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Bridgestone Winter Driving School - Slippin' Slidin'

Posted in Features on December 1, 2002
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Contributors: Manrico Delcore
Photographers: Manrico Delcore
Students at the Bridgestone School can choose from the school's fleet of rear-wheel-drive, front-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

"Off the brake, OFF the brake, Release The Brake!" squawked the two-way radio clipped to the truck's dash. My attention, however, was glued to the fast-approaching snowbank. One second there were 30 feet between me and the snowbank, the next, the driver side window-MY window-was engulfed in an avalanche of snow as the SUV I was driving plowed into the bank at 40 mph. Thank goodness for Colorado's champagne-powder guardrails at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School's purpose-built snow and ice track.

The Bridgestone Winter Driving School was created in the early 1980s. It is modeled after the great ice driving schools of Europe and is very different from the frozen-parking-lot operations that spring up every winter near ski resorts. In fact, it remains the only school of its kind in North America.

Like many 4x4 owners, we bought our four-wheel-drive vehicle in part for its superiority on snow- and ice-covered roads. After a couple of winters of muddling through, and with the prospects of a solo crossing of Labrador's frozen interior ahead of us, we decided to go and learn winter driving skills from the experts.

Situated just outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the school features two purpose-built road courses, each more than a mile long. Each course has uphills and downhills, sweeping turns to the right and left, tight turns, off-camber turns, turns at the top and bottom of hills and straightaways. The road courses are the real McCoy: If it's a feature found on a mountain road, it's probably in one of the courses. More than 80,000 gallons of water convert each course into a super slippery ice-road. The above-mentioned Colorado powder cushions the effects of driver errors.

PhotosView Slideshow

(above) The Bridgestone Winter Driving School features a mile-long winding ice- and snow-covered road upon which students can learn the finer points of driving on slippery surfaces.

For 20 years the Bridgestone Winter Driving School has been teaching Army, Navy, FBI, Secret Service, law-enforcement personnel, fire and rescue crews, snow-plow operators (the sort of people who can't let an icy road stop them), and folks like you and me how to safely handle the worst Old Man Winter dishes out.

The school's goal is to improve the skills of everyday drivers in a fun atmosphere, and to make winter driving an enjoyable, hazard-free experience. To this end, it runs half- and full-day winter driving courses. It also offers a two-day performance driving course and a winter rally course for serious driving enthusiasts and experienced professional drivers.

Our daylong course began early at the school's office in town. After signing the obligatory waiver, we got down to business. Clark Bryant, our instructor, opened with this pronouncement: "Cars Never Slide Off the Road For No Reason."

Learning to recover from a skid can make winter driving less stressful and much less dangerous.

We spent the next hour learning about snow and ice, about vehicle handling, and why vehicles do slide off the road. We learned, for example, that snow and ice are at their slipperiest when the temperature is near freezing (because of the presence of liquid water, which acts as a lubricant). We learned that in very cold temperatures, snow and ice provide a surprising amount of grip. We also learned about the importance of reading the road, because while sunny stretches of road can be snow- and ice-free, shady curves can be covered in black or glare ice. Clark pointed out that contrary to popular belief, great drivers are trained to anticipate, not to simply react. Anticipating allows the driver to avoid trouble in the first place.

Clark stressed that the key to vehicle handling is to be smooth. The accelerator and brake are not on/off switches, but like light dimmers, they should be used to provide for gradual increases and decreases of power and braking.

Steering inputs should be smooth and precise. Keep the hands at the 9:00 and 3:00 positions, and when turning the wheel, shuffle it between the hands so that the left hand stays on the left half of the wheel, and the right hand stays on the right half of the wheel. This eliminates the classic crossover-style steering that can result in serious injury if the airbag deploys while your hands and arms are crossed between the steering wheel and your face.

As avid four-wheelers, we were familiar with some of the information that was presented to us. We knew, for instance, about the need to read the terrain, to be smooth on the controls and that a spinning tire has no traction. But a lot of the material was new to us. We finally understood what causes understeer and oversteer, how to prevent them, and how to recover from them (see diagrams above). We also realized that we had been driving around curves all wrong. Instead of going in fast and tight, we should have been driving in slow and wide and out fast and tight.

Learning to recover from a skid can make winter driving less stressful and much less dangerous.

We learned that threshold braking is the way to slow or stop a car in everyday driving conditions. Threshold braking involves applying the brakes smoothly but firmly to slow the car early, then more gently as you slow down. This technique allows you to be very precise in adjusting your speed.

When driving a non-ABS-equipped car in low grip conditions the braking technique to use is cadence braking. Cadence braking, or pumping the brakes, involves applying the brakes firmly until the wheels lock up, then quickly lifting off the brake and repeating this process increasing the tempo of the pumping action until the car stops.

To stop an ABS-equipped car in low grip conditions simply apply the brake firmly and fully. The ABS computer does the pumping for you.

We could have spent a couple more hours in the classroom, but in keeping with the school's principle that you can't learn everything about driving in a classroom, we were off to the road course.

Since we drive an SUV, we chose one of the school's SUVs for the on-track portion of the class. In addition to the SUVs, students can choose from the school's selection of front-wheel-drive sedans and rear-wheel-drive pickups.

Driving to the course, we noticed that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Snow and gray skies reduced visibility to just a few feet. Well, we were here to learn to cope with winter driving conditions, and poor visibility is certainly a common wintertime problem. Clark opened the glovebox and passed out sunglasses. We must admit we felt like the Blues Brothers putting them on. But these sunglasses made a tremendous difference. The amber lenses increased the contrast of the all-white scene, highlighting changes in the driving suface and the snow's texture, making it easier to see where the track ended and the snowbanks began. Quality winter sunglasses are clearly another weapon in the arsenal of winter driving know-how.

Because of the poor visibility, Clark drove us around the mile-long course to make sure we didn't get lost. Then it was my turn to drive.

Oversteer: Car Tends To Spin
Oversteer: The rear wheels lose grip and the back of the vehicle comes around, turning the vehicle more than you want. Recover by steering in the direction of the skid and gently accelerating to transfer weight back to the rear wheels to help them regain grip.

The first exercise was to learn how weight transfer works in a vehicle, and how it affects grip. Although we have all felt being thrown forward when braking or thrown backwards when accelerating hard, we hadn't thought of how this weight transfer affects traction. It is because of weight transfer that when you accelerate, the rear wheels have more traction; when you brake, the front wheels have more traction. Once we were able to induce and control the weight transfer, we began to use it to help us negotiate the course and keep from spinning out (oversteer) and from not being able to make the corner because we pushed straight on through it (understeer).

Next came braking. We were encouraged to accelerate on one of the downhill straightaways to the insane speed of 50 mph. Then, on Clark's command, we were to brake and steer around a set of cones. We quickly learned that in low traction situations you can't both brake and steer (ABS-equipped vehicles excluded) at the same time. Trying to do both simply led to a personal encounter with the snowbanks. Instead, if we used cadence braking first and then steered around the cones with no braking. We stayed out of the snowbanks. It is not very intuitive to release the brakes when you feel you are traveling too fast to go around the cones, but it works. Not only does the Bridgestone Winter Driving School provide excellent know-how, but you also get to practice in a safe environment what the school preaches. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Understeer: Car Refuses to Turn
Understeer: The front wheels lose grip and in spite of the amount of steering input the driver makes, the vehicle plows ahead. Recover by lifting off the accelerator and decreasing the steering angle until the front tires have regained grip, then make the turn. It's easier to prevent understeer (slow down) than to recover from it.

Having mastered the art of braking and weight transfer, we were, so Clark told us, at last ready to drive the entire course. I'm sure he must have laughed as we tiptoed at minimum speeds around every curve. But with every lap our confidence grew, and we began to drive at more normal speeds. Over the two-way radio Clark kept encouraging and guiding us around the course. We now smoothly handled skids that earlier had us slamming the brakes in panic stops, and we managed to stay out of the snowbanks.

Clark pointed out where to accelerate, and how to pick the best line around the curves. As we became bolder with our driving, he began to encourage us to be more decisive with weight transfers and to induce a bit of oversteer here and there. Before we knew it, we were into performance driving and having the time of our lives.

As the day wound down, Clark had one last lesson for us. He had us switch to another vehicle and told us to gently drive it around the course. As we began to accelerate, the vehicle became hard to control; we almost lost it around the easiest curve. Had we totally forgotten what we had just learned? No, we were doing everything right, yet the vehicle was jumping around the course, not tracking through the corners. Staying out of the snowbanks was hard work, and driving this truck was plain scary. Over the radio Clark told us that the only difference between the truck we had driven earlier and the current nightmare of a vehicle was that this one was equipped with worn shock absorbers. Had we not experienced it first hand, we would never have believed that half-worn shocks so horribly affected the vehicle's handling.

It was a great way to end an amazing day of driving and learning. We strongly recommend that if you drive on winter roads, you take advantage of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School. What you learn will make you a better and safer driver, but you'll also enjoy winter driving a heck of a lot more.

What to Remember When the Snow Falls
* A snug seatbelt allows the driver to feel the car's behavior more clearly.
* Adjust your driving speed to the conditions.
* Grip is much easier to lose than it is to regain.
* Learn to anticipate, not just react.
* Brake first, then steer.
* Make sure all windows and mirrors are clear of snow and ice.
* Keep the gas tank at least half-full.
* Carry warm gloves, hat, coat, boots and a sleeping bag.
* Carry a small shovel, recovery strap and jumper cables.
* If stranded, keep the tailpipe clear of snow and ice and run the engine periodically for heat.
* If shelter or help is not visible from the car, do not leave the vehicle.

Sources

The Bridgestone Winter Driving School
Steamboat Springs, CO 80477
www.winterdrive.com

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