Submission Thursday: A Story of the Frozen Rush

[Hooniverse reader Smokeyburnout trucked up to Maine in the bitter cold last month to attend this event and wrote up the experience for us gracious Hoons. -Ed.]
If you’ve been online or watched TV anytime in the past few months, you’ve probably already heard about this, but winter sucks most of the time.  It gets really cold outside and you have to keep going out there to un-bury all of your stuff. I spend most of my winters enviously watching videos from events like Tropheé Andros and winter stage rallies, but then in the middle of last year I found out I was missing out on a winter race within reasonable driving distance: Red Bull Frozen Rush.

The premise is simple: Stick a few hundred studs into some mud-terrain tires, bolt them to a Pro 4 short-course truck, and now it can drive up a ski slope. The original 2013 Frozen Rush was just a proof-of-concept demonstration, with Ricky Johnson ripping up Vermont’s Mount Snow in his Ram, but last year it was expanded into the season opener for Red Bull’s Signature Series, a full single-elimination tournament-style race at Sunday River in Maine.
Frozen Rush is very much a real race, sanctioned by USAC, but as a Signature Series event, putting together a show that sells the people watching on TV and the people in attendance on the idea of Red Bull is closer to the top priority than it is at a Global Rallycross or Air Race World Championship event. There’s enough money from the marketing budget and the TV deal that they can get a ski resort to not just close one of their trails for an entire week, but to let an audience in and not charge for admission or even parking! (Lift-ticket holders get access to a second spectator area further up the slope, and can check out practice sessions earlier in the week.)
You might be wondering what the catch is. Well, those two days of competition with free admission are the last two days of College Week at Sunday River, and they are weekdays: Thursday and Friday. It’s also very much in the middle of nowhere. (If you’re a weirdo like me paying $3 a month for cell phone service from an AT&T MVNO that doesn’t offer roaming, you won’t have signal.) Parking is also a bit tight, the designated overflow was the lot of a movie theater in a nearby town that closed 4 years ago and that filled up before the lots on the mountain did. Sunday River’s site actually recommended you come check out qualifying in person and then watch race day at home on the live stream, but I wasn’t making this trip without planning on being there both days.
Planning! As usual, I left the decision as to whether or not I was actually going to go to the very last minute. When the 10-day forecast came out, it said the high temperature on raceday would be 30 degrees. Nice! Then, a few days later, that was adjusted to 15 below zero, and then back up to about 5, which was going to have to be good enough. I bought an extra layer of thermal gear, booked a hotel, drove up to Maine, and found out that I don’t actually know how to read a forecast and it was expected to drop to NEGATIVE FORTY NINE DEGREES FAHRENHEIT overnight.
In the morning when I went to head out for qualifying, the sun was out and it had warmed to around 20 below. I got in my car, tuned the key, and… nothing. Honda hybrids have a few quirks, most of which seem to be rooted in a lack of trust in the technology, One of these quirks is an auxiliary 12V starter to start the car in the event of a dead high-voltage battery, and also in high and low ambient temperatures. However, when the previous owner had battery trouble, he disconnected this starter from the car’s wiring and connected it to a length of “doorbell wire” that has to be jumped from the 12V battery underhood. After stepping back out into the cold, I was able to get the car going, and then discovered some other cold weather issues, like terrible clutch pedal and shifter feel, and my hands freezing up. I still made it to Dunkin’ Donuts and then Sunday River on time.
Attendance on qualifying day was light, probably due to the extreme cold. I was on the mountain less than 15 minutes before the session was scheduled to start and had my choice of many spaces right up against the fence. The view was beautiful, but you could really only see the straight after the start/finish, the big jump, and maybe the crossover jump at the top of the course if you craned your neck (skiiers would have a better view of that). When the session started, I found that another device of mine was not taking well to the cold. I thought it was going to be too much hassle to use my regular point-and-shoot with gloves, so I had only brought my phone and capacitive gloves, but the camera app crashed constantly.
10 trucks had been invited to the event, but defending runner-up Johnny Greaves had pulled out a few weeks earlier, and Todd LeDuc had blown an engine in practice, so the qualifying session went by quickly. It was all single-truck runs, but it was not uneventful, with big jumps, some spins, and of course the battle for pole. The paddock was scheduled to be open to the fans from noon, so after qualifying wrapped at early at 11, the crowd walked back down the hill, took the shuttle buses over to the paddock, and then waited outside that big heated tent for 45 minutes because they had not prepared for this possibility.
There was plenty of cool stuff to see in the paddock. Not just the trucks and drivers up close, but also those crazy studded tires, the fiberglass those studs had shredded, super-long-travel shocks, front brake discs so skinny they look like they came off a motorcycle, the Harbor Freight aluminum racing jack you’ll find at least one team using at every pro race in America, and a number of unique dashboard configurations.
It looked like Todd LeDuc’s engine change had wrapped up, but Carl Renezeder’s team was in the middle of changing their front diff.
Huge LED light bars might not seem necessary for racing during the day, but it appeared they served a purpose.
You may have noticed that we’re like a thousand words into this and I haven’t started talking about the race yet. Attendance looked very good, and that’s where I sort of ran into a problem. Building this track was quite an undertaking, but the mound of snow that was the spectator area seemed to peak at the fence line and then drop off, like the opposite of stadium seating. I can think of a few reasons for this: either they felt it was safer, in the event of some sort of human avalanche, for the crowd to tumble away from the track instead on into the trench next to the track, or it’s just difficult to build structures like this out of snow with precision. Whatever the reason, it meant that if you didn’t get there early enough to stand in the first row or two, you weren’t going to be able to see part of the track that was actually close to the spectator area, and if you were a few rows further back you couldn’t even see the Jumbotron.
Even with breaks between the elimination rounds, the race was over in two hours, which was just enough time for me to have worked my way up to the second row of the crowd by the end. I never got around to watching the replay of the stream, and as of this writing it hasn’t aired on TV yet (Sunday March 1st on NBC, 2PM EST/check your local listings) so I don’t really have the clearest idea of what actually happened in most of the races. What I could see, though, was jumps.
The course for the 2014 Frozen Rush had a crossover jump right in front of the main spectator area. Starts were staggered by 30 seconds to help visibility, so if both drivers had clean runs, in the middle of a 2-lap race, the first driver starting his second lap would cross under the second driver finishing up his first. This year the staggered starts were dropped and it was advertised as a “head-to-head” race, and it was, just in the style of Race Of Champions. The course split into “red” and “blue” courses at the top of the main spectator area, crossed over each other with a crossover jump now moved up to the skier spectator area, and then joined back into one course on the way down ahead of a chicane section nobody could see. The time difference between the two courses felt longer than 30 seconds, and much like a Race Of Champions race, it was hard to tell if a race was close until the end of the second lap. If it was close then, we would be treated to the sight of two trucks crossing the big gap jump at the bottom of the course simultaneously, or maybe even a close finish. Even with the Semifinal and Final races becoming progressively longer, this did not happen too many times, but seeing even one truck at a time over the gap jump was always spectacular.
Over 6 weeks after coming home from this race, I’m still wrestling with the question. Was it worth going to see it both days? Will I go back next year? Should you go? The answer I’ve come to is: maybe, unless you already ski or snowboard, in which case you should definitely check it out. As it turns out, the best view wasn’t from any spectator area, but from above them.
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All photos copyright 2015 Hooniverse/Smokeyburnout

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  1. Rocky McCoy Avatar

    Thanks for making the effort to go, and to report your experience. The outcome of the race isn’t so important to me …it’s the amazing effort by the hosts, the participants willing to participate and the incredible machines built to perform such feats.

  2. Sjalabais Avatar

    That’s a lot of spikes! Pretty cool that you held out the temperatures…once spend 1.5 hours to capture the sunset from a mountain top in -20F. Had to ski up, and no down jacket or anything fancy. Yes, that is a cold temperature.

    1. smokyburnout Avatar

      684 spikes! They mentioned that, a lot.
      I was wearing a beanie over a ski mask, gloves over gloves, three layers of socks and pants, and fours layers of shirts under my jacket

  3. Eric Rood Avatar
    Eric Rood

    Here’s a nice supplement to this. The voice of Race Control in the video is the same guy who gave me a tour of Race Control at the IndyCar Milwaukee race, too. He works all over the place for USAC and is one of the most insanely interesting people I’ve ever met.