Ice racing is the most fun you can have on four wheels

Sliding around, wheel-to-wheel on a frozen lake? It's amazing, but enjoy it while it lasts, because this form of motorsport might not be around for much longer.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
9 min read
Randy Cresci/Clutchfoto

If you want to get into racing, there are plenty of hurdles you'll need to overcome along the way. For traditional sorts of racing that take place on racing circuits or rally stages, those hurdles are huge. Cost is the one that stops most people before they get anywhere near the pits, but equally problematic are challenges like time and simple availability. And let's not forget risk: No form of motorsport is entirely safe and many entry-level varieties require checking your sensibilities at the starting grid.

What if I told you there was a form of motorsport that is (relatively) cheap, easy to get into, doesn't require hours of maintenance after every race and is quite safe -- at least, as far as these things go. Ice racing is that sport, and not only does it tick all those boxes, it is, I believe, the most fun you can have on four wheels. There's only one big caveat: you have to live somewhere cold, and believe it or not, that's an increasing challenge.

Sideways on the ice is the only way to be

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What it is

Quantifying amateur ice racing is difficult because there's no single, dominant organizing body establishing what such an event should look like. So, I'll loosely define "ice racing" as any event where you drive on ice at speeds greater than your car's designers had in mind. Since most cars are designed to be operated primarily on dry asphalt, you really don't need much velocity before you're well and truly operating outside the performance envelope. (And yes, I see all you motorcycle ice racing clubs out there and I send you my respect, but for this article I'm just focusing on the four-wheeled antics.)

Beyond that incredibly vague definition, ice racing is highly dependent on your local club. Many organizations run relatively low-speed time trials, slippery autocrosses that test your own patience as much as your car's performance. Other clubs run wheel-to-wheel races on short tracks populated by welded-up jalopies that look like extras witnessed in the last Mad Max movie. I've even seen footage of icy big rig racing and then there's whatever this fantastically excessive event is.

However, the kind of racing I primarily want to talk about here is that which I participate in with one of the best-organized racing bodies in the US. Since 1954, the Adirondack Motor Enthusiast Club, or AMEC, has held events on the various lakes that punctuate the tiny towns in and around the Adirondack Park in New York. Many of these villages basically shut down to all but snowmobilers for the months between December and March, but on Sunday afternoons, if the conditions are right, you might just see a gaggle of misfit machines gridding up to race.

AMEC events run on simple circuits plowed out by a graciously dedicated and immensely appreciated plow crew. When I started doing this a decade ago, tracks were often in excess of 1.5 miles, but these days ice conditions often necessitate tracks less than a mile in length. These tracks are run clockwise and feature turns going both left and right, though those corners tend to be of the sweeping variety.

AMEC racers, you see, like to go fast, and that they do wheel-to-wheel, often with dozens of cars on track at the same time. It can get busy out there. A weekend's entry fees? Just $70, which gets you a 20-minute practice session followed by three 15 or 20 minute races. That, dear readers, is as good a value as you're likely to find in the wide world of motorsports.

Ice Racing

Not too often you'll see a pit lane with boats in the background...

Randy Cresci/Clutchfoto

Hold on, you drive on lakes?

Yes, plus various other waterways, too. And yes, it's safe. AMEC has been doing this for 60-odd years now and the various officers have the process of measuring ice thickness down to a science. Ice must be 12 inches thick throughout, a volume providing plenty enough buoyancy to support the hundreds of cars that show up for a big event, plus the big tow rigs that bring many of them there.

Regardless of all that, you'll probably still get a funny feeling the first time you drive down a boat ramp in your car. I did too. You'll get an even funnier feeling the first time one of those big tow rigs cruises by your grid spot and the whole surface of the lake shifts beneath your feet. It's always easy to pick out the newbies at the drivers' meeting: They're the ones jumping every time the ice shifts.

Yes, it is safe, but that's not to say there aren't risks. This is wheel-to-wheel racing and crashes do occur. Serious injuries are rare, but they do happen, as do wrecked cars. As in all forms of motorsport, don't race what you can't afford to lose.

What you'll need

Most ice racing clubs provide some means of getting out there with your road car, and AMEC is no different, featuring classes for both street-legal (SL) two-wheel drive and all-wheel drive machines. You will, at a minimum, need proper snow tires to enter, though SL cars can optionally step up to the street-legal-studded (SLS) class. Here the Nokian Hakkapeliitta is the spec tire.

Cheap snow tires can be had for $50 a corner, though you can spend more than four times that on premium rubber. For a set of Hakka 9s, Nokian's latest studded tire, you're probably looking at $150 and up per tire. But, the great news is that if you treat your tires right and don't run unusually high or low tire pressures, a set will last a full season.

ice racing studs
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ice racing studs

Nokian Hakkapeliitta 9 tires are the spec option for the studded, street-legal glass.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Yes, a full season on one set of relatively affordable tires. How many other series allow that? Nokian supplied me a set of Hakkapeliitta 9 tires for the purpose of putting this article together. Though they have very short, DOT-legal studs that barely protrude beyond the surface of the tire, they offer a massive improvement of grip over an unstudded tire on clean ice. And, after six race weekends in both 2018 and 2019, about 18 race sessions plus various practices, my set hasn't lost a single stud.

Eventually, though, they will begin to wear out and start throwing studs. Unstudded tires, meanwhile, get increasingly hard and lose grip as the corners of their tread blocks round off. There's still good news, though, too: Last season's race tires just become this season's street winter tires.

AMEC does offer plenty of other, racier classes if you want to go faster, all of which run on tires with more aggressive race studs. I won't iterate the various requirements for the myriad classes (you can read the guidelines here), but suffice to say your car will require a roll bar and some extra lighting at an absolute minimum.

Stick with the SL or SLS classes, however, and all you'll need will be a Snell-rated helmet, a set of numbers and a few other things to ensure you keep your pit area clean. That's it. Personally, I race in a 2004 Subaru WRX STI that I drive to and from every event.

The technique

The technique of ice racing is effectively a form of drifting, but you won't get any points for style here. This is very much a race, and the act of driving your car sideways at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour, inches away from the door of another car, is thrilling to say the least. It's also pretty damned challenging.

Traditional circuit racing is all about finding the line and then making the best use of your car's abilities along that line. In ice racing, things get a lot more complicated because the line itself is often quite different from what you'd use on an asphalt racing circuit. Additionally, that line has an annoying tendency to shift through the course of a race.

Much like trying to find the pocket in a dirt oval event, the ideal line through a given corner on the ice will change over the course of a race heat. In the SL races, the rubber-heavy tires polish out the ice, creating very smooth, low-grip patches at the apex and in the braking zones. Conversely, the faster cars on race studs dig up the ice and make it more rough.

So, like racing in the rain, you often have to find the grip first and let the line come next, but even doing that will require a driving technique that's rather... extreme.

Ice Racing
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Ice Racing

You'll often see some real classics out there on the ice.

Randy Cresci/Clutchfoto

All sideways all the time

Bench racers often use the term "lock-to-lock" to describe a situation where they had to frantically counter-steer to correct for a tail-happy car. In general, that's hyperbole. In ice racing, however, you will regularly explore the maximal extent of your car's steering, often while swearing and watching a snowbank grow rapidly larger through your side windows. That's just part of the fun.

And it is fun, but the goal on ice isn't to go as far sideways as possible. You actually want to keep your car pointed as close to straight as possible to ensure you're carrying the most speed. Going sideways with your foot on the gas can be fast, especially in a heavy AWD car with a laggy turbo, but finesse and control are far more important.

Finesse here primarily means understanding and managing the balance of your car. Simply getting a feel for your car's behavior on ice can take a full season of racing or more. Getting to the point where you feel fully in control can take much longer. But, to truly find success, you will have to deploy every trick in the racer's book.

Pendulum turns? You'll need these if your car has the slightest tendency toward understeering. Rev-matching and toe-heeling? Smooth is fast, and if you have a manual car you'll be busy. You'll be kicking the clutch and left-foot-braking to manage over- or understeer, trail-braking to keep some weight (and grip) on the nose plus a dozen other techniques I'm forgetting about.

If you haven't gotten the idea by now, ice racing can be incredibly challenging. It relies on feel as much as technique, and that feel can take a very long time to develop. More than one eager newbie has spent their first race stuck in the snowbank outside the very first turn. But, master this, and I firmly believe you can handle just about anything.

Where you can do it

My club, AMEC, runs in Upstate NY, most frequently on Lake Algonquin in Wells, NY, but at a number of other lakes in the region. Here's a short and by no means complete list of other car-minded ice racing organizations in North America:

(Did I miss your club? Email me and I'll be glad to add it.) 

Ice Racing

Close racing is to be expected at all times.

Randy Cresci/Clutchfoto

But for how much longer?

I hate to end on a downer, but I will, because I'm increasingly afraid that ice racing is a dying sport. I've never spoken to a group of motorsports fans more concerned about climate change than those shuffling around in the pits on a lake in March. As an 11-year veteran, I'm still a relative newcomer compared to many folks that make AMEC run, yet even in that time I've seen a noticeable change in things.

Finding good ice seems to be getting more difficult, with tracks often getting shorter to avoid bad patches or events canceled late due to unpredictable weather. If that weren't bad enough, insurance costs are skyrocketing and, while the businesses in these small towns are happy to see us come by in the dead of winter, many locals would prefer we took our show elsewhere.

Each year the outlook seems a little more grim, and so each year I find myself pondering something else to keep me busy on winter weekends. But then I get out there and spend the day sideways on the lake, STI screaming for mercy and tires doing their damndest to find grip, and I find myself totally addicted again.

I'm convinced this is the greatest form of amateur racing on planet Earth, so if you have the means and the geographic proximity, get yourself out there and enjoy it while it lasts.