Ice Trials

By Charlie Parsons - 2/22/2022

It is the middle of February, 2022.  This past weekend I did an ice trial or essentially an Auto-X on ice.  The event caused me to reflect on when I got started racing as my first races were ice trials.  Actually my very first race was an Auto-X held on Cape Cod in the summer of 1978.  I was taken to the event by a co-worker after I had expressed interest in an event he and another co-worker had gone to.  I was immediately smitten with Auto-X but had no idea where to do it, other than Cape Cod, which was a bit far to go.  That following winter we were visiting one of my wife’s friends in our homeland near Burlington, VT.   That friend’s husband joined us and proceeded to tell me of an event held with cars racing around on the ice.  He suggested that I might try it the following week.  I did, in fact, try it for the next several weeks.  Those events were ice trials being held by the Sports Car Club of Vermont.  Nearly four hours from my home in Keene they were a bit far away but with family in the area it was a trip that I was happy to make.  I raced two years with the Vermont group doing ice trials and Auto-X events before I discovered the Sports Car Club of New Hampshire which held events much closer to my home.  

Going back to those early ice races I can tell you that we were blessed with great weather for several years before “Global Warming” or something started to warm the winters and reduce the ice thickness on the lakes.  Still for several years it was great.  Every, EVERY, weekend from early/mid January right on through to March we would be out on the ice.  Even though I was always ready to race there were some Sunday mornings when I would hate to get up and “do it again” but I would get up and go because we really didn’t know if we would be racing the next week.  I think back then we felt safe if we had eight inches of ice.  Now, being a bit more safety minded the groups won’t hold an event unless there are twelve inches under our wheels.  The event I was at this past weekend featured an ice thickness of between 15 and 18 inches!

Much is the same today as it was years ago.  We still race on a course laid out on the ice either with cones or if the ice is snow covered we follow a plowed course.  Today, as then, there are seven classifications for cars.  There was an engine remote which at the time was a big class and was made up of front engine rear wheel drive cars which in those days were most common.  You would have your Camaros, Mustangs, or nearly any other American car.  There were also Volvos, Opels, and most of the Japanese makes.  Next was the engine over drive cars.  Although there were a few front wheel drive cars such as Saabs, VW Rabbits, and Subarus (in the early days of Subaru most were front wheel drive although all wheel drive was an option) most of this class was made up of VW Beetles with an odd Corvair or two.  The final class was 4 wheel/all wheel drive.  Back in the day these were mostly pick-up trucks as there were few if any All wheel drive cars.  All of these classes were further broken down by whether the tires were studded or non-studded.

Then as now tires were a big factor.  Biased ply tires were still predominant but many of the sporty car types were running on European winter radial tires.  I recall that Continental Winter Contacts were a favorite as were Gislavids and Verdestines.  I drove a non-studded Beetle but I did not go with the winter radials instead I ran re-capped bias ply snow tires.  At the time worn out biased ply tires were often re- capped or over molded with a new tread.  They were generally a lot cheaper than a new tire.  These are what I ran except…in some cases when the tires were recapped abrasives such as sand or walnut shells would be tossed into the rubber compound making a tire that was a bit better in icy conditions.  My “sand tread” recaps worked quite well and when I started racing with SCCNH they labeled these tires (tongue in cheek, I think) “cheater tires.”

The final class was the “Super Stud” class.  This did not refer to the drivers necessarily but rather to the tires.  The Vermont group used snowmobile cleats bolted through the tires and in New Hampshire large sheet metal screws would be used.  In both cases an old tire with the bead cut off would be put inside the super stud tire to act as a barrier between the hardware and the tube.  It is interesting to note that both groups claimed that the other group’s tires were unsafe as they were likely to throw a stud.  I never saw any problems with either group and I witnessed Ralph Humburg flying across the ice at 115 mph in Vermont and Jim Hale throwing ice chips a hundred feet in the air with his Corvette in NH.  I learned quickly that the wise ice racer would make his run immediately after a super stud car.  Those studs would tear up the ice and leave thousands of sharp points that helped a regular tire get a bit more traction.  After a few cars went over those points they became buffed down and no longer offered the same advantage.

As I reflect here in 2022, though much is the same, there are some differences as well.  While “engine remote” still exists the world seems to have shifted to predominantly front wheel drive.  The old air cooled beetles are collectors items now and seldom raced.  Even though front wheel drive is most common, All wheel drive is also quite popular.  Subaru got in on the ground floor and made their cars totally all wheel drive after just a few years of offering it as an option.  Almost all the manufacturers now offer some models of all wheel drive cars.  This being the case the 4 wheel/all wheel drive class has become fairly substantial.  Today tires are almost all radial with Hakapalitas, Bridgestone Blizzaks, and Michelins being among the favorites.  Long gone are bias ply tires and I have not seen a re-cap in years as radial tires do not seem to re-cap very well.  

One thing that has changed, in Vermont anyway, is that the lake is now considered a public highway and as such the speed of an ice racer is not to exceed (in theory) the top speed on public roads, 50 or 55 mph.  Gone are the days of 100+mph super stud fun runs across the ice.  Going back to my last ice races with SCCNH in about 1983-85 ish, another socially responsible consideration was the addition of a “port-a-potty” on site.  That was not a consideration in the earlier events and for that matter, last week in Vermont if one needed “relief” you would either have to drive to shore and a friendly local establishment or…you found a lonely stretch of ice.

With the advance of global warming…or something, ice racing has suffered.  I think the last of the SCCNH true ice races were those held in the mid ‘80s although for several years winter cross events were held but even they suffered for lack of snow.  For a couple years, around 2011, “ice races” or perhaps more correctly winter cross events were held in a parking lot at New Hampshire Speedway in Loudon but again, a lack of snow made doing these events difficult.  What of other clubs?  For years the Boston BMW club ran events on Newfound lake in northern NH.  Around 2016 I contacted them on behalf of SCCNH to see if we might be able to participate.  I was told that we would be welcome if they got some ice.  They didn’t get any…for the next few years!  How about the Sports Car Club of Vermont?  After the mid ‘80s life caught up with me and I pretty much lost contact with that group.  A few years ago, looking for some winter action, I looked them up.  I had in recent years had the opportunity to participate in a couple of their Auto-X events and so made some contact.  It turns out that they were holding events when they could and had several venues.  That said, even they were feeling the effects of warming and would often plan an event only to have to cancel when it turns out the ice was too thin.

There it is!  Ice racing or ice trials are still popular if hard to find.  They are run now pretty much as they have been run for, probably 50 years or more.  Technology has changed for the better, I guess although driving my all wheel drive station wagon is not nearly as much fun as I recall driving my rear wheel drive beetle to have been.  Many of the techniques are similar though.  Reading the ice, knowing when to slow, and driving smoothly are as important today as it was then.