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 LexusSPORT Cup.
“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 LexusSPORT 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.
Still, far back from the crowd ahead I’m able to explore the Lexus’s willingness to flick left to right, and I learn that a broad arc better preserves momentum than does an apex-focused approach. Despite the added traction afforded by an army of metal studs, it’s almost impossible to close the competitive gap on the ice unless the person ahead of you makes a mistake—as I do in the second heat when an unseen ice-hump under the snow launches the left side of the car skyward and causes my father to very vocally question his decision to ride shotgun.
The third session is a write-off. The track worn is slick after a previous street-tire session polished it to a sheen and I overdrive the studs enough to loop the car three times and elicit a helpful “whatever you’re doing, it’s not working” analysis from the man responsible for half my genetic code.
By the fourth stage, things have fortunately become more natural. I engage in some cat-and-mouse, bumper-on-bumper antics with a few of my fellow Lexuses, avoiding the car that’s high-sided itself on a snowbank at the apex of the fastest corner and turned the thing into a delicately approached touge.
Further shenanigans ensue when the car Bond warned me about—and which had yet to actually finish a heat without requiring an all-hands push from the snow—spins on the last lap just inches from my front bumper. This sends me and a fellow competitor into tail-wagging fishtails that would have been disastrous on a road course but which were drama-free on the ice—we’re traveling a mere 35 mph. “If you’re not sixth, you’re last,” I tell myself, having conceded no positions in my final session.
Leave Your Ego at Home
There’s little more humbling to an experienced asphalt driver than ice racing, where track conditions can change from lap to lap and being willing to allow the car to slide gracefully past the edge of traction is just as important clawing back onto the racing line once the corner is in the rearview.
Above all, having the patience to make methodical, smooth, and deliberate decisions behind the wheel and with the primary controls is key, although my mid-pack performance won’t see me signing any autographs for the surprisingly large crowd any time soon. Still, the car is in one piece—that’s always nice, especially when it’s not your own—and there’s a smile on my father’s face as he tells me that he regretted not renting his own IS as soon as we turned our second lap. I’ll take that over P1 any day of the week.