Lakeside Education: Georgetown Lake 2020 – Ice Capades

Last week my friend Scott called and asked if I wanted to come up to Georgetown Lake on Friday as he had a booking granting him the rights to use the lake but didn’t have an event planned for it.  (In his spare time he helps organize events for car clubs, corporations, dealerships etc. that like to drive on the ice as educational or just fun events for members or clients).  Since the day would have otherwise gone to waste, he was inviting everyone he knew to come up and have a day of fun on the ice.  I asked my daughter, who is recently licensed, if she’d mind missing school for a day of real world education and since she didn’t seem to mind missing school one bit, we got up early on Friday and drove her Jeep Wrangler up there.

Georgetown, CO is just off I-70 a few miles east of the Eisenhower Tunnel, the world’s highest vehicular tunnel at 11,013 feet.  Georgetown is a bit lower at 8,530 feet and boasts a large lake right off and visible from the highway.  In the winter it freezes and can easily support vehicles on it.  The day we went the ice measured 14 inches thick which was plenty, I’ve been on it in years past when the ice was a bit thinner and would make unnerving creaking sounds so this was great, no cause for nervousness.  Scott wasn’t sure how many people would show up due to the late notice and the weekday timing but as it turned out it was about a dozen or so which made for a great uncrowded day.

By the time Piper and I got there at around 8:30am (it’s 103 miles from our house and we stopped for coffee, gas, and breakfast along the way) Scott and a couple of others had already laid out the “course” with cones and were just testing the flow of the turns.  He used a layout I’ve driven here before but that was obviously new to Piper.  It incorporated a starting line (duh), a slalom course at the beginning that turned into a long sweeper with a bit of a slightly bent straight, then a sharp left turn feeding into another long 180 degree sweeper and then another slalom area before the “stop box” where you were required to stop before driving through the “pit area” back to the starting line.  After lunch we reversed the course direction which changes everything just as you are getting used to it.

The general rule is that a car on track only has to worry about themselves and the car in front of them, there is no passing unless someone pulls off and waves people by, but the car in back is 100% responsible for keeping away from anyone in front.  After a couple of laps everyone had figured out how everyone else’s skill or speed level was and just either left more time and a larger gap before leaving the stop box or leaving right behind a much faster car as needed.

Now, if this were a parking lot and dry pavement, the course could probably be accomplished in maybe 40 seconds in a reasonably fast/quick car.  On a lake topped with a thick sheet of ice things were a bit different.  The first order of the day was to disable any and all traction control and stability control systems on the vehicle.  On our Wrangler this is accomplished by pushing a button until a chime sounds after about five seconds, this turns things off and leaves them off unless one is traveling at high speed, if that was the case there is another procedure that turns it off completely until the procedure is reversed or one can just pull a fuse.  Neither option is recommended for regular highway use of course and the one we did resets itself to “on” if the ignition is cycled.

The other cars ran the gamut from another SUV, in this case a new Range Rover Sport piloted by a couple that wanted to experience their vehicle on ice to an early 90’s Audi 90 Quattro with a transplanted turbo engine, a rally racing suspension and a stripped out interior piloted by several younger guys that brought it on a trailer and spent the end of every lap fine tuning things in the engine bay.

There was also a sublime 1962 Porsche 356 on regular tires that spun like a dreidel but taught the driver a few things in a safe, controlled environment, a newer VW Alltrack wagon, a 1993 Audi S4 whose first owner was Martina Navratilova (not John Voight but still…), a 1995 Audi S6 Avant, two 1991 Audi 200 20V Quattro sedans, and a 2000 Audi A4 Avant as well as a 2002 or so Audi S4 sedan and a recent Subaru WRX.

The older Audis especially were fun to watch as they were mostly such large, long cars but able to gracefully drift around the course and build speed at a rapid pace.  Numerous people pulled over while driving by and some came all the way to the edge of the lake and were videoing the goings-on on their phones and several people asked questions, all of which were politely answered by whoever happened to be nearby.

Since the Wrangler is equipped with snow-rated all terrain tires with the mountain/snowflake symbol we were very interested in seeing how it would cope here.  Other cars had tires ranging from regular winter tires such as Blizzaks and the like to studded winter tires to just plain all-seasons.  The reality is that on actual sheet ice, not much really helps significantly except the studded ones have a bit more grip than anything else but will still slide as much as you want or let them.  As it turned out, weather conditions changed constantly from sun to cloud to snow squalls to very high winds and back numerous times during the day making the surface change constantly from bare ice to slightly molten to snow covered to drifting snow etc.

The goal for me was basically to let Piper experience what the Jeep would do in a low traction situation and how she could counteract it instead of just hitting the brakes or riding out a slide etc with her eyes closed and screaming.  As it turned out she did extremely well and was able to let the tail hang out, feather the throttle, countersteer and get back on track as needed.  More importantly she got the sense of how the Jeep would act and by the end of the day was able to anticipate the moment that the final weight transfer would occur in a slide which is the point at which the vehicle “snaps” back the other way and was ahead of it with her steering input.

She was also able to put the Jeep into a long drift and hold it traveling sideways while turning the wheel and adjusting the throttle, although she did get tired fast and didn’t think it was something she’d be doing regularly for fun but was glad to learn what the Jeep would do and how she could react.  It wasn’t necessary to get up to any high speeds either, while you certainly could and the fun quotient rises as well, you can just as easily do things at a relatively mild pace.

Of course I myself also took advantage of the day and when I wasn’t in the passenger seat I also took the helm and found the Jeep to be somewhat twitchy mainly due to its short wheelbase but eminently controllable and a lot of fun.  Lest I sound like we had it all figured out from the beginning it was hardly so, we both had plenty of instances where the Jeep just started (or seemingly wouldn’t stop) spinning due to different combinations of speed, ice, bad inputs, etc. but also plenty of very long sideways drifts in order to get around a sweeping corner.

Piper also had the opportunity to have others ride with her in the Jeep to offer their input and I took a few laps in Scott’s ice car, the 1993 Audi S4 exactly like the one (bar the color) I used to have in the early to mid-2000’s.  It was a lot of fun being back in a large sedan with lots of turbo power that let you hang the end out at will and would just drift for seemingly days on end but was also easy and controllable enough to be able to shoot video of the Jeep while following it.

The icing on the lake, uh, cake, came towards the end of the day when Chip, another one of the guys involved in setting up the event, asked Piper if she could drive a stick shift.  When she replied that she could not but would like to learn, he ushered her into his older Audi A4 Avant and asked his girlfriend to teach her.  Piper figured it out right away and was able to drive the course in the A4 (on studded tires) while shifting and stopping and starting again.  She came away happy to have unexpectedly learned that skill and raved about the additional traction from the studded tires.

It was a wonderful day to be able to teach her a few new things and also have a lot of fun while catching up with a few old friends and acquaintances.  Our thanks to Scott and the others for helping to make it a great experience and if anyone else ever has a similar opportunity, they should take full advantage of it.