Ice, Ice, Baby!
There are certain things in the automotive universe that just feel...right. The door close "thunk" on a German car, the seats in a Volvo, carrying just the right amount of oversteer around a bend or the feeling after the perfect parallel park on the first attempt.
Driving a car onto a frozen lake for the first time with the intention to race is not one of those things. I tried Wisconsin Ice Racing for the first time recently, and in fact, a lot of what happened that day seemed completely insane and just wrong to the core. But perception doesn’t always tell the real story.
The general idea here is Autocross on ice. The club who puts the event on uses a plow blade on a large pickup to carve a course out of the snow atop the frozen lake. The course is roughly 30-40’ wide. Like a typical autocross course, the point-to-point distance we were dealing with was about 0.7 of a mile long and had about 17 corners to negotiate. The classing has very little to do with engine/power and is almost entirely determined by traction. Winter tire (rubber class), Spec-Studs (I believe 1.25” studs with a certain density/studs per tire target needs to be kept in check), and Unlimited (which is just as it sounds). They split RWD and AWD up as well, since as you’d imagine AWD cars have an inherent traction advantage as well.
So it's timed runs with timing lights, multiple heats throughout the day just like Autocross. UNLIKE Autocross however, is the cone rule. Hitting one during a run here is not just a penalty, it results in a DNF (did not finish). They don’t want you hitting the cones here, and believe me you don’t want to hit them either. The banks of snow are nearly rock hard and the cones are so brittle from the cold that they basically shatter upon impact (as does your bumper). It’s best to give them ample space when driving.
Being my first time trying this, you’d think that it would be a good idea to start slow, and work your way up. You’d also think that given the traction issues that driving on ice obviously has, that an AWD car would be an ideal way to keep things under control. All of this sounds lovely, but in my case, my first ever attempt at Ice Racing would be in the unlimited class. This would be done in a RWD V8-powered Mustang wearing 200+ 1.5” long sharpened studs per corner. And since this is winter in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, it’s a CONVERTIBLE, naturally. Go big or go home, right?
The car in question belongs to a married couple named Megan and Eric - some of my closest friends who are veterans to all things involving cars and a stopwatch. After years of an open-invite to try this, schedules and weather finally aligned and I got to try it for myself. The mustang has a small hitch receiver and drove to the event on normal winter tires which got swapped out on the ice for the home-made studded setup. Tighten the wheels to spec, inflate to 50PSI and shred some ice.
Initial thoughts and reactions
Ice racing on studs is one of those things that you can’t quite imagine what it will be like. Nobody would ever have much issue seeing such tires and believing they would provide more grip than not having them. But the degree that they change the available grip is pure magic. Eric wanted me to see what the potential of the car and the tires was before I tried it (which I agreed was a great idea), so he took me along with his first practice lap as soon as we could. We lined up behind other cars (some with and some without studs equipped) and waited our turn, watching them leave the start line with various degrees of success finding traction.
The first thing that just blows your mind is that we are launching a v8 rwd Mustang on ice, and after a split second of wheelspin, the car just leaps forward to redline as it would with sticky rubber on dry warm pavement. A quick shift to second gear before the first corner and just a foot-full of throttle and you realize you just went to about 50mph on ice without any fishtailing or even a minor loss of forward drive. It shouldn’t be this easy.
It’s noisy too. The ice being chewed up by the steel studs provides a tv-static that is present anytime you’re moving. The roar of the engine with the top down and the wind blasting you at WELL beyond normal Autocross speeds is just a lot of visceral drama that amplifies the feel and visual cues whizzing by.
As Eric went through the course with me holding on tight, I had to readjust my processing of what I was seeing and feeling compared to what my brain thought was physically possible. I had heard plenty of stories how the grip on studs will blow your mind but compared to any normal tire on ice, that leaves a TON of room to imagine. Eric blitzed through the course and my mind was appropriately blown. Then it was my turn to try.
Forget what you think you know
I live in the Chicago area, so I am NO stranger to snow, ice and fairly dramatic winter conditions. I got my driver's license nearly 25yrs ago, so that's two and a half decades of seasonal winter driving. I have spent HOURS fooling around in empty parking lots perfecting my snow-hooning skills with winter tires giving me what used to seem like insane levels of grip and traction in the snow and ice. Believe me when I say that no amount of “normal” winter driving, rally sim racing, etc can possibly prepare you for this.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that the studded setup on this mustang felt closer to a non-track focused summer tire (like a Michelin Pilot Super-Sport) on a barely damp track day than anything my imagination prepared me for prior to my first run on the lake. You drive much closer to a normal car on a normal condition racetrack than you EVER could in a winter environment. There is a copious amount of grip for being on ice. That's not to say there isn't slip - the entire thing is a balance between oversteer and understeer as you turn the car. However, the big difference is the progressive nature to the traction. With grippy tires or on a wet surface, you have grip until you don’t, and then you just GO as you lose the battle and the car loses all composure instantly at the breaking point of traction. This was the opposite - you would have some slip angle and as it increased, the rotation increased but it never ever let go, it just hung out more and more as long as you had more steering lock in reserve to correct it.
The faster you were going, the more slip you'd have, but much like regenerative braking on an electric car, you could FEEL the ice pushing back on your forward progress at all times, so when you weren't pushing hard with the engine, the ice pushes back at you, offering enough grip to feel akin to a boot stuck in mud. It was almost like the feeling of being on a jetski where the moment you let off the forward thrust the water pushes back at you with TONS of force.
You can absolutely use throttle to kick the rear around, but the front holds tight in a way you just can’t fathom. There is almost no perceptible understeer to be found, just a slight delay from when you turn the wheel to when the car darts to the side. Flooring it in a hairpin with full lock (again, we are on ICE) results in an immediate rotation of the car as though the engine is bolted on a swivel on the surface. It’s bonkers. You can give full braking power approaching a corner late enough to make a passenger swear that you didn’t even see the turn coming up.
It all works incredibly well and makes the job far easier than you’d previously thought possible. However, there is a real mental hurdle you have to exercise when Ice Racing on studs. It’s not a cheat code - it just makes you play a different game. Every single instinct you learn over years of driving in the snow and ice are now wrong.
If you lose traction in a normal car, gently lifting the throttle and straightening the wheel so the car can ‘find’ grip again tends to get you back on track. Here, it does nothing. The only way out of trouble on studs is to bury your foot deeper into the throttle and power out. It rewards bravery and learning to trust the grip your brain says isn't there is the key to speed.
As a newbie, the first few runs I took had moments where the car would get upset and my 2+ decades of winter driving instincts would tell me to react in a way that just didn’t help. I had to constantly “override” my instincts and just commit hard. Full send mode is the only recipe for success here which is almost NEVER the case. without those 800 steel claws making up your contact patch.
The Other Thing about Ice
When driving a car on track, or during Autocross, there is an ideal path around the course. There is a consistency in the conditions that is mostly reliable, allowing you to edge closer and closer to “perfection” with each pass. It allows you to push yourself slowly towards the edge of grip, traction and talent in relative comfort. Knowing how your inputs worked out on lap 5 means pushing a bit harder on lap 6 isn’t so risky. The epitome of “Practice makes perfect”.
On the ice, this is not a luxury you have on your side. The course layout stays the same but behaves very differently each and every lap you make. You are CONSTANTLY needing to feel what the car is doing, keep it balanced and react with steering and throttle input. There is no guarantee your braking zone can be replicated with the same results from lap to lap. You drive hard, but with a bit more reserve in the tank that you’ll need for instant reaction adjustments every moment of the run. In good conditions, you can bring the car to the edge of traction in a large arc and hold it there in an optimal combination of cornering grip, balance and forward thrust from the engine. On the ice that day, in the halfway point that was essentially a U-turn with a 70-meter radius, the entire arc was a dance of throttle, about 20 degrees of oversteer and constant steering corrections as the car went over the chewed up ice and snow. It’s violent, eventful and absolutely one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in a car before.
Adding to the visceral chaos of the day, there were tons of people who wanted to have a ride-along in the Mustang. It’s a pretty funny sight to see such a fish out of water car go around the course, so people wanted to experience top-down antics for themselves. Hanging the rear out spitting roost at nearly 70mph in a floppy-chassis mustang filled with friends and co-workers screaming made the physics of the day even more insane.
It went pretty well
By the end of the day, I was going properly fast. Predictably, I was the slowest of the three of us driving the Mustang, but my results were respectable, and certainly not too far off pace. Of the 50 entries of the day, I was in the top ten for fastest times and certainly no rookie was anywhere near as fast regardless of car or tire setup. I left plenty of time out there, but certainly am happy with my first attempt at something SO different from anything I had tried before.
To put things into perspective, the course was about .7 miles long. My fastest time of the day was about 66 seconds, with most of my attempts in the 66-68s range once I got the hang of it. Eric was the fastest RWD car on studs and flew through the lights a solid 4 seconds quicker than I could muster up. As in Autocross, four seconds is a LOT more speed, and he pilots the car like the seasoned pro he is. The average non-studded cars were in the 1:40 range, nearly twice as long as our blitzkrieg runs in the Ford. The studded tires are the real hero of the day here, not me. It definitely requires TONS of skill to do this at all, but the physics-defying nature of the tire setup is other-worldly. Watch this video I made from a few separate laps cut into one run below.
The day was full of new experiences for me. I don’t think I had ever been on a frozen lake before (not counting an ice-rink on a little pond). So driving my car out from a boat launch into the middle of a lake, flanked by 50-some other cars with ice fishing shacks off in the distance was a VERY new adventure on its own. Truth be told, I never really got used to the cracking and popping sounds that would come from the ice all day long. I eventually stopped flinching and freaking out about it, but never got so used to it that I ignored it.
I had an amazing time doing this, as you have probably gathered by now. I’m not planning on converting my car into an ice racer - logistics/location and preservation for my beloved FRS will keep me from doing that - but my open invite to return to pilot the Mustang is enough that I’ll definitely try to make the 4hr trek north for Ice Racing something I try to do annually.
It has been quite a while - probably since my first time driving on track some 7 years ago - that the gears in my head have been whirring so rapidly for days after doing something new. It was wild, exciting, and beautiful and I suggest any driver needing a new experience seek it out. You truly can not imagine what it is like (and how much fun it is) until you give it a try.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report - www.thecyclereport.com - on our YouTube channel. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.