Fall brings two things: the brutal onslaught of the dreaded pumpkin spice, and predictions from the Farmer's Almanac of another long and cold winter. Automotive pundits will inevitably spout on about dedicated winter tires being best investment for driving into spring with sheet metal intact. But what snow tires also mean is that ice racing season is upon us, and it’s much easier than you think to participate. A quality set of snow tires and a Snell helmet are about all anyone needs to go ice racing.
"If you have a helmet, snow tires and car numbers you can drive it to the race and drive it home. These are cars that people are going to drive back to work on Monday," says Dave Burnham, President of the Adirondack Motor Enthusiasts Club, or AMEC. AMEC puts on a full winter schedule of ice racing events, and first-timers are encouraged to test the frozen waters in a 20-minute lunchtime session lapping the course for only $20.
There is a place for nearly every kind of car and driver in ice racing, whether in AMEC or one of the other regional organizations that put on events. Rules disallow all-season radials, and the right winter tires are the key to success on icy public roads and closed ice racing circuits alike. While studded tires are prohibited from on-road use in many states, they’re an optional class in ice racing.
Racing classes range from the entry-level Street Legal stock to the quickest and fastest Super Modified Open with no limit on engine displacement, turbos, body modifications or superchargers. The Stock Sportsman class welcomes many of the same 4-cylinder racers who run paved or dirt circle tracks during the warmer months. This year saw the introduction of a UTV class but trucks, SUVs and any other high center of gravity contraption is not welcome in the AMEC league of ice racers.
All wheel drive classes are unsurprisingly populated by Audis and Subarus with notable exceptions Paul Norman and his winning Saab 9-2X spitting ice from all four wheels and AMEC Vice-President Michael Waterhouse, who ran about 9 of the 11 races on the day by swapping out sets of tires in the pits on his 1990 Eagle Talon to run multiple races across classes. Rusty proof that slow and steady wins the race was Eric Nelson's 1966 Saab 96 driven by Joshua Menke. 50 horsepower and 3-cylinders brought 3 podium finishes.
Burnham keeps the World's Fastest Citroen SM-powered ice racer in his home garage and has made so many changes to the chassis and body over the years that he joked there are enough parts and pieces cut off to build another car. Dave found the fun of ice racing in 1982 behind the wheel of a well-worn Citroen DS purchased for exactly one US Dollar from a fellow mechanic at the Citroen Dealership where he started his career.
Rust got the better of the DS but Dave had an ingenious plan. "One end rotted out. I had another car with the opposite end rotted out on that one so I put them together". Dave drove that welded together custom short-wheelbase Citroen DS to over a dozen ice racing championships before building the first version of his modified tube-chassis Citroen SM-powered racer. His second and current modified DS is powered by a Citroen SM quad-camshaft Maserati V6 backed by a Maserati Merak transmission for rear-wheel drive out on the ice. The custom Citroen DS now resides at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville.
The days of one dollar Citroen DS ice racers may be gone but good candidate cars are in ready supply. A quick internet classifieds search for sub-$2000 manual transmission cars last year revealed an abundance of universal front-wheel drive machines, including a few already caged dirt trackers. Prime classic ice racing and/or winter beater candidates include a surprisingly complete runs-and-drives barn find 1980 Chevrolet Chevette and a 1986 Saab 900 with rust included at no extra charge. A set of struts, brake lines, a few cans of paint, and some dedicated winter tires and that winter beater could be ready for competition.
Current or future Upstate New York ice racers can get in touch with the AMEC for pre-season meetups and an upcoming 2018-19 racing schedule. If you're not in the Capital District or nearby New England don't despair. Odds are good that if hockey, ice fishing, snowmobile drags, and curling are big in the area then ice racing adherents can't be too far away.