The event melts their hearts

Auto racing on the ice a slick trick for some

By Theo Stein - Berkshire Eagle Staff

PITTSFIELD Normally, automobile drivers try to avoid ice.

So, one might be tempted to think that the drivers of the 39 or so cars who took to Onota Lake for a bit of racing yesterday were not entirely normal.

And there were, if truth be told, some decidedly not-normal cars, like Tim Mather's bestickered Nissan Sentra, decked out in full rally trim with banks of halogen driving lamps, an internal roll cage, aftermarket header and high-volume air filter; or Pittsfielder Steve Scoff's modified Volkswagen Beetle, with broad bands of studs -- screws, actually -- screwed into the open tires and a straight pipe jutting from the rear engine.

But there were many more family cars and pickups. The sport's adherents say there s no better way to learn how to handle ice in the family car than by trying to go fast on it.

"People sometimes think we're a bunch of rednecks," said 46-year-old Bruce Taylor of Pittsfield, enjoying a pipeful of tobacco as he took a turn as starter. "But you don't have to have a race car to participate. Lots of people bring their everyday cars."

Always a good time

Plus, it's just plain fun.

"No one ever comes here and has not had a good time," he added.

"When you slide on the road, the first reaction for many people is "Oh-my-God-accident, police, insurance, lawsuit,' " said Mark Majcher, a former Lee resident and ice racing aficionado now living in Hollis, N.H.

"But out here, there's nothing for you to hit. And it's amazing what you learn about your car. There's no better way to learn car control."

"It teaches you the right instincts," said Alan Madison, 51, of Chatham, N.Y., as he sat in his idling station wagon reading the paper. "It teaches you how to correct, and not overcorrect, when you get into any kind of skid."

As usual, the time-trial style event was run by the Mohawk Hudson chapter of the Sports Car Club of America. Race organizer Clark W. Nicholls of Lee explained that drivers entered the timing station of the 1.1-mile course after a flying start and reached speeds of up to 75 miles per hour on the first straightaway. Then they negotiated -- with varying degrees of success -- a 90 degree right turn, which led them through a linked series of road-race-style curves hemmed only by the broad expanse of snow.

The final curve was a wide, right-hand sweeper where drivers let it all hang out searching for that last little bit of speed to carry to the finish. Runs were timed to the nearest hundredth of a second, with penalties added for striking pylons. For safety's sake, only two drivers were allowed on the course at the same time.

Special tires

About one-third had specialty tires studded with metal screws or even bolts. Because of the considerable traction advantage, these cars ran in their own class.

One garish vehicle, the venerable 300 cubic-inch Chevrolet Malibu dubbed "The Green Machine," was available for those who chose not to test the traction limits of the family runabout.

But lined up for the start were a large number of stock vehicles, including a mid-80s Toyota Corolla, a late 80s Pontiac Sunbird and perhaps the epitome of suburban domesticity,a 1995 Honda Civic. One racer, whose name will remain anonymous, continued an honored tradition by showing up with a Hertz Rent-a-Car, and gave the engine a proper thrashing on the Onota ice.

Old sports cars were fashionable, with Alfa Romeos and BMWs in the mix. Volkswagens were well represented, with a GTI, the souped-up Beetle, a VW pickup and a loud Jetta that looked like it was rescued off a salvage lot.

Last year, Madison, a film producer, heard about the event from a friend and decided to give it a try. He showed up in his white Audi Quattro station wagon and -- without any practice -- won his class.

Madison might be considered a ringer: he's had several years in all-wheel-drive Quattros and brushed up his skills at the Skip Barber racing school in Lime Rock, Conn.

Mather, 32, the chief installer for the giant Tweeter car electronics store in East Hartford, Conn., uses ice races to keep his skills sharp. His Sentra was propelled by a stock four-cylinder, 1,600 cubic centimeter engine with 139,000 miles on it. The engine might have been stock, but thanks to the modified header, the exhaust had the tenor of a large snowmobile.

Mather said he's done the Mount Washington hill climb in 8 minutes, 19 seconds. "Won $100 bucks one year," he said. "Big stuff."

"It's tough when you're competing against 600 to 700 horsepower all-wheel drive cars," said 31-year-old Blaine Anderson of Newington, Conn., Mather's co-driver and navigator in rally competition.

When the car was new, Mather said, it produced 110 hp, but probably couldn't push more than 100 now. "It's kind of tired. "

But the extensively modified car moved like it had the advantage of several extra horsepower, especially when he ran the set of screw-studded tires.

"We'll do runs non-screwed and screwed," he said, a twinkle in his eye. "And right now, I am screwed."

Mather installs the screws right through the tread, where they're anchored into a layer of neoprene. There's also an inner tube in there, just to be sure.

Screwed tires let him get through the course averaging 40 to 50 mph better than standard tires, he said. But after these runs, he and Anderson retire to swap wheels and run a few laps on high-performance winter tires.

In accordance with rally car rules, Mather's Sentra had some doubly unusual touches, like the fluorescent orange stickers indicating where the tow hooks were and neat lettering on each door indicating the blood type of driver and navigator. Mather is 0-positive.

"It doesn't happen often," Anderson said with a shrug. "But when you go off sometimes, it can get bad. We're not in the upper classes, but some of those guys can hit 160 mph, so it can get bad."

"What do you mean, 'We're not in the upper class?' "Mather interjected through his full-face helmet.

While his basic car is an "econo-box" bought more for its 39 mpg economy than its screaming top-end performance, Mather has no easy estimate for how much money he's spent on the roll-bars, internal supports, auxiliary gauges and the like.