AT YOUR SERVICE: THE OUTDOORS

Car Races That Don’t Kill

WILLIAM CAMERON March 1 1970
AT YOUR SERVICE: THE OUTDOORS

Car Races That Don’t Kill

WILLIAM CAMERON March 1 1970

Car Races That Don’t Kill

AT YOUR SERVICE

THE OUTDOORS

A ludicrous slide into a snowbank at 15 mph is the worst that can happen in the

WILLIAM CAMERON

WE ARE ALL HACKING around on the ice of a windy bay at three o’clock in the afternoon, and it is not glamorous. It is colder than an old man’s dream. The speeds are slow, 10 and 15 miles per hour around the turns and only 40 or so on the straights. The track is bumpy. The people who came out to see somebody get killed, which is the secret reason most people have for going to see automobile racing, have all gone home. It is apparent that nobody is going to die at 15 to 40 miles per hour unless it is from pure boredom. There would be more action in a dodgem arena or a rollerderby rink. Why freeze?

The rest of us, the enthusiasts, are watching Chris Cossette take a turn very slowly and beautifully, at perhaps 12 miles per hour, a fraction away from the speed at which his Volkswagen would slip out of control. The car is on the outside limit of adhesion, but Cossette is sliding on a precise angle; as he comes out of the turn his back wheels catch a sprinkling of snow, he stamps on the accelerator and is suddenly and surprisingly gone.

It is superbly done, the transition has the complete line and grace of a fine high-dive, and the fact that it is executed at 12 miles an hour takes nothing away from its elegance, except for those people who consider auto-racing a blood sport in which a mistake should properly be punishable by death.

The people who are excited only by speed, and the dangers implied by speed, will have their moments later on in the afternoon, in the fifth race, which is for cars equipped with studded tires. It is possible to go very fast on ice when your traction is improved with small metal spikes; it is like racing on dry land, quick and nervy and aggressive. The cars equipped with rubber tires do not go fast, and the skills the drivers need are less continued on page 70

ICE RACING continued obvious, but the races are more beautiful to watch.

The first ice races I saw were held on a cove at Barrie, Ontario. I borrowed a crash helmet and went along with Chris Cossette on a practice run around the three-quarter-mile track. Cossette had been the Ontario ice-racing champion in all classes in 1967 and 1968, but had missed a few races this season, and was out to make up championship points. He was driving with a precision that hung on the edge of control, and although I had driven faster, and been in more danger, along the highway from Toronto to Barrie, I hung on to my half of the dashboard as though I were drowning.

Cossette is a pleasant-looking publicrelations man who is certifiably sane, but he talks to himself savagely during a race: “Son of a gun . . . Now this guy, this little Vauxhall, he’s going to cut me right off, every time . . . There he goes.

I knew he was going to stuff it . . . This part is greasier than last time, somebody’s wiped out the cover ... If this clown doesn’t get out of my way I’m going to go right over him. Right through him. He couldn’t back into a garage, this creep ...”

Cossette drives on ice because it is less expensive and less dangerous than driving on a dry track. But this is not to say that he does not have the nerve for dry-track racing; until a few years ago his hot Corvette was a familiar sight at Ontario sports-car meets.

“If I ever went back to dry-track racing, my marriage would go like that. My wife would be off like a rocket. I’m 28 years old, I have a good house in Toronto, I’m starting my own business,

I haven’t even been a father yet. What would I go back for? So I do this instead, and my wife comes and watches, it’s a giggle. If you get hit, what the hell, you slide 50 feet and stuff it into,: a snowbank. And if you’re good at it, you get the same feeling you get racing on dry land. It’s pure skill, pure skill and tactics.”

The skills 'are precise, but the tactics vary. Cossette is a delicate driver; he has been known to nudge a slower car out of the way with a fender, but he generally tries to avoid hard contact because it wastes time and traction. Other drivers aren't as polite. Bob Attrell, a Toronto mechanic who got his training in stockcar races, is inclined to shoulder his way through a jam-up rather than go around it: “Strictly speaking, that’s illegal, and I wouldn’t say that I deliberately hit people just to knock them off the track or anything like that. But even if I did, who could prove it? You’re sliding all the time, you might just happen to slide one way rather than the other — who’s to say you could help it?”

There is usually a good deal of bash-

ing and crashing around on the ice — sometimes accidental, sometimes just for the hell of it. Drivers with a highly developed sense of dignity don’t last long. There is nothing quite as frustrating, or as ludicrous, as a slide into a snowbank at 15 miles per hour, and competitors take a splendid delight in helping you do just that: “Bernie stuffed it in the snowbank around the second turn. Well, he actually didn’t actually stuff it all by himself, now, I helped him just a little bit, but he came out of that slide with his rear end hanging out and I just, urn, couldn’t resist.”

Ice-racing is an amateur’s sport. It is inexpensive, casual, there are no money prizes and no serious accidents; the drivers are an odd assortment of mechanics, professional racers keeping in shape for the summer circuit, and any number of pure enthusiasts: surgeons, lawyers, salesmen, dentists, postmen, all of whom have an absolute faith that they could have'been Juan Fangio if they hadn’t got marrie'd instead. They drive or tow their cars to the lakes every weekend, check into motels, and throw immense binges on Saturday nights. There is plenty of beer, and a good deal of bare-faced lying. (“Now, I was all set to turn it on out there, but old Harvey came up too close on the outside and clipped me from behind and I went straight into the ditch. Harvey was okay, he bounced back off me, y’see, so he went straight on through, and anyway the damn course stewards didn’t get me back on the track till the race was half over.”) The wives sit in a corner and talk about children, and the men talk about engines. (“Got an Okrasa speed kit from Germany, new crank, dual carbs, intake manifolds, we took that engine apart and put it back together so it wouldn’t recognize itself,”)

On Sunday, the race, smaller and larger cars in their own heats. The course, inevitably, is bad (“Got bumps on the back you could make an igloo out of”) and the ice, inevitably, is spotty. The spectators trudge slowly out from the shore to watch somebody get killed, and, trudge back again half an hour later, . wondering what all the fuss is about. The cars move serenely around the track, gliding in and around turns, spinning ferociously in the straightaways.

It is slow and unglamorous and not dangerous at all; but it is graceful as a dance, in the turns it is pure art, and if the drivers are good it is as beautiful as any other sport I have seen.

“Pussyfoot on the corners, and thump it on the straights,” says Chris Cossette, doing up the snaps on his helmet before a race. “Simple as that. You follow that advice, and you’ll be second every time. I’m going to be first, mind you, but you’ll be second. It’s not hard. Just like skating in your bare feet.” □

WHERE TO FIND THE ICE DICES

IT’S EASY to go ice-racing: the races are all run by local branches of the Canadian Automobile Sports Club and usually there are no special tests of driving skills, few forms to fill out and little initial expense. Use the family car if you can face a few dents in the fenders — or buy an old used car and tinker with it. Membership in the sports-car club is usually a requirement.

The sport is most popular in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba; in Winnipeg races are held as often as local ice conditions permit, and they have a reputation for being "tough.” In Regina and Saskatoon there are only occasional races, usually hastily arranged by enthusiasts who might otherwise go to Winnipeg.

Calgary has its own unique ice races on Little Red Deer Lake, about 10 miles southwest of the city. They are time-trial races against the clock, so at no time is more than one car on the track. These events, closed to the public, are called “Ice Dices” and are run most winter weekends.

In Edmonton, the Northern Alberta Sports Car Club runs both Ice Dices and massed-start races on a lake near the city. But the big event is a championship on Sylvan Lake, halfway between Calgary and Edmonton and about 15 miles from Red Deer, staged when ice conditions are suitable and usually at fairly short notice.

The CASC annual (1970 edition, one dollar, available from head office, 5385 Yonge Street, Willowdale 441, Ont.) lists all clubs; membership fees are usually between $10 and $20 a year. Before you can take to the ice you must get a Basic Racer’s license from your local licensing official (cost: three dollars) and prove your health is good and your driver’s license unblemished.

In most cases, entering a race involves just turning up and paying an entrance fee of, say, five dollars.

Officials will determine the class in which you’ll drive.

The crucial element in ice-racing is traction. Check the supplementary regulations of thèrevents you wish to enter to see if sipirigTs permitted. If it is, buy four wide snow tires, and have them cross-siped (cut laterally through the tread so that the rubber splays down on to the ice). Then have them tractionized, a process that involves running the tire through a spiked-drum machine, which fluffs up the rubber to the consistency of a hard sponge. □