The snow has been falling heavily all day, a record-breaking downfall that collects in steep drifts along the roadside. My ice-covered windshield wipers are barely keeping up and the driver’s side window is a blur of snow, ice and condensation. This is the kind of weather that ought to keep otherwise sensible folk like myself indoors and off the roads. If, however, the road in question happens to be carved into the surface of a frozen lake, and you’re behind the wheel of a Subaru BRZ outfitted with a set of studded Lappi rally tires, it’s a different story altogether.
The four-wheel ice-capade known as The Subaru Winter Experience is an annual event put on by the Japanese automaker and Swedish rally champion Patrik Sandell. Subaru provides a fleet of brand new BRZ, WRX and WRX STIs, Sandell provides the instructors and the rest of us just show up packing long underwear and a yen to drive sideways. The result is, without a doubt, the most fun you can have behind the wheel during a snowstorm.
“Feel free to get the car sideways and see what you can get away with,” instructor Nate Tennis says over the radio as I steer my BRZ toward the start gate of the slalom, one of five tracks plowed into the surface of Wisconsin’s Dollar Lake for the event. “Given that you have a rear-wheel drive car, you don’t want to go too hard on the throttle initially,” Tennis says. “If you’re driving with the traction modes off, you’ll have a lot of wheel spin going on, so just be gentle. A little bit of gas goes a long way.” I turn off traction control and stability control, put the car into first gear and hit the throttle.
Many automakers and private companies offer single- or multiday racing schools at tracks around the world, but unlike most of those, where a mistake at speed can have serious consequences, a snow-covered frozen lake is relatively forgiving. If you lose control of your car and spin out on ice, you’ll hit a snowbank, not a wall, and likely won’t be going very fast when you do. The result is a uniquely exhilarating experience where you can repeatedly push a car to the limits of its grip without worrying too much about damaging either yourself or the vehicle.
This, Sandell tells us, is exactly how he learned to drive as a teen in northern Sweden. “If you find yourself stuck in a snowbank, just radio and we’ll have you pulled out,” he says – only half joking. “Just don’t be that guy.”
The basic principles to racing on ice, we learn, are very much the same as driving on pavement: It’s a constant balance between inputs of throttle, steering and brakes. The notable distinction, even with a set of studded tires, is that a hair too much of anything will cause you to lose grip and slide. The difference between a controlled drift and a panicked skid is knowing just how much to add and when.
“Just lift off the gas, turn in the wheel and wait for the car to start to rotate around,” Tennis instructs as I approach the first turn. “Come in with a speed that you can keep the whole way through. It’s better to hold the speed and wait until the car is straightened up; then you can give it gas and it will go to acceleration instead of rotation.”
Keeping traction control fully off, I quickly discover just how hard it is to keep the car from spinning out of control. With traction and stability turned on, however, it doesn’t want to slide at all. Track Mode provides a Goldilocks-like solution to the problem, putting the Subaru’s formidable computing power to work delivering just the right amount of slide and grip, and allowing amateurs like me to mess around on a track without putting anyone in too much danger.
After a day spent whipping the BRZs and WRXs around the lake, I feel like I’m beginning understand the basics. Despite losing control on more than one occasion, I’ve also managed to avoid getting stuck in a snowbank. After one last lap around the lake riding shotgun with Sandell as he effortlessly slides the car through the turns, I realize just how much I have to learn. The snow is still falling hard as the sun sets somewhere behind the grey ceiling of clouds. Fortunately the lodge is nearby, where a hearty dinner is being prepared and the bartender makes a mean old-fashioned.
I’m glad to not be out on the roads tonight. With weather like this, the only good place to drive is on a frozen lake.
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