Winter Wonderland

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Dec 25, 2018 | Lexus | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Most of us learned how to drive on snow and ice the same way: through trial and error. If we were lucky, we had an empty high-school parking lot and a free Saturday at our disposal. And if we weren’t so lucky, that learning experience included a few bent fenders.

There is an alternative: the Bridgestone Winter Driving School, located just outside the skiing mecca of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. For 30-plus years, this school has taught the fine art of driving on an extremely slippery surface: ice.

The school offers a full curriculum, from their partial-day First Gear basic safety school to a two-day Fifth Gear performance program. Private lessons and custom programs are also available. We did the full-day Second Gear course, which they say is their most popular option.

How much? $495 per student.

More questions?

Most of the day is spent in cars, but there is some classroom instruction, too.

Most of the day is spent in cars, but there is some classroom instruction, too.

Here are some generic ones we imagine being asked by the general populace. Then we’ll discuss our Second Gear experience.

Do I need to wear a helmet? No.

What about my eyes? Sunglasses are strongly recommended. Loaners are available. We wore green-tinted Ray-Bans and didn’t have any trouble. Picking out the snow-covered streets from the snow-covered sidelines is one of the lessons you’ll learn.

Anything else I should wear? Clothes, please. We wore our usual–jeans, long-sleeve T-shirt, GRM hoodie, Dr. Martens boots, knit cap and mechanic jacket–and were totally fine. In fact, we cracked the window for some fresh air. Don’t forget some sunblock, too. You won’t be outside much, but that sun is bright and the snow reflects it.

Do I need to bring a car? No, they provide new Lexus sedans and SUVs.

Is it cold inside the car? No. Plus, they have heated seats and heated steering wheels. Deluxe. In fact, organizers recommend not wearing a bulky coat or giant boots. Be comfortable and free of items that will get in the way.

What tires are on the cars? As this is the Bridgestone Winter Driving School, each car wears the tire company’s latest. During our course, the Lexus ES 350 sedans were fitted with the Blizzak WS80 while the Lexus GX 460 SUVs wore the Blizzak DM-V2.

Does the instructor ride with me? No. The instructors watch from the sidelines and communicate with the students via two-way radios. They called us by name, not car number, too, which was nice.

Do I drive alone? No, you’ll have a partner. As the school’s Kurt Spitzner explains, “In all Bridgestone Winter Driving School safety and performance classes, students are paired with someone that they do not know. In general, we have found that the learning process accelerates when we separate couples/parents/children/friends/co-workers.”

Will I have to shovel snow? No.

Who puts gas in the car? Someone who is not you.

What about changing tires? They handle that, too.

When does their season end? They say March 6.

Will they offer classes near (fill in city name here)? If the city in question is Steamboat Springs, Colorado, then the answer is yes. The school only operates at that one facility. Fortunately it’s a lovely place to visit. Yampa Valley Regional Airport (airport code HDN) serves the area, and it hosts several major carriers.

Why Steamboat? We again asked Kurt for a real explanation: “The answer–in general–is that Steamboat stays cold–with lots of snow–more consistently throughout the winter season than almost anywhere else in the lower 48; is reasonably easy to get to; and has a broad array of lodging options. We’ve tried other satellite locations over the 32-year history of the school, and no other place works as well as Steamboat Springs.”

What is the course like? Picture a long collection of turns and straights that more or less mimics what you’d see in the real world. And unlike anything carved into a frozen lake, this one is set on rolling land, meaning plenty of off-camber turns, downhill braking zones and uphill straights.

What is the surface like? We defer to the school’s website for the technical answer: “We begin building our tracks in December using hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to form the ice base layer. When Mother Nature gives us snow, we use graders, plows and other specialized machinery to create a snow and ice surface lined with snow banks.”

How would you describe the surface in your own words? We had snowfall overnight and then again that morning, so we were greeted by ice topped with snow–just like what you’d see in real life. As the day went on, the conditions changed–just like in real life. By the end of the day, some turns had gotten quite slippery. The trick, of course, was using the skills we were being taught to keep the car in line. (Spoiler alert: Being patient allowed us to kiss those inside apex cones, even on the downhill, off-camber turns.) In short, expect a dedicated facility. During the season, the school operates seven days a week, and we arrived at a groomed, ready-to-go course. There was no waiting, no wasted downtime.

What if it snows? Then it snows, and the skiers rejoice. Courses are held no matter the weather–figure that it’s real-world experience. We had fairly heavy snowfall during the morning of our course–right during the initial recon runs around the track. The snow eventually subsided and the sun came out, giving us beautiful winter weather for the bulk of the day. Temperatures were in the high 20s and low 30s. As the day came to a close, though, the winds kicked up.

Do they really have a yurt? Yep.

Can’t I just make my own ice track? Sure. Go for it.

Our Second Gear Experience

The fleet is a mix of Lexuses, in fact, containing both cars and SUVs.

The fleet is a mix of Lexuses, in fact, containing both cars and SUVs.

The experience actually started in the school’s home base, conveniently located a very short walk from the Steamboat Springs slopes. A video introduced the day’s objectives, questions were answered, and eventually we boarded a bus for the brief drive to the grounds. Each winter the school turns some rolling pastureland into its own winter wonderland. Shortly after arriving, we were behind the wheel of a Lexus, paired up with a fellow student. One student worked the radio while the other drove.

The first session welcomed us to the entire course via some paced laps. Then we got into specific exercises, including braking, skidpad work, accident avoidance, and lots and lots of laps around the whole track.

Neat feature: A switch could immediately turn off the ABS, stability and traction control. Most lessons were done both with and without these aids.

How much seat time did you get? The school says to expect about 4.5 hours of seat time during this program. We didn’t run a stopwatch, but we didn’t feel as if we’d been cheated.

Which vehicles did you drive? We swapped between the two Lexuses.

Did you prefer the SUV or the sedan? All-wheel drive is nice, but the front-drive ES 350 certainly held its own on the ice. Those Blizzaks really are that good.

How much better was it with the traction aids turned on? Spoiler alert: Once we got the hang of things, we found the cars easier to drive with the aids turned off.

How did the tires grip? Wow. They offer amazing grip. Even the front-drive Lexus did just fine. It really is amazing what a proper set of winter tires can do.

What happens when you screw up? Hopefully you learn something. Our co-driver once put us in a snowbank. She backed up and got moving. The world didn’t end. Plus, she learned how not to avoid a snowbank.

What was for lunch? Those doing a full-day course will get a catered lunch. The tuna sandwich was particularly filling and tasty.

Can you share some specific things you learned?

All of the cars are fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires.

All of the cars are fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires.

Of course. While threshold braking is the norm on dry tarmac, here the instructors push the lock/unlock braking technique. Lock up the wheels and then quickly get off the brakes. Then lock up the brakes again. Repeat. Any steering should be done with the brakes unlocked.

No matter what the surface, look at where you want to go, not at what you might hit. Keep your eyes on your exit, and your arms and legs will theoretically get the car there. Again, just like on a dry surface, being smooth is the rule on ice. Here we got enough seat time to ingrain those lessons into our brains.

Will this school help my driving year round? Yes, we believe it will. And that may be the take-home message. The snow exaggerates everything you’d experience in the dry. So instead of that little slip-up putting you 6 inches off-line, it can cause you to miss your mark by several feet. In the real world, we’re talking possible car-on-car violence, not just a slightly slower lap time.

That downhill, off-camber turn perfectly illustrated this point. Rushing things easily put us 5 feet off our mark. Taking our time allowed us to kiss that inside apex cone. In terms of entry speed, the difference between success and failure was just a few miles per hour.

Any parting words? As we drifted off to sleep that night, we could still feel the sensation of sliding across the ice. Very, very cool.

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View comments on the GRM forums
MFE New Reader
2/5/16 4:49 p.m.

I attended this school several years ago and it was tremendously helpful. The most surprising thing I learned is that every single thing we know about load transfer as it relates to car control still applies on snow and ice, it just takes a lot longer to happen.

6pak72 New Reader
2/5/16 7:36 p.m.

OK, so with a lot of respect and sensitivity, I totally have to offer an additional oipportunity.

Everyone in the entire GRM community needs to look up Audi Club North America. In my region, two clubs - NorthEast Quattros (NEQ) and North Atlantic Audi Club (NAAC) offer a tremendous experince called Winter Driving School.

(Yes, I'm an Audi instructor)

NAAC runs a two-day course in the White Mountains of NH at the Team O'Neil (yes, that O'Neil) Rally School. Once you get out of your bed at the Mountain View Grand Hotel (google it, one of the 20 or so Grand Hotels surviving), and have a lovely breakfast of salmon, eggs, oatmeal (this is NH, ya know) and coffee, we offer a two-day 12-hour extravaganze of skid-pad, cone-course/braking box, and road course.

Day two, we run a time trial on the snow!

Bring your own car, or SUV, or Mommy-wagon, or even a Miata (did I do that?). Enjoy a 1-to-1 in-your-right-seat-instructor experience, including the experts from Team O'Neil as well as our local Audi amazing crew. Learn how to be safe, balanced, and quick on snow and ice.

As for NEQ, this central-NE club delivers an amazing on-a-Lake experience. Travel to the far north of NY and VT to drive on the smooth and super-slippery surface of a frozen lake! Great hotels, including around the Lake Placid area (remember the 1976 Winter Olympics?), offer fine accomodation and sustenance. And as always, a Saturday evening Social and Banquet connects you to the wonderful people you've met during the day.

NEQ partners with local ice-racing clubs and supplies instructors for day one, and opens the door to on-ice time trial or open racing on day 2.

All makes of cars and every level of driver from permit-holder to experienced racer are welcome.

These two Audi clubs are not the only ones to offer this school - take a look around and sign up to your local. You'll be welcomed by great people and stunning drivers.

chiodos HalfDork
2/5/16 7:39 p.m.

So your saying, since it's in Colorado, we can get high...and drive... In the the same damn time?

rslifkin Reader
2/5/16 7:59 p.m.

Hmm... I don't think I'll be able to make that Audi event this year, but it's close enough I should plan to go next year. I wonder what the instructors are gonna think of the cammed, stiff suspensioned nightmare toy of a Jeep

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