing is how to drive, or rather how to go quickly around a track of ice without getting yourself high-sided on a snowbank or bumper-locked with a competitor. So, we'll give you an overview of driving technique too, including a little demonstration video that'll give you your first taste of driving at-speed on-ice in a car with no studs. Click on through and join the fun.
Street legal preparation
The street legal (or SL) class is open to just about any car that will pass a New York State inspection, but some changes are required, primary among them being a fire extinguisher mounted with a steel bracket within reach of the driver. Steel brackets can be surprisingly hard to find these days, but a local ACE Hardware shop was able to order us one. Four self-tapping sheet metal screws later and it was soundly affixed to the floor of the car, but before you mount yours make sure you're not putting a hole through anything important like, oh, a fuel line.
Next you'll need unstudded snow tires on all four corners. They don't have to match or be of any particular brand, but you'll want them to be as new as possible. Good snow rubber is incredibly soft and the sharp edges on the tread blocks provide a considerable amount of grip. Once those edges are rounded the tires won't work like they did before.
Most SL folks run Bridgestone Blizzaks of some type. Whether or not they're the best depends on who you talk to, but they do sponsor the class and it's always nice to respect the sponsors. We'll be running Revo 1s on stock rims at the stock size. These cost me $85 each before the 2008 ice racing season, meaning they're on their third year and are getting to be a bit long in the tooth but, as you can see in the picture above, they still have nearly all their sipes and are certainly looking much sharper than the the other tire we threw in for comparison, a Kumho snow that's ready for replacement after many wintertime commutes.
The nice thing about ice racing is that last year's competition tires can often become this year's daily driver tires, but to get the most racing miles before sending them out to pasture you'll want to use them on the road as little as possible. This generally requires swapping wheels at the event, so hit your local car enthusiast's forum and grab an extra set cheap from some tuner who'd rather go out naked than on stock rims.
Which Blizzak is quickest? That's debatable, but avoid "performance" winter tires as they're made with stiffer sidewalls and firmer compounds that provide sportier feel on dry roads at the expense of snow and ice grip. In terms of sizing, go as wide as you can fit in your fenders to put the most rubber on the ice. This is contrary to studded models, where skinny tires cut through the light stuff on top and put tungsten to ice. Without studs, you want to fling as much of that light stuff as much as possible.
Last for the car is a good set of numbers, namely large digits with colors that contrast along with smaller numbers to apply to the top of the windshield and rear glass. Vinyl is best, but for non-dedicated racers magnetic panels are handy. You can slap them on, go racing, then rip them off again at the end of the day. The only problem is that frozen magnets don't conform to the body of the car well, so before the first race throw 'em on the dash and crank the defroster. Even then if you graze a snowbank (and you will) you might leave one of them behind. A little shipping tape on the leading edge will help – but then you have to start worrying about the paint again.
There's one last item you'll need to pass tech, and that's a helmet. Snell 2000 is the minimum rating, but if you're shopping new you'll want to pick up 2005 or a 2010 model if you can find one. Closed- or open-faced is up to you, but many believe that closed-face helmets and airbags don't get along. Thankfully, most airbags are easily deactivated.
Total costs? Let's have a look:
|Tires||$400 - $600|
|Wheels||$400 - $800|
|Mounting and Balancing||$125|
|Race Fees||$50 (per event)|
|Helmet||$250 (and way up)|
Compare that to what we paid to go karting last summer and you can see another reason why this sport is so appealing. Even if you don't have a car you can pick up a used 2WD or 4WD machine in serviceable shape for under $2,000 and have a blast. That's exactly what I did for the first two seasons, cutting my teeth on a $1,500 Subaru Impreza L wagon bought expressly for this purpose.
That's the hardware, but as any racer will tell you the nut behind the wheel is the most important component, so let's talk technique. This is my third full season ice racing and while I'm hardly a pro I have logged a lot of time on the lake, plenty to know that driving fast on ice requires a very different technique than circuit racing. That's obvious, but there are also notable differences from other slip-focused types of racing like rally or drifting thanks to the way the track degrades throughout the course of the race. It's actually similar to dirt oval racing – except that we turn both ways.
Throughout the course of an SL race, unstudded tires polish the ice, drastically reducing grip on the racing line and creating major differences in traction that will catch out anyone not looking for them. Interestingly, these dark, slick sections are exactly what the drivers with studded Menard tires want, as they get the most grip on clean ice. For this reason AMEC typically runs SL cars between Menard-class races: they chew up the ice and give us more grip, we smooth it out and return the favor. It's a beautiful, symbiotic relationship.
Early in the race, when the ice looks rough, there's a surprising amount of grip. You can brake hard and pitch the car into the turn, powering through onto the next straight. It's great fun – until darker ice starts to appear on-line and things get far more challenging. Now you have sections of the track that are as grippy as they were at the beginning but, just a foot or two away, polished ice where just a fraction of the grip is lurking. If your front tires hit these bits first, your car will instantly transition to understeer, sending you wide very quickly. However, if you're drifting your way to the apex and your rear tires hit that ice first you'll instead experience some eye-popping oversteer.
If you're not very quick to unwind the steering wheel in that situation you're likely to nose into the inside snowbank, which could leave you stuck perpendicular to the direction of travel. Not a good place to be. On the other hand, dragging your tail in the outside snowbank can actually be beneficial. Do it right and you can power out of a turn with your outside rear tire -- do it wrong and you might find yourself looking like the unfortunate white Evo in the video above.
Ideally, though, you'll stay off both snowbanks and get quickly through that frighteningly icy corner, because while there is grip at the edges, the loose snow out there can bog you down. Ultimately the quickest way through depends a lot on what kind of car you have and what type of turn it is. On the faster turns you can really just pitch the car in and hang on. It's the slower, tighter turns that require more technique.
When the line gets glossy you'll need to whoa things down a bit more early in the race but, once slowed, you can simply progress around the apex, taking a tight line and avoiding excessive wheelspin at the front until you get back onto the rougher ice. Because your car is probably lighter than the AWD machines, you can manage this inside line at reasonable speed and, very early in the race, even beat some of them through the turns. This is doubly easy if you have a limited-slip front differential. (Hello, SRT-4!)
If you exercise great patience and control with your right foot you may be able to take the same line as described above, but, if you showed up to an ice race with a RWD car, chances are you want to hang the tail out and you're not going to get very far if you're doing so on glare ice. So, move it to the outside and send that loose snow flying.
All-Wheel Drive, Open Front Differential
This is the most common layout you'll see in the SL4 class thanks to the numerous Subaru models (like this WRX) with limited-slip center diffs but open front ones. This means that once either of the front wheels spins up the other wheel will get no power – that spinning wheel will just keep spinning faster and faster. Accelerate hard when you're understeering like this you'll probably just do a peg-leg burnout straight into the outside bank. If conditions get really bad, brake normally but lift slightly and dive straight across the slick racing line. As soon as your front tires hit the rough stuff on the other side, stomp the brakes briefly again to get some grip on the front then make with the turn, pivoting the car on the rough ice and snow kicked to the outside. It's a longer line, but it's controllable and reasonably fast.
All-Wheel Drive, Limited-Slip Front Differential
A few of the cars out there come with limited-slip front differentials, notably the Subaru WRX STI and later Mitsubishi Evo models. This means the two front tires will spin at the same rate, giving considerably more bite to pull the nose through a turn regardless of conditions. Those lucky enough to possess such a drivetrain can more or less just turn in and keep their foot in it -- follow a good line with a proper drift and your wildly spinning front tires should pull you right through.
Ultimately, patience is the biggest thing you need when racing an unstudded car on ice. Things happen very slowly with so little grip and, while AMEC occasionally puts together courses that will have you pulling 60 degree drifts at 70mph, in general your lurid slides will be happening at 20 or 30. Get impatient, try to accelerate too quickly, and you'll probably just run wide – possibly into the door of someone more patient. You simply have to keep your car balanced (left-foot braking helps, if you're comfortable with it), feel for the car to regain grip, and then be ready when it does.
The key to success, and not crashing, is in deciding very early where you want your car to be and taking very deliberate steps to make that happen. Last-minute changes don't work so well here.
What's next? It's go-time. As I mentioned above I've been doing this for a few years now, but with an 11-month gap between the last event of 2009 and the first event of 2010... well, let's just say the fenders aren't the only things getting rusty. We'll be back with plenty of video and pictures to show you how things went, plus I'll walk you through my pre- and intra-race regimen that should keep you from suffering the indignity of having a wheel going flying off mid-race. I'll tell you all about that next week, too.