Every now and then, I’m reminded of the perspective of a first-timer in motorsport. Most often it comes from soothing the tense nerves of a student’s first time on course while I’m instructing them. This time, it came from being parked with some other autocrossers on a snow-covered Road America straightaway. And I was the newbie.
If this was someone’s first time at this track, they had a sight to behold. Anyone who’s been on a “cold” race track knows just how unusual and calming it can be. Sensations etch into the memory with greater accuracy when it is a snow-covered wonderscape like it was that morning.
In some capacity or another, I’ve been making an annual pilgrimage to Road America since 1987. At first as a kid, tagging along with my father as he worked with various C.A.R.T. teams. Years later, I’d be found at the corners as a flag marshall. But the most memories are made behind the wheel. In the off-season, the simple existence of Road America’s winter autocross series was enough to draw me in. At a cost of $90, it was a no-brainer.
The concept is simple; like any autocross run, cars are released one at a time. But for this series, you’re put on three different courses through the weekend. Section 1 took place at turn 14. Section 2 is run on the paved section inside turn 3, and the final section is on the track’s go-kart course.
Rallycross is similar, but scored by cumulative time over a number of runs. Here, your fastest run of each course counts. Snow tires are expected, and studded tires aren’t allowed. Cars are grouped based on drive – front, rear, or all-wheel drive – and can have any number of modifications.
My vehicle was a trusty, but slightly out-of-place 2004 CLK55 AMG. Atop the engine of this car sits a plaque that reads “R. Laukemann.” If only they knew what that engine was doing 179,000 miles after they built it! Discovering a BMW M2 CS, Pontiac G8 GT and Audi R8 helped me feel at home among the more nimble Miatas and GT86 sports cars. As the rules go, those are all in the same rear-wheel drive category.
Provided you have good tires (I didn’t), the CLK makes for a capable snow machine. Still, with some aged and well-worn winter rubber, I managed to stay just above the bottom of the scoring sheets. In section 1 at turn 14, conditions were an interesting mix of snow, ice and dry tarmac. If you placed your wheels right, you were lightning fast. If you didn’t, you found yourself sawing at the wheel to keep a slide under control.
Section 2 took place at the go-kart track inside of turn 7 and 8. Such was the amount of ice that I actually couldn’t complete the course. On a slow speed sighting lap, I hit a patch of ice up-hill. Unfortunately , I had to bail. I happily took that L as I watched the other two-wheel-drive cars tell a similar tale.
Section 3 was even more interesting, and requires a bit of back story. If you’ve ever been to or seen Road America, you’ll notice a unique ribbon of paved area inside turn 3. This paved area used to be utilized by Skip Barber for their racing schools. It hasn’t been used for an incredibly long time however, so on this day it became part of course number 3.
But that didn’t really matter. It was fun to get out to my favorite racetrack, see some familiar rallycross faces, and learn a few things about pushing an AMG to its limits in the snow. Since I was in it for fun, my driving style mimicked that mindset. How many other times do you get to induce a Scandinavian flick and be encouraged to do more?
Just like autocross, these events are held regularly. Before the last run was over, I already knew the next event I’d enter. Equipped with knowledge from lessons learned from the last event, the CLK got a fresh set of winter tires on it and was entered in a rallycross-style event at the end of January in Stephens Point, Wisconsin for some proper ice racing. Rather than set on a race track, this new setting is on a frozen retention pond. That means speeds are higher, slides are longer, and smiles are surely bigger. More on that “next step” of winter motorsport coming soon!