Eagle River, Wisconsin is a winter sports destination of sorts, home to the Pond Hockey National Championships. More recently, it has become home to the new Subaru Winter Experience, a driving program developed in partnership with Flat Out Sweden and developed with input by Subaru Global Rally Cross driver Patrick Sandell.
Currently, the program consists of one full day of ice driving using a selection of BRZs, WRXs, and STIs all wearing studded winter tires. The tires are illegal on public roads but perfect for an ice track carved onto a private frozen lake. By prioritizing seat time over classroom time, one day becomes enough to make the event feel like a significant value add to your existing (or non-existent) winter driving skills.
As a young, West-Michigan raised, and altogether too-confident idiot, I was fairly sure that I had a grip on what was going to take place that day. Between hours of simulator racing and late nights spent ripping handbrake drifts in my 1999 Passat during my high school days, I thought I had slippery surface driving on lock, thanks.
Boy, was I wrong.
The first event was the “moose dodge,” meant to help familiarize us with the traction control and ABS systems on the school's WRXs and STIs. Passing through the first gate at 45mph, we guided the car around a “moose” (a line of five cones in the snow) maintaining control while using full ABS braking. While I didn’t find the exercise particularly ground breaking from a control standpoint, it was my first dynamic experience with studded tires on ice. If legal where you live, I highly recommend them. The rest of the day only served to reinforce this.
After losing to a Moose in a game of chicken, it was time to dance Subaru’s excellent BRZ through a slalom course. This exercise was meant to help us master weight transfer, throttle control, and countersteer, three vital skills not just for the ice, but anywhere you drive a car.
Had it been just a straight-line slalom, this would have been easy. Instead, the middle cones were farther left and right of center than those at the beginning and end of the course, meaning that the weight transfer would grow more extreme in the middle of the run.
While the everything-off, ass-out antics looked cool, it became apparent that the BRZ’s well-calibrated Track mode was the right setting for the fastest, smoothest passes.
Putting what we learned at the slalom into play, we headed to the BRZ course. This course was designed to teach us how to link two or more turns together, and how to control the car through several different kinds of corners. Track mode might have been the favorite for the slalom course, but turning stability control and traction control fully off was the golden ticket here. One run through the course and two quick tips from the DirtFish Rally coaches was all it took for me to begin to understand throttle control and its relation to steering through a corner.
Before lunch, we were given a right-seat demonstration of what the highest caliber drivers can do using the more advanced versions of the skills we were learning. We strapped in to the co-driver’s seat of the Factory Stage Rally Cars, Sandell piloting one, while fellow factory shoe David Higgins hopped behind the wheel of the second.
Watch some onboard footage of a Stage rally at the WRC level. These racers drive like nobody taught them the words “fear” or “caution.” We were left trying to make sense of a 400-level collegiate course demonstration on effective driving and weight transfer on an AWD car as we headed to lunch.
But even the ride-along was a great chance to feel the exaggerated sensations of weight transfer, thanks to the long-travel suspension in the rally cars. I wished I could have ridden along for a second lap as we broke from lunch and hopped into the all-wheel-drive WRX’s and STI’s.
After a spotting lap around the purpose-built AWD course, the instructors let us loose. I immediately found the car much harder to rotate, and after two laps, it became clear that AWD car control just wasn’t clicking for me the same way it had with rear-wheel drive.
Credit the wonderful folk at DirtFish for turning that around. After a one-lap break to talk with the instructors, I went back out and started to see glimpses of light amidst my grey inability to drive like I always thought I could.
Then the session ended, and it was time to move on to the “rally stage” track. This feature was built to put the day’s various lessons together into one smooth, slide-filled lap of buttery goodness. I immediately asked David Higgins if I could ride along with him, and he talked me through "being tough" with the AWD cars to get them to rotate.
It was after watching his footwork and steering inputs that suddenly the timing of it all started to click. In the BRZ, rotating the car is quickest with throttle and requisite countersteer. Not so in the AWD cars, which require patience and "tougher" inputs to move the weight front to back or side to side. More brake. More waiting. More throttle, but only to pull you out of corners, not to toss you into them.
Between laps, the DirtFish staff had morsels of advice to help smooth my rotations and clean up my laps. These pointers, the copious amounts of seat time during the day, added up to a realization: I became a markedly better driver on the ice and snow in just one day with professional oversight and a frozen playground, not to mention what we got to drive as we learned.
This is the program’s first year in America, and if my experience is anything to go by, it should have serious staying power. When done correctly, one day of ice driving instruction is more than enough to develop your skills, especially when you’ve got the knowledgeable and enthusiastic instructors from DirtFish leading the way.
Subaru is currently looking at offering the experience to buyers of certain new cars. We hope this is the case—beyond making you look like a car control sensei while sliding a BRZ through a big left-hander, the course has the practical benefit of teaching you how to better handle your car in everyday winter driving conditions. We’re all for any experience that enhances driver skill, and we can’t think of many better places currently than the Subaru Winter Experience in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Subaru will begin accepting students for the 2019 Winter Experience in January; the price is $1450.