When one pictures cars racing across a frozen landscape, what most often comes to mind is something like a pack of bright-blue Subarus wailing away, all four wheels clawing for purchase in a swirling tempest of blown snow.
Likely far less common are mental images of automatic-transmission, rear-wheel-drive Lexuses drifting nose-to-tail around a corner, their battered bodywork bearing testament to both the realities of narrow-track, low-friction racing as well as their bargain-basement Craigslist origins. And yet here I am, 400 miles from home in Minden, Ontario, Canada, strapping into a stripped-out IS300 that I’ve rented for the day from Russ Bond, owner of the Lexus Cup Challenge.
“Remember,” Bond says as he cinches my five-point harness in the cockpit of Lexus, which has a stock passenger seat next to the racing seat I’m in. “Make sure that the traction-control is set to off, and that the transmission is set to snow mode.”
This advice is repeated on a pair of stickers set at eye level on the car’s sun visor. I dutifully push the “SNOW” button next to the automatic transmission’s gear lever—each vehicle in the series runs in the slush with a slushbox—and verify that the TRAC light is on. Finished with my belts, Bond leans in semi-conspiratorially.
“Listen to the studs, Benjamin,” he tells me, imparting a smidgen of his hard-earned wisdom as a seasoned ice racer. “And stay away as far away from that car as you can,” he continues, finger pointed at one of my fellow competitors for the day. “They’ve put two cars out for the season already this year.” He raises his eyebrows. I nod, the message received.
‘IS’ Is for “Ice”
This year marked the second campaign for Russ and his fleet of rent-or-buy first-gen IS ice warriors, and he runs the series as a complement to his national KartStart racing school. The cars are available for either a full season or a modest daily fee as turnkey racers to anyone willing to make the trek up to Minden and pay the $10 temporary licensing fee to the Canadian Automobile Sport Clubs – Ontario Region.
This wasn’t my first time out on the ice, but it was my initial foray into door-to-door ice racing. I was also a studded-tire virgin, as my youth spent spinning wheels on frozen lakes and canals in Quebec had all been done on traditional winter rubber rather than the spiked Hankook IpikeRS tires the Lexus Cup cars feature (Hankook is also a series sponsor).
It was partially for these reasons that I brought along a co-pilot in the form of my father, himself an experienced time-trials driver but equally new to the world of studs. Given that the low speeds associated with ice racing made it friendly for passengers (in fact, they are encouraged), having his extra set of eyes spotting from the right seat felt like an excellent strategy. Also, what better witness to your potential failure in motorsports than the man who raised you?
The first two eight-lap morning heats are intended to serve as qualifiers for the four races later that afternoon. I am entered in two classes—Street Stud I and II—which gives me the most track time for my money, even though I won’t be sticking around for points competition on Sunday. The plan is to hang out near the back, keep an ear out for the studs as I had been advised, and get a feel for the car’s dynamics.
All of the above goes out the window almost immediately when, on the second lap, one of the Lexuses ahead of me tags another on the front fender, plowing them both into the snowbank and sending me pirouetting around the ensuing carnage in the nine-car field. It becomes clear that survival trumps all else, and for rest of the session—and the one that followed—I focus on threat mitigation as much as acclimatization.
I do learn a few things, however, most notably that the sound of both the studs and my father’s voice are effectively drowned out by the IS300’s 215-hp inline-six rattling the carpet-free interior. I also discover that two-foot, rally-school-inspired driving is effective at reducing push when rounding a corner in full drift mode, although my hefty winter boots aren’t exactly right-sized for the pedals.
Wet and Wild
One more thing: My butt ends up completely soaked after that first eight-lapper, causing momentary concern that each and every one of the sweat glands in my body have relocated to my posterior to celebrate my ice-racing debut. It turns out, however, that the seat cover had been covered in snow and frozen overnight, which meant I would have to run the four-afternoon races in a bare metal seat, with the folded wad of the wet trousers I peeled off as my only cushion.
As I line up on the grid for the first race, sixth out of nine cars, I ignore the aluminum digging into my ribcage but flub the start when the green flag drops with my camera still in my hand trying to get a shot of the grid. ‘Stand on it!’ is not an effective recovery when digging in to ice—a gentle roll into the throttle after releasing the lightest of braking pressure is literally the only way forward—and I find myself losing position while marginally beginning to move.