This is the real life. This is not fantasy. But it sure as hell is unreal. Stig Blomqvist, 1984 World Rally champion, just powerslid by, his Audi Sport Quattro S1 machine-gunning off redline, hosing the crowd with ice from its studded tires. There's a full-bore NASCAR stocker tiptoeing around at the far end of the track, and Hans-Joachim Stuck is about to enter the circuit in the same freaking March-Cosworth Formula 1 car he was in when he crashed out of the 1974 Monaco Grand Prix after contact with James Hunt. To give the Cosworth V-8 bite on snow and ice, the car wears four studded tires in the rear, two doubled up at each corner like a dualie pickup. But nobody is dangling truck nuts from their bumper to prove anything here; hanging it out in a 46-year-old 480-hp open-wheel race car on ice is an irrefutable statement.
The GP Ice Race is the brainchild of Vinzenz Greger and Ferdinand Porsche. (No, not that one. Not that one, either. Or that one.) It's a reboot of an event that the town of Zell am See, Austria, hosted quasi-annually from 1937 until 1974, and it was for many of those years run in memory of the Ferdinand Porsche who started the company. The Porsche who organized today's race is his great-grandson.
Those old ice races shut down after a Unimog preparing the frozen lake broke through the ice in the lead up to the event, killing its driver. The modern revival is held at an airport in Zell am See's Zellermoos neighborhood with a veneer of sensibility thin enough to preserve the original's spirit. Porsche, 26, projects a highly contagious enthusiasm and speaks in paragraphs-long sentences when he gets going about the ice races. His reason for resurrecting them now is simple: They sounded like fun, but they happened before he was born.
"Vinzenz and myself, we felt like the wild, crazy times of motorsport were ending, that we weren't alive when they were happening," he says. "We figured something is missing in motorsport. There are a lot of crazy people out there that like to use their cars the way they were used back in the day when the sport was still fun and crazy. Our goal is to translate this craziness they had back then into the 21st century."
Draws like Blomqvist's S1 and Stuck's March-Cosworth headlined this year's two-day event in early February, but the on-ice action was heavy on audience participation. It opened with an hour of public go-kart racing on the ice. (Who would have thought we'd need cash at an event organized by millennials and widely publicized on Instagram? Dammit.) There were 138 cars entered, ranging from a Porsche 911 GT3 RS to a Trabant 601 RS with horsepower well into the double digits, and paces around the approximately 2000-foot course attested to a wide range of abilities and levels of commitment. Plenty of gentleman drivers engaged in competitive puttering, seemingly afraid of the kind of surface on which maintaining any kind of speed demands the driver be comfortable with being sideways. And then there was the guy dressed like a gentleman in black slacks and an orange-and-white-checked oxford but driving like a maniac, ping-ponging his Mazda 323 GTR between the berms of snow. Scads of Mitsubishi and Subaru rally heroes careened around corners and sashayed down the straights as if they were prepping for an upcoming Scandi flick but never sure which way it was going to go. Proving the importance of car control over power, in one heat, a Fiat 131 Abarth Rally—a vehicle that made 138 horsepower stock—chased down a caged and bewinged Audi that looked and sounded like it must have at least three times the power.
Given the precious sheetmetal some drivers were herding around the track, we could understand their reservations. But in the buggy class, nobody had such concerns. Powered by sport-bike engines, the minute machines are designed to dominate autocrosses in Europe, and with spidery control arms stretching their open wheels out to each corner, they're fast-twitch handling demons. Drivers regularly pitched the buggies so hard into corners that they backed into the outside wall, ricocheting off in an explosion of snow and screaming on down the track.
If the small cars could enjoy that sort of intimacy with the walls of snow lining the circuit, imagine how narrow the circuit must feel in something larger. Imagining is exactly what we were left to do, because we couldn't find any drivers who speak English and unser Deutsch ist nicht so gut.
But a Porsche Taycan Turbo S—the brand unsurprisingly well represented both by private entries and corporate support—proved that impression valid when its driver got a little overexuberant and parked it perpendicular to the racing line in the tightest turn on the track, nose buried in the inside wall while the tail simultaneously touched the outside. Suggestion for next year: Move the flag stand in that corner so it's visible to racers prior to entry, not after they're committed and bearing down on a $190,000 roadblock. Bring out the Liebherr! You know it's a special kind of racing when the massive articulated front-end loader tasked with track maintenance and competitor rescues is wearing snow chains.
Tow hooks serve dual purposes at the GP Ice Race: pulling cars from snowbanks and pulling skiers from cars. Skijoring, pronounced (as roughly as Midwesterners can approximate it) skeh-YUR-ing, is a traditional winter sport that began with skiers being towed by horses or dogs. And then, presumably because internal combustion's crushing defeat of the horse wasn't humiliating enough, people started skijoring behind motorcycles and cars. Skijoring was a fixture of the old ice races, when multicar fields would race door to door in what seemed like an awfully elaborate self-harm ritual. When asked, Porsche says that he's not aware of any deaths or major injuries, but we can see how his phrasing might be constructed around an implied asterisk.
"We are certified by the Austrian Motorsport Federation, and of course safety is one of our main concerns," says Porsche. "Only if it's safe is it translatable to the modern era." So now just two car-and-skier pairs race at a time, and staggered starts keep safe distances between them. "Back then, they were crazy and risky," says Porsche. "We try only to be crazy." The best skijorers move up and down the rope as the car goes around the track, dropping back in the straightaways because the cars can slow quicker than the skiers. When the driver brakes and sets up for a turn, so does the skier, pivoting side to side to scrub speed while making sure he's pointed into the corner when the car turns in. A longer rope exaggerates the pendulum effect the skier gets at the exit of the turn, so many skiers will climb the rope as the car brakes. You don't want to swing too wide, especially if your driver takes a line that puts the car toward the outside of the turn.
Other skiers appeared to strategize less and just held on for dear life as they hit speeds upward of 60 mph. It might be safer today, but it's hardly sane. "It's just very easy to convince people that racing on ice with skiers in the back is a good idea," Porsche says. Sure, but how do you recruit the skiers? We lost track of the number of times they wiped out or we saw cars race past dragging empty ropes. But only once did we see a skijorer, who'd been caught off guard by braking, run into the back of his tow car and put his hands on the trunk. And the only skijorer to leave with one leg arrived in that condition.
This was the second year for the GP Ice Race, named not because it's a Grand Prix but because of organizing partners Greger and Porsche—and probably because that arrangement is more evocative than PG. The two see it as more than a race. Porsche tells us they want the event to be like a festival "for people who like racetracks and rallying and for people who don't like motorsport at all." To that end, music throbbed all day and night (racing went past 10:00 p.m. the first day), and spectators could visit the pop-up bars—including one constructed entirely from snow with bottles simply shoved into the surface and, naturally, a Jägermeister stand—and the requisite Red Bull lounge with rooftop viewing deck. The atmosphere and Europe's inexplicable pop-music tastes set up sublime moments like a dumped skijorer shuffling dejectedly down the track while Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again" blared from the speakers, or when the Four Tops' "Loco in Acapulco" played while spectators drank beers pulled from a snowbank.
Porsche tells us that the organizers had a meeting after last year's event with Zell am See's mayor, police chief, and other civic leaders, who told them they'd "never had an event where people were so drunk but so happy and nothing happened. Everyone was just drunk and in love, so to say."
After drawing some 8000 spectators last year, Greger and Porsche already have a different venue lined up for the 2021 GP Ice Race. Porsche told us prior to the event that the current location can accommodate only about 10,000 people, and the new one can hold 20,000. But more than 16,000 people came out to watch the festivities this year, so it's probably already time to start looking for something even bigger. Because like a Formula 1 car on studded dualies, this thing has traction.
From the April 2020 issue.