Backstory: On skid row
A reporter attends ice-driving school in Michigan and survives, narrowly, to fishtail another day.
HOUGHTON, MICH. — I've gazed in wonder at 28-foot cartoons sculpted in ice. I've witnessed the making of the world's largest snowball. I've careened out of control driving a 2001 Chevy Blazer, a 2002 Chrysler Park Avenue, and a 2006 Kia Amanti - all in one day.
I've watched 4,400 people hurl snowballs at one another and then, in unison, lie prostrate and make 4,400 snow angels. I've been peppered with "What a hoot" and "You betchuh" in nearly every conversation. I've driven on, and have come to fear, streets in which nearly every truck and SUV pushes a road-hogging plow.
Which is to say, I traveled to Houghton, Mich., a small college town on a mitten-shaped peninsula jutting up into Lake Superior, to learn a bit about driving on ice and snow - if not how to navigate around straight blades protruding from Dodge Ram Mega-Cabs. There's a winter driving school here at Michigan Technological University, and it strives to teach the proper response to, say, yawing a 2,000-pound vehicle on a road with a friction coefficient of 0.2. (That's a pretty slick road, they tell me.)
But I'd arrived, too, during Michigan Tech's annual "Winter Carnival," a week in which students compete to build the most impressive cartoon-inspired ice behemoths, then team up with local grade schools to break winter-themed Guinness world records, and of course play lots of broom ball past midnight. It's a region, I learned that has come to conquer, sublimate, and then celebrate the ravages of a climate ill-suited for smooth-skinned mammals.
This doesn't mean locals find winter driving a Lake Superior breeze, however. While snowmobile crossings are more common than stop signs and children get their first pair of skates when they learn to crawl (Houghton is the birthplace of American professional hockey), winter fender benders and ditch dives happen here, too, with frequency.
The winter driving school is a semiformal Saturday seminar at Michigan Tech's Keweenaw Research Center, a collection of Quonset huts guarding a swirling 90-mile maze of icy circles and frozen straightaways. The center is a major test facility for automakers, tire companies, and suppliers of traction-control systems. When I arrived at 8 a.m., I watched a Kenwood semi fishtail around the main "ice rink," a 1,200-foot circle of solid ice and the facility's slickest surface. (Coefficient of friction: 0.04.)
In 1996, Mark Osborne and Toby Kunnari, two engineers at the facility, decided to launch this school for average drivers and spread the knowledge gleaned from years of careening vehicles through the maze. At the time only one such school existed in the country. They thought another could help reduce, even if in a small way, the number of accidents on icy roads. Since then they've averaged about 40 students a year, from teenagers with learner permits and lead feet to septuagenarians with a hankering to correct their oversteer.
The class is a case study in modern scientific problem-solving, and mankind's Hobbesian struggle with nature. Mr. Osborne, whose authoritative, wry, and understated demeanor, as well as his monotone and smirk, made me think of Vice President Dick Cheney, began the class with a video and PowerPoint presentation explaining the physics of friction, weight transfer, and yaw. We moved on to the meanings of oversteering, understeering, and the various braking techniques used to counteract them.
An "oversteer," we learned, is the classic fishtail, when the rear tires lose their grip on the road, weight lurches forward, and the vehicle starts to slide, back end first. An "understeer" is that helpless feeling you get when you try to turn around a bend, but your vehicle keeps sliding forward like a gleefully disobedient child.
Cooped up in the snow-shrouded Quonset hut learning about physics and steering techniques, however, isn't the same as maneuvering on silica-smooth ice. So we headed out to the maze.
The center's research track is kept a pristine white, and test vehicles are scrubbed to near atomic-level perfection to rid them of sand and salt. Scientifically, this helps ensure the consistency of the hundreds of tests occurring here each week. Every evening, four-wheel-drive tractors drag a grooming machine over the lanes, which keeps them appropriately snowy and slick.
My first lesson on the test track was how to counteract the oversteer. Mr. Kunnari, who sported a red sweat shirt stitched with a smiling Michelin Man and "Toooooby" underneath, took me out in a Chevy Blazer to a series of concentric circles that included the solid ice rink. To correct an oversteer, you need to turn in the direction of the slide and accelerate. It's counterintuitive, of course, to feel the back end of your SUV sliding out from under you, then tap on the gas rather than the brakes. But as I sped around the oval, inducing oversteers, I soon turned my 360-degree spins into tail-swerving corrections that would have made the Dukes of Hazzard proud.
Much more difficult, however, is correcting an understeer. This time Osborne took me out to a varying test track, with straightaways and both broad and hairpin turns.
To make a vehicle turn when it refuses, there are a few tricks, and each frustrates a driver's natural inclinations. You absolutely cannot slam on the brakes, but you do need to transfer the weight of the vehicle to the front, so you should give the brake pedal a quick, firm tap.
But since the problem consists of front tires sliding sideways, a driver should also quickly straighten the wheels - or turn directly into the bank you're about to careen into (!) - which allows the tires to regain their grip. Looking in the direction of your turn - a key component, trust me - you then turn the wheel a second time. Driving the Chrysler Park Avenue on this course, I slammed into the snowbanks more times than I care to mention, and I'm sure I saw Osborne suppressing his Cheney-like smirk.
I soon got the hang of it, but I preferred the other understeering solution Mark taught me: driving two-footed - breaking with my left foot while accelerating with my right. Again, since two-footed driving had long been anathema to me, I found it a struggle.
Which is why, perhaps, at the end of the seminar, as I drove away awash with knowledge and power, I had to test my new driving skills on my rented Kia Amanti. When I took the turn leaving the center, I sped up, induced an oversteering slide, and tried to correct it with a burst of speed.
Not quite. I spun out on the road, coming to a stop and facing an oncoming (and unnoticed) Ford pickup - with its plow ominously raised. Slowly and safely, the driver stopped to let me turn around and continue on my way, which I did, as if I were driving Miss Daisy.