Winter is coming for a good portion of the USA, but that doesn’t mean the driving has to come to a halt.
Trees are changing color, which means your track car is taking longer to warm up its fluids. And sadly, it’s almost time to think about storing your race car and safety equipment over the next few months. For those of us in the rust belt, it’s a sad part of the season. But it doesn’t have to be. Winter offers some of the most fun – and competitive – events that any experienced driver or new enthusiast could experience. The event in question? Winter autocross.
Much like regular autocross, winter autocross is a test of driver and machine against time. Except this time, you get to do it on the white stuff. Also like autocross, the event is open to regular, non-modified cars. Yup, your winter car, or your daily driver is your next race car. And here’s the best part. Outside of making sure it’s not leaking profusely and ensuring that all the wheels will stay bolted on, you don’t need any prep for your vehicle. Stock brake pads? Thats fine. Stock suspension? That’s probably better for snow. All season tires? There’s literally a category for you to compete in with other all season tire cars.
The beauty of winter autocross is that it’s incredibly accessible (open face helmets are fine), and arguably more competitive than traditional autocross (I’m bracing for the comments already). But here’s a truth; a well-heeled, stock, automatic Chevrolet Cavalier on winter tires could win its class. Or a Volvo wagon on some all-season tires And that’s because if rain is the great equalizer, snow makes for perfect parity.
Car classification usually falls into three categories based on tire choice, and three sub categories based on drive wheels. Tire categories usually consist of all-season, snow, and studded. And driveline categories are front, rear and all wheel drive. So you could have an AWD Volvo on all-season tires in one category, and a Nissan Sentra on studded tires in its own playpen. With my snow tire shod Mercedes CLK55 serving as my winter ride, I would find myself playing in “RWD snow” class. My competitors would be anything from NB Miatas to Pontiac G8 GT’s. We may not be the fastest class on the snow or ice, but we sure do put on a show.
Winter autocross events are held at a few different types of locations. One of my favorites is held at my home track of Road America. Yup, you can drive on the track at Road America in the winter. Kind of. The way Road America hosts these events is unique, as they will have three different courses that you’ll drive through the day. Last year, one stage took place at Turn 14, and twisted around counter-course into the emergency exit by Turn 13. Another section used the squiggly paved section on the inside of Turn 3. And the final part took place on the Motorplex inside the Carousel. It provided a great amount of variety through the day, but you only had three shots at each course, so you had to learn them quick.
Other winter autocross events take place on frozen lakes. The beauty of these is that the course can change indefinitely from one weekend to another, provided it is cold enough and the ice has reached a certain thickness. One such event takes place at Lake Dubay in Stephens Point, Wisconsin. As a retention lake, it’s not very deep. So it freezes over quite rapidly. Yes it feels strange initially driving down a loading dock into a lake. But soon you’ll be in low friction paradise. Lake events are able to host a longer course than the type you’ll find at Road America. Faster sweepers are part of the game now, and you’ll have time to practice by running one constant course through the day. It makes things fun, and challenging.
Outside of just showing up, what else do you need? Well, it’s worthwhile to bring your reserve of cold weather gear. Shoes are fine for when you drive, but have boots ready for the times when you might be changing air pressure or doing any other activities outside of the car. You’ll definitely want to be prepared, as some organizations ask that you politely volunteer to work the course and alert race control of any knocked cones or cut gates. Even if it’s -15F outside. Most will ask you volunteer for one heat. Heat, used unironically, of course.
The lake events also have one advantage that’s extremely good for novices and seasons drivers alike. It’s safe. If you spin out, the worst that can happen is you slide off into a soft snow bank. There’s none of the risks that you’d get with street driving. So even if you don’t think you’ll be competitive, it’s still worthwhile just for the fun of it!