“You know, they do some ice racing around here when it freezes up.”
“Oh yeah? Competitive?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Within days of this conversation, I’m driving someone else’s Honda onto a fairly large oval plowed into a frozen pond by the Lakes Region Ice Racing Club, as an unknown quantity, to evaluate whether or not I’m a hazard.
I can’t say I understood the full extent of the commitment made when I passed, and agreed to come back and race the following year, but I’d learn.
It feels disingenuous to claim to be more experienced with any one world of motor racing than another, the sum total of experience being minimal. However, very little is more than none, and my focus is road racing, what starts at track days or “budget” endurance racing, and scales up in a breathtaking, extraordinary way. This is a hill I’ve only just begun climbing; I’ve done small things, and made small plans, as I’m able. Baby steps. Learning more helps to illuminate the depths of remaining ignorance.
Last fall, through a new connection within the family, I was introduced to a side of the motor racing world that I’d have neglected otherwise, the oval. Not that I held it in any lower regard, but I had never been present to understand.
Oval racing scales differently. Without exposure to a local racing community, all you may see are the highest levels of NASCAR, where inscrutable sums of money are spent chasing refinements in a context where such is ostensibly disallowed. This hardly even makes sense, and isn’t very inviting for an amateur. If you don’t know where to look, the entry points can seem well hidden.
Which is not to say that, devoid of context, it’s any more difficult to get started in this than in road racing, in fact I would argue the opposite can be true. But that context is important: Through different situations in life, different opportunities avail themselves.
My little experience with legal competitive driving has accrued via opportunities offered to the broader public: On the internet, track days, autocross, and amateur endurance racing options are accessible to anyone who wants to dabble in performance driving and has modest play cash.
From what I understand of the road racing world, a bit more commitment gets you into regional club racing, whereupon you can say without irony, qualifiers, or pretense that you are a race car driver, and I imagine if you find profound success at this level, you’re positioned to at least make an attempt in a premier sports car racing series. Of course, the childhood dream of being paid to race may be fully extinguished by this stage, as you’re likely making a much better living in whatever industry has allowed such an effort to this point, assuming you’re a working adult rather than a fully-funded adolescent prodigy.
Another important consideration is the venue. Road racing tracks are few and far between, so even a rank beginner is almost sure to trod the same ground as legends if they make it to an event to participate.
On the other side of the racing world, a short track takes up much less space to begin with, so they dot the landscape much more frequently. Then, for the price of an MX-5 Cup and some basic accoutrement, you could have either a fleet of entry-level short track cars or even something extraordinary like a sprint car and enough spares to use it, though that’s probably not the place to start.
Within the communities where this is prevalent, it can be an obsession, and it’s not hard to see why. In situ, it’s hard to imagine this being less thrilling than running in top-level televised competition, and the barriers to entry are relatively low.
Compounding those benefits, in colder climates near lakes and ponds, a track can be created at a moments notice on ice, allowing real racing to happen year-round; through chance, it was off of this tangent that I was introduced to the oval.
Talking about racing cars rarely elicits a genuinely interested response in conversation, but in this case, speaking to this friend, I had been pressed. Yes, I had tried a race or two, yes, I was trying to learn more about race driving as my situation allowed, no, I was not joking. Well, these folks are also pretty serious, I’m told.
I had heard heard of SCCA Snowcross, and thought it was something like that. Probably street tires, almost certainly not wheel-to-wheel, maybe lightly competitive.
Finding the website raises as many questions as it answers, but interest is certainly piqued.
One’s first time driving onto a pond for any purpose is a trip, period, but as we’re attending the club’s last race of the season due to warm weather, the surface was more changeable than usual. Spectators had to shuffle their own cars around as large floes took on standing water; this is soft ice. The track itself looks pretty large in person, and relatively well-groomed. By necessity, it’s plowed fresh each race day, and after every other race or so.
The cars are wild. The massive billboard wings on the sprint and modified classes catch the eye, drawing attention away from the conditions. Real race cars. I’m surprised at the mix, there’s a smattering of all different types in all different classes, but more on that later. Also, if one isn’t used to a hearty V8 with open headers firing up right behind you while standing on ice, the results can be great fun for anyone watching.
Those involved are kind and welcoming, and include a significant percentage of those who keep the surrounding towns functioning. And, they want people to come race; fresh blood, they say.
I came because I wanted to participate, though I wasn’t sure what that would mean. It’s an obviously unrealistic act, arriving at any motorsports event without prior experience, nothing but a helmet and hope, and expecting anyone to let you on track with their car. But stranger things have happened.
And here, we meet ourselves at the beginning of this piece. Through our friend who has been an eminent staple of nearby communities, I’m entrusted with someone else’s race car. In this case, it’s a sixth-generation Honda Civic which has been running with a young lady in the junior category. It has a few necessary modifications including a simple roll cage, a five-point harness, ANSI-standard size 60 roller chains wrapped heinously tight around each rear tire, and “V-bar” tire chains intended for light trucks in extraordinary conditions, also impossibly tight, on the driving tires. Preponderant evidence of contact wraps the entire car.
Looking at this, it doesn’t make sense. How does a car with barely one hundred horsepower even spin all of this metal? For lateral grip, what looks like a motorcycle chain? This really works?
There are five car classes, plus a junior category for drivers between the ages of thirteen and fifteen. Rules for these can differ slightly from other ice racing clubs nearby, and sometimes quite significantly from what would apply on dirt or tarmac.
Four-cylinder entries are separated by front- and rear-wheel drive; these effectively comprise the entry levels. The junior drivers also drive cars prepared for these classes, sometimes the same car that has just run (even won) with an adult. At this point in time, the rear-wheel-drive division is comprised of compact pickups, older sports cars, and a lone Volvo, lone for now anyway. The front-wheel-drive category is a mix of aging compact cars. Despite the humble subjects, some of the best racing is here.
Next tier of the natural order is the stock class. Stock, obviously, as in “stock car racing,” since very little of what the factory intended remains. As you may imagine: V8, full-size, Americana. These are big, simple cars, but fast, and as they jump through ruts and heave their weight around the ice, they’re great fun to watch.
The modified class is where from an outsider’s perspective, things seem, suddenly, quite serious. This is where vast rooftop wings come into play, and the cars begin to diverge significantly in basic shape from a normal automobile. Though as “modified stock car” encompases a wide range of styles, it’s not exclusively winged, open-wheeled cars; Other types, including vintage machinery, will make appearances, and there are some very interesting connections to the origins of the sport in this class.
The kings of the ice though, as far as ferocity and sheer speed are concerned, are sprint cars. These are virtually identical to the winged sprint cars you’ll see running dirt short tracks across the country during the summer, with only a few changes: They have a starter and do not need to be push-started, and they’re carbureted, burning gasoline rather than methanol. Also, they have a cute little windshield wiper and very, very different tires.
Twee wipers notwithstanding, these are shocking, visceral creatures, and the noise and violence is intoxicating even just in observation. If I had a winning lottery ticket in hand today, I would own one next week.
Enough dreaming. We’re strapped into a Civic, being told to send it through a worrying puddle forming at a tectonic area of the ice, as in full throttle or else, and keep it out of the snowbanks please.
I’m laughing to myself as I pull away, listening to the rhythmic ka-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk of the chains; a familiar sallow buzz from the motor; ka-blooosh through the water, and after a few seconds humming down the straight of an empty track, I have a little momentum.
There’s nothing of great import to hit on this end of the track, and it’s pretty wide, so I pick a conservative entry point and chuck it. Suddenly, all of the weird shit I’ve been seeing makes sense. The surface of the ice isn’t predictable per se, but the car is well adapted to it and easy to control with what amount to claws on the front tires and skates on the rear. Keep the throttle pinned, make sure you’ll have the car’s weight moving where you need it to go as you’re entering the (left) turn and from there, if you aren’t in traffic, only small movements are required.
After a few minutes I’m waved in. They’re happy that nothing is broken, and I’m happy, knowing I’ll be coming back. It’s an easy transaction.
Driving home with family, plans for the next several months are set.
There’s a Volvo somewhere that has lived an interesting life. It has its own stories, and could become a race car, with some work. Well, what is life but some work? Tune in next time as we give that our best shot.
Photo via the author