Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) — The car is out of control. A moment ago I blasted into a curve too fast and now we’re spinning on a sheet of black ice, careening sideways. I’m sawing the steering wheel, desperately trying to catch the slide.
The Subaru plows into a snow bank and the engine dies.
“Bound to happen out here,” my passenger, Otis Dimiters, says. Luckily “out here” is not a lonely mountain road but a controlled environment with few hard objects to bang into.
I’m at Monticello Motor Club, a gorgeous new racetrack two hours from New York City that is usually open only to members who’ve joined for $125,000 plus dues. Through March, though, the track is offering a winter driving series on select Saturdays, and these days are open to the public. The price is $200 per driver.
It’s hovering at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius) this morning, and the 1.8-mile section of track is coated with snow and black ice. Hardly the most becoming of days for a Saturday drive, though perfect conditions for the auto equivalent of a backyard Slip ‘n Slide.
There’s a good reason we fret about slick roads: It takes skill to arrest a skid. The best way to learn how and overcome that fear is to practice. And except for tall orange cones, hay bales and some tire barriers, there’s little here to hit when you slide out of control. (Which you invariably will.)
This is not a school, though, nor does the track offer instruction for the fee. Meanwhile, most of these drivers aren’t simply hoping to get around the track — they want to get around it driving fast.
Cars are released one at a time from the pit lane to whip through a series of sweeping turns, rolling hills and down a straightaway. Cars are not racing one another, but the runs are timed.
The vehicles out today are a motley collection, including a decrepit Subaru Forrester, an Audi A4, a Porsche 911 and a GMC Yukon SUV.
“We’ve even had guys out here driving the family minivan,” Monticello’s chief operating officer, Bill McMichael, says.
The track doesn’t provide insurance, so any mishaps are between drivers and their policies.
If you aren’t keen on sliding around in your own car, you might consider renting one from a company like North Coast Rally, based at a Subaru dealership in Glen Cove, New York. For $600 a day, they will deliver an all-wheel-drive Subaru to the track for your use. For an additional fee, an experienced driver like Otis, NC Rally’s team driver, will instruct you on winter driving fundamentals.
Amateurs on Ice
Rally is a motor sport devoted to racing on unstable surfaces like snow and dirt, and it’s gained more visibility in the states thanks to the X Games. It’s an ideal type of racing for amateurs because you can use inexpensive front- and all- wheel-drive cars such as the stock Subaru Impreza that Otis brought along today.
NC Rally also can arrange cars and race support for real races in the Rally America series.
I’ve competed in a full rally before, but clearly my skills need a tune-up. I restart the Subaru’s engine and pull out of the snow bank. Moments later I induce another slide — this time a controlled one — around a bend.
Rally racers use slick surfaces to an advantage: It can be quicker to slide through a corner than take a traditional driving line. For the rest of us, though, the knowledge of how to get out of a skid safely is more important.
It’s a counterintuitive technique: As you begin to slide, you actually turn the steering wheel into the direction of the skid, which allows the tires to regain traction. But it’s just as important to almost immediately twist the wheel back the other way so you’re pointed back on the road. You’ll often make a series of very fast back and forth adjustments.
Sound complicated? It is, and you don’t have time to think about it when a skid happens. So a day like this can be quite rewarding — and extremely fun.
I’m splitting the laps with a buddy, also named Jason, who’s new to ice driving and almost immediately does a complete 360 on his first go-around. Still, he exits the car with a massive smile. We both get faster and smoother the more we practice. Our other challenge is to keep warm, since the only protection is a drafty tent.
There are casualties: The cold makes plastic brittle, and by the day’s end a Mitsubishi has most of its bumper broken off and a Porsche Cayenne is missing a headlight.
Jason and I get on the highway back to the city, some of which is pretty icy itself. He gives me a knowing look.
“Try to keep it on the road, OK?” Jason says.
Monticello Motor Club, 67 Cantrell Road, Monticello, New York; +1-877-578-7223; http://www.drivemmc.com.