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The Field Guide to Winter Driving

Our writer puts his fears of winter driving on ice and learns to lose control behind the wheel of a brand new Porsche.

Winter driving with a Porsche

You’d think they’d won the lottery, from the looks on the faces of this group of (mostly) men as we see our rides for the first time. Thirty-two brand new Porsches are parked on the ice outside the Mécaglisse track in Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci, two hours north of Montreal. It’s sunny out, and -21°C. People are shivering, but that might just be the anticipation.

Our instructors explain the day’s program. “Wait a minute,” I sputter. “You actually want us to lose control of these $150,000 cars?” The last time I spun out on ice was while driving my dad’s 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity, and although I didn’t do any damage to the clunker, I did end up facing oncoming traffic. It’s not an experience I’m looking to repeat.

My new friends, however, are unbothered by the agenda. Every February, dozens like them come to Camp4 Canada to learn how to push the limits of their sports cars back home and become more confident winter drivers – okay, and maybe live out a latent bank-heist-on-ice fantasy.

Lead instructor Jonathan Urlin explains that he’s going to put us in an uncontrollable environment – a frozen slip’n’slide, essentially, 2 ½ kilometres long – and teach us how to take control. The topic is weight transfer, and Urlin gives us a quick physics class, explaining how a car’s motion is just a combination of three inputs: gas, brakes and steering wheel. Can it really be this simple?

We break up into four teams to tackle the manoeuvres – my group’s leader is former racing champion Kees Nierop. He takes us step by step through a drifting technique where we will initiate an oversteer to propel our car sideways, and then carefully accelerate out of the bend. “You’re going to race toward this cone,” Nierop says, pointing to the bright orange pylon in the snowbank, “and when you reach it, I want you to lift off the gas and start turning. Then, you’ll gently apply the brakes.” It’s only four steps, but it seems like an awful lot to remember.

Winter driving with a Porsche

We jump into our cars – mine is a black 911 Carrera S that rumbles like a hungry cougar. I drive it around the bend and wait in queue for my turn. Attached to the dashboard is a CB radio through which Nierop gives each car its instructions.

“Car four, go!” he calls out, and I put my foot on the gas – it’s not enough. “On the gas, on the gas, on the gas,” Nierop barks through the radio. I accelerate as much as I can, and then I lift, turn left and brake, Nierop’s voice guiding me through the motions. The car’s weight shifts to the right and it skids. After I let it slide, I let go of the brake, straighten the wheel and then hit the gas one more time to pull around the corner. Narrowly missing a snowbank, I accelerate into the straightaway.

I exhale and actually laugh, the stunt now behind me. For a moment, I recognize the math behind the machine. Driving in snow and ice has always felt perilous, but after breaking the motion into its individual parts, I’m not so afraid of losing control. And at least I didn’t wind up in oncoming traffic.



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