When the weather turns cold, scores of well-to-do winter sports enthusiasts flock to the high slopes of Vail valley in Colorado for world-class skiing and snowboarding. But about 20 miles west of Vail Village, high upon a privately owned mountain, sits a secret winter wonderland: a racetrack made of snow and ice.
The twisty road course, built on top of a golf course, is the training ground for Camp4 Colorado, a winter driving school hosted by the Porsche Travel Club, an offshoot of the Porsche Sport Driving School. Here, with professional instruction, participants drive the Porsche 911 Carrera 4, the Carrera 4S, and the Cayenne SUV, in a variety of exercises designed to familiarize drivers with how the cars respond in low-traction conditions.
When I was invited to participate in the program, I was both excited and hesitant; this California girl has hardly ever seen snow, let alone driven in it.
Camp4 offers both a one-day program and a five-day program. The longer school is a combination of driving instruction and recreational activities (with only two-and-a-half days of actual driving time). Our media program was a tad modified--we did one full day of driving, with some additional organized activities afterward.
The Colorado school is based on Porsche's Camp4 program in Finland, a winter-driving program in its eighth year that takes place at the Arctic Driving Center, a test facility long used by car manufacturers for covert cold-weather testing. But whereas the Finnish program takes place on a permanent circuit, the Colorado course had to be created from scratch:
While the weather was still fair, a team of designers mapped out the track circuit, careful to avoid obstacles such as sand traps. When winter hit, the builders used a "snow cat" tractor to pack snow into the grass over a period of a couple of weeks to create a base layer. Then, a water truck was used to run about 75,000 gallons of reconstituted water over the track, one section at a time, to create a layer of ice. Finally, fresh snow was dragged over the ice to create a powdery finish. That's no small feat.
Another thing that impressed me about Camp4 was the quality of the driving instructors. Most, if not all, had professional racing experience--including rally, open-wheel, drifting, and Nascar (though I won't hold the latter against them).
Our day began with a classroom session, where we learned about vehicle dynamics such as weight transfer, cornering, and traction, and how applying steering, throttle, and brakes in different combinations could control (or fail to control) a car in a slippery situation.
After class, it was time to head up the mountain to the track.