People of the south: I hate you. Winter doesn’t mean anything to you. Sure, the temperatures drop a little, and you might have to put the top up and crank the heat when the temperature drops below 70. But you can autocross, do track days, and ride motorcycles year round. (Admittedly, I took advantage of that a couple of years ago when I flew to Florida and rented a Harley for two days in January.) Up here in the frozen north, it’s time to prepare for
war winter. No, that doesn’t mean putting up our Christmas decorations before Halloween. Santa’s not allowed until the Thanksgiving turkey carcass is off the table, in my world. It means getting ready for yet another slog through the worst time of year for car enthusiasts like us. For those of you who don’t have to put up with this dark time of year, here’s what we northerners have to put up with.
Track Day? No!
It’s the end of
the world as we know it motorsport activities when the snow threatens to fall. Actual snowfall is not required – only the possibility that a track day or autocross scheduled in November might get snowed out is incentive enough to not bother scheduling one in the first place. Besides, who wants to spend hours standing outside in the cold picking up cones in November? It already gets cold enough at April and October events sometimes. Between now and when the snow flies is the absolute worst – a double whammy of no racing and no snowy parking lots to go hooning around. All we have is video games and poor TV coverage of races elsewhere in the world to entertain us. It’s time for me to go on YouTube and catch up on Stadium Super Trucks and Touring Car Masters, two of my personal favorites.
Time For The Tire Swap
Good sticky performance tires are made to work best when hot, and turn into solid, slippery hockey pucks in colder temperatures. That’s why I’m swapping my BRZ over to snow tires this weekend (the Focus got its snows put on yesterday), despite no snow being in the forecast in the immediate future. Even if I don’t need the knobby tread to dig into the snow for traction, the rubber compound of snow tires is optimized to work best in cold temperatures. They’ll actually grip a cold dry road better than a hot dry road. Temperatures are dipping below freezing overnight regularly now, and I’m starting to find frost on my car when I leave for work some mornings, so it’s time to make the switch. That means the wide grippy Pilot Super Sports get replaced with floppy snow tires over an inch narrower. They’re not nearly as fun, but they won’t be terrible when the snow covers the road.
No More Wrenching
If you don’t have a garage, you’re pretty much screwed when it comes to working on your car during the winter. The usual hazards of raising and supporting a car are exponentially greater on a slippery surface. Tools are easily lost in the snow. Your body’s tolerance for the cold makes every job take a whole lot longer, either because you have to take breaks to warm up, or because you can’t feel your fingers or toes, reducing your dexterity. And while the jobs take longer, the days are at their shortest length, meaning that you have extremely limited daylight in which to start and complete a job.
A few years ago, the differential of Miata #3 died on the way to Christmas dinner. It went home on a tow truck, and I had to worry about how I was going to get to work on Monday. I had a spare open diff in storage (as you do), so I had no choice but to thrash the diff swap out on one of the shortest days of the year. I was fortunate. The temperature wasn’t too cold, and there was no snow on the ground. I’d replaced Miata diffs before, though usually to remove an open diff to replace with a limited slip, not the other way around, but the procedure was the same as I was used to. My friend Brian came over to help. I’m not sure whether his extra set of hands or the beer he brought were more helpful, but both were very much appreciated. I started the work at sunrise, and drove the car around the parking lot on its new/old diff just as the sun set. It was a massive thrash, but we did it.
If you have a garage, you have a major advantage. You can make your own light, vastly extending the hours available for you to work on a car. You’re out of the elements. You don’t have to sit or lie down in a snowbank. If you have heat in your garage, you’re in even better shape. You don’t even need to warm it up to room temperature – when it’s 20 or lower outside, 50 feels downright balmy. The only downside is that you’ll have poor schmucks like me begging you to let me come over and use your garage for a project that’ll only take a day or two and end up taking a month, because Roadkill.
Scraping Off The Ice
Even if you have a garage, you can’t get out of the tedium of scraping the ice off your windows at least some of the time. Add another 5-10 minutes to your commute just to make the car so you can see anything at all from the driver’s seat.
Usually this is merely an annoyance, but after an ice storm it can be a really big deal. I once found my Saturn SL2 frozen in
carbonite more than an inch thick layer of ice. My plastic ice scrapers literally couldn’t scratch the surface – I had to turn to careful use of metal snow shovels to crack the ice enough to start clearing it. The windshield cracked before the ice did. (Thank you, comprehensive glass coverage, for covering that repair.)
Can’t Get There From Here
Even if you do manage to keep your car up and running on good tires, all it takes is a good storm to render you immobile once again. I took this picture after a storm last winter, where they just didn’t feel like plowing the corner of the lot where my assigned parking space is. (My car is the partly blue snowbank in the middle.) I can clear snow off my car and dig out the space, but I’m not going to shovel a quarter of the parking lot just so I can get out. At least if I lived somewhere that I could store a snowblower or big friggin yard truck with a plow, I could take matters like this into my own hands, but unless I wanted to die of an asthma attack I was forced to wait for the plows to get around to doing their job.
As much as I hate winter, I have to admit that even I enjoy just a couple of good things that it brings.
Parking Lot Hooning
I won’t encourage any illegal activity, but who among us can say with a straight face that we’ve never done this? My very first traffic stop happened when a police officer noticed me sliding my Pontiac 6000 around an empty snowy lot. I told him, truthfully, that I was a new driver trying to learn how my new car handled slippery conditions. After running my info he said he had no problem with what I was doing, but I couldn’t do it there on private property, so I left.
I do encourage anyone who drives in the snow to do this soon after the first snow falls. Everyone seems to forget how to drive anytime it snows (or rains, for that matter), so it’s good to refamiliarize yourself with your car’s much lower traction limits in these conditions. It’s also a whole lot of fun seeing just how far you can hold that sweet drift. Just be smart about how and where you do it, and you should be fine.
Most racing in the north stops when the snow falls, but ice racing, by definition, can only happen during the winter. It may seem utterly ludicrous to those of you living where ponds and lakes never turn solid, but there are many groups across the northern US and Canada that organize low grip races on top of the vast open surfaces that frozen lakes provide. Many of these races are wheel-to-wheel, either for dedicated race cars or open to anything.
For many years I helped run the Boston Chapter BMW CCA IceCross series, and I still enjoy attending when I can. Since BMW owners generally tend to care more about scratching their paint, these events are run like an autocross on a frozen lake, not wheel-to-wheel racing. The risk to yourself and your car is low, though still higher than an autocross. Snowbanks can be solid, and can crack your bumper when you bounce off them. Ask me how I know.
Still, this is a great step above parking lot hooning. It’s the only motorsport event that runs in these parts during the winter, and requires actual skill to do well. And, like parking lot hooning, the low traction environment is a great way to improve your car control skills, whatever you drive. I had as much fun in the Focus as the BRZ last year. I’ve even run a Dodge Grand Caravan in the AWD/all-season tire class – and won.
Whether these events run are not are entirely dependent on weather and especially ice thickness. Boston BMW CCA won’t run an event unless the ice is at least a foot thick all over the part of the lake we use. There have been years where no events have run at all because of this. But I’m hoping we run this year. If so, I’ll be there to tell you all about it.
So I suppose winter isn’t all bad. But for me, the bad far outweighs the good. Maybe someday I can live someplace warm and become one of you people I hate for racing and riding motorcycles year round.
(Top photo credit: Allison Feldhusen)