If yesterday’s post was a boring summary about the need for proper equipment when driving in the wintertime, today I get to have fun and relive one of the more exciting winter experiences I have ever had, my weekend at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs Colorado. But first a little background.
There are three things everyone notices about me when they meet me for the first time.
- I am originally from Germany and all those stereotypes you have heard about Germans are somewhat true. Yes I am stubborn, and yes I have a hard time admitting when I am wrong. Plus I have an issue with occasionally being a little too direct. Add that to my love of soccer, beer, bread and wurst (not necessarily in that order) and I would have a hard time passing for being from anywhere else.
- I love cars in a way that probably borders on the inappropriate. The passion for cars includes everything car related, from toy matchbox cars to real life auto racing, from the amazing design work I see my many talented friends do to my own consulting work on the automobiles of the future. These things are intertwined with my personal life in a way that is clear to everyone. And this passion is also the thing that brought me to Michigan many years ago even it was in direct conflict with #3)
- I hate winter.
So when the Bridgestone Winter Driving School asked me to come and help with a performance driving class for Germans in cold a%$ Colorado of all places, you can imagine my response…… “When do you want me there?”
Aside from the fun helping to translate and assist a performance driving class, I was looking forward to the opportunity to bring my girlfriend along on the trip. Behind the scenes in my household winter driving was a serious issue. Many years earlier my girlfriend was involved in a devastating winter driving accident. She had been suffering from serious bouts of anxiety ever since. Even with my skill and years of experience as a driving instructor I had been unable to break through and provide her with a comfort level for even simple short trips to the store. So we signed her up to take a class.
Arriving at the Steamboat Springs airport we were initially surprised at the temperature. While several degrees colder than Michigan, my heavy winter coat felt too warm. Luckily I had taken other’s advice and dressed in layers so it was easy to cool down. The combination of the altitude which brought us closer to the sun and the dry and thin air makes it feel much warmer than the thermometer indicates – think of it as the opposite of wind chill. After the surprise wore off I was able to take in the beauty of the area which reminded me of certain areas of Europe. A charming village that catered to the tourist and ski community, Steamboat was also a logical home for a Winter Driving School as it contains consistent snow from December through March.
Before the trip I signed the non-disclosure agreement and familiarized myself with the instructor’s manuals. The Bridgestone Winter Driving School is unique as the teaching methods were developed in house based on the many years of rally and racing experience of the management team. Instructors are not volunteers as with some other winter courses, but trained professionals. Every effort is expended to ensure that the teaching methods are consistent. For these same reasons the school also uses a new fleet of Lexus vehicles every season. Using new vehicles is clearly not most economical way to run a school, but Operations Manager Kurt Spitzner says its worth it. “With snow and ice conditions changing hourly and a never ending stream of new students, it is the only constant the instructors have”.
On Thursday I familiarized myself with the 3 fantastic on site courses. The amount of on- and off- camber turns, elevation changes and varied surfaces were fantastic. I could have spent hours happily riding around. Unique to this facility is that the tracks are all specially-designed and purpose-built each season. The natural ice and snow covering means that the Lexus cars and SUVs do not have to be modified to slip and slide like on public roads – they properly replicate what could happen on your way to the office on a random January morning. NOTE! The vehicles are not exactly factory specification. They do have an on demand switch installed that turns off the ABS and Traction Control systems as needed to simulate vehicles without those safety systems. And of course the fleet has been changed over to the latest Bridgestone Blizzaks because as Spitzner noted “Attempting to teach on the original equipment all season tires would be nearly impossible”. I can vouch for that as I tried to shag some cones for one of the lane change maneuvers and I could barely stay on my feet. Yet the track cars on their Blizzaks drove through the gates without any problems at all.
On Friday the corporate execs from Germany arrived, a small group of the management team that were on hand to complete the two-day Sixth Gear Performance Driving Class in one day. With this small group the instructors and students worked hard to cover all of the important elements and skills necessary in a very short time. Helping teach and translate for the class was a fantastic and fun experience and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the students progress throughout the day. By the end of the class they were substantially more capable in their low traction driving skills.
On Saturday the girlfriend and I were able to enjoy the other sides of Steamboat. The quaint shopping, fantastic restaurants and in the evening a trip to the hot springs just outside of town.
On Sunday my girlfriend had a chance to take the the Second Gear full day Safety Winter Driving Class. Before the school her feelings were well known – just hearing a weather report of snow would make her anxious. Seeing snow while driving would make her palms sweat. And the 35 mile drive from our home to her work was a study in fear from mid-December to April 1st – she was constantly afraid she would make a mistake and hurt somebody.
During the school she admitted she was very nervous and her palms started sweating in the classroom even before they arrived at the track. Once at the track she declined to go first. In the basic class students are paired with strangers because, as Spitzner often says “We save relationships as well as lives”. My girfriend later admitted as much – it was difficult to learn when I tried to teach her because of the relationship dynamic. She felt it was great to have a co-driver who was a stranger – it was easier to learn because as she said “you could make mistakes without concern”.
Most importantly, how is she now that the class was several weeks ago? Well, she is still a little anxious, but not about driving, only about the weather. The bouts of panic and severe distress are gone, replaced by a easy confidence about driving in the snow. A funny thing I noticed was that she now makes random observations about what other people are doing wrong when driving in slippery conditions. All in all, I would highly advise that anyone who drives in the winter take the course – the school’s Second Gear Safe Winter Driving Course is only $495. Which is actually cheaper than most insurance deductibles and many insurance companies offer a discount for people who have successfully completed the course.
For the group of students who took the custom Sixth Gear Performance Course I would say their smiles are all that are needed to answer the question if the course was worthwhile. For my part, even with almost 200 races and hundreds more autocrosses and track days under my belt, the course will bring about additional smoothness – a skill that is always in demand.
For more information about the standard and specialized classes at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School, check out their website here and tell them Frank sent you.