The 5 Basics of Ice Car Racing

On tonight’s episode of Ice Holes, the anglers prove that their fears of falling through the lake ice know few bounds. To kill some time and wait for fish to bite, the guys decide to go ice car racing on the same lake that they’re fishing.

If you think that walking around on a frozen lake is dangerous, you probably feel similarly about racing a 4,000 pound car at 60 mph on a frozen lake. That’s probably a safe instinct, but not one that thousands of people across the globe share every year when they trek out onto large, frozen bodies of water to race their cars against other thrill-seeking drivers.

Curious how this works? Here are the five things you need to know about ice car racing:

1. It’s, you know, slippery out there

With it’s various forms and types of racing on dry ground, it’s difficult to generalize about car racing. The key difference that can make the crossover from land racing to ice racing challenging is the factor of massively decreased traction, which requires a new set of driving skills.

Ice car racing tends to be a daily event, and races change throughout the day as tires wear down the chop in the rough ice. Un-studded tires tend to wear the ice down, causing the track to become smoother and more slippery as the race wears on. With unmodified vehicles, the challenge is to make the car work on the ice, something that it naturally doesn’t want to do. Inconsistent ice on the track can lead to constant over and understeering for inexperienced drivers.

While straightaways may lull newbies into a false sense of recognition (as in: “This isn’t THAT different than regular driving”), that thought is gone as soon as they hit a corner. Making this even more difficult, ice racers naturally kick up ice when they turn, resulting in white-outs hindering visibility on the already tricky ice patches. And even on sunny, 30 degree days, the melting ice can result in a soaked windshield.

2. It’s a pretty niche sport

Because car ownership and proximity to extremely cold temperature climates are a factor, most people don’t know that ice racing is a sport. There are clubs and organizations in North America and Europe dedicated to ice racing, but there’s no professional league for drivers.

The closest competition to any professional level is the ice racing series in the world is the Andros Trophy. Located almost every year in the French Alps, the Andros includes several racing classes, one for driving professionals, one for distinguished amateurs, one for electric vehicles and even a ice motocross race. Unlike many US and Canadian races, the course is through a ski resort instead of on lake ice. There are some big sponsors and famous drivers, making Andros easily the most aesthetically pleasing racing event if you’re judging purely on the price of the vehicle.

3. It can be surprisingly cheap (if you want it to be)

Clubs generally charge annual membership fees and session or entry fees, but most come to around $50 or less for each. If you don’t mind a few bumps in your car, you can race it in street legal leagues, regulates the driving costs mostly to the tires (even here, racing is different: when the ice is really slippery and there’s little traction, cars that hit each other won’t do too much damage, as the cars are more likely to bounce off of one another). Really all you need is something that runs, so it’s common to see an ice race lineup stacked with old, rusting cars purchased for hundreds of dollars.

Of course, that’s at the street legal level: serious pros focus on fine tuning their rides as much as any other racing sport. Modified racers will oftentimes cut up old cars, replace engines, and add a speed wing. Because cars can’t grip too hard to the ice and maintain speed in corners, lighter cars can oftentimes be more effective than their heavier, higher horsepower counterparts. Volkswagen Golf owners may never have thought that they were owners of powerful (ice) racing vehicles.

According to the Houston Chronicle, American parents pay an average of $671 annually for youth sports. So while street legal ice racing isn’t necessarily cheap, if you own a car and aren’t afraid of dents, you can probably pay less for it than you pay for Tommy’s kids soccer league.

4. The tires make the race

For street cars racing on the ice, the most popular tires are the Blizzak snow-optimized variety. These have hard edges, and sipes, or small grooves in the rubber which grip the ice. Both allow for greater traction.

Studded tires are even more common on the ice, particularly with hardcore racers. This is because their increased traction, buoyed by their indents and narrower structure, allow the cars to go even faster on the ice and lose much less speed on turns. Racers with studded tires can reach speeds of 80 or 90 MPH, and are more likely to be found on modified vehicles.

5. Crashes, man

In other forms of racing, crashes are extremely dangerous, or downright lethal. And while crash onlookers viewers can’t help but be transfixed, a good amount at least feel a sense of guilt in doing so. Ice car racing is actually better for this group: most courses have a small snowbank ring protecting the inside and outside of the course. This simultaneously protects drivers from spinning far out into the lake, and creates some fairly spectacular crashes. A collision with a snowbank will be more forgiving than a collision with a wall or barrier, so the guilty car-crash-compilation-watching group can rest their conscience while watching this sport (to a point; ice racing is still racing, which is always dangerous).

Don’t forget to catch the race on “Ice Holes” tonight at 10p and 10:30!