Go Toward The Light? No, Go For The Traction

E30 325ix at speed Alcan Rally 5000

Decades ago, when I was first learning to drive in Western Kansas, unpaved roads were the rule. Out there in the High Plains, the counties are criss-crossed by a grid of dirt roads, in regular square-mile blocks. When you left the highway, you’d see a stack of signs giving directions to the homes (farms or ranches) that lay out there: “Withers, 2W, 1-1/2 N” “Stover, 3W, 1/4 S.” This regularity was enabled by the relatively smooth land; most of the time the roads ran perfectly straight, with only slight rises or dips for the watercourses. A curve which wasn’t 90 degrees was rare, and for the teen drivers there, dangerous due to their unfamiliarity.

I, of course, managed to drive off a perfectly straight road.

This was shortly after a rainstorm. The silty dust deposited on the hard-packed dirt by the ever-present winds turns to grease when it rains—sticky grease that fills the treads and molds the tires into clown-car wheels of lumpy brown. I was driving my “normal” speed in an old Ford Galaxie, and in the muck I realized that steering and braking were no longer available. The Ford and I wound up 30 feet off in the ditch, unharmed but immobile. The next passing pickup pulled us out, the driver amused but taciturn, in the way of the good people of the earth.

A few years later, I rode a pickup off the pavement and through a wire fence just after a storm. This was in the Pacific Northwest, just out of the Cascade foothills, and this time it was a hailstorm. The hail quickly became slush, and at 22 mph, my tires cut it well enough; at 26 mph, they did not. I was reminded of the eerie feeling of a steering wheel connected to nothing; hell, if I recall it now, I still get a shiver.

I won’t recount driving my brother’s Bluesmobile into the side of Mt. Pilchuck, but you can be sure that loss of traction was involved. Slow learner.

BMW e30 325ix

Marylin the iX is a sleeper of a rally car.

Eventually, I met a girl, and she liked cars, and so we got along fine. In 2006 we bought a model she’d always wanted: a 325iX. The first owner was a lawyer. Ten years later, he’d moved on to something more befitting his growing family, and he gave the BMW to his mother. When it reached 72,000 miles, a botched brake job by a local tire shop left the brake-pad warning light illuminated constantly, which made Grandma nervous, and she posted the car on Craigslist. Renée’s keen eye spotted it promptly—she being the aforementioned girl, now the currently mentioned wife—and we drove 50 miles to buy it. The original Brillantrot paint was more of a salmon color, and there was a nasty hood ding where the tire shop managed to close the hood with a socket resting on a strut tower.

And it was an automatic.

But Renée, that girl knows what she wants, and she usually gets it. The lawyer in the family, I stepped in to mediate the transaction, which helped about as much as you’d think.

When we got the car home, we immediately started prepping it for the AlCan Winter Rally. Oh, did I not mention? We’d fallen in with the local sports-car club, who ran a thriving time-speed-distance rally program, and, one thing leading to another, we thought it’d be a good idea to drive to the Arctic Circle in February.

NothingToSeeHereOfficer

The roads of the Great White North may not always be white, but they’re usually icy. Nothing to see here, officer!

Part of the preparation was getting some driving practice on low-friction surfaces, so we cruised up Mt. Hood, and ran the Totem and Thunderbird rallies in lower central British Columbia, and I tagged along on a group’s regular visit to a frozen lake for unsupervised ice driving. I almost called it “unorganized,” but the group was half-filled with time-speed-distance navigators, who are as a class quite detail-oriented and rules-governed. I, of the time-speed-distance driver persuasion, am less of that. I managed to bend the front valence in a snowbank when my third-gear drift tightened up. That’s not the kind of thing one can hide, so I confessed my fault immediately upon reaching home. It’s probably still on my permanent record.

E30 325ix at speed Alcan Rally 5000

One northern road is definitely icy: the frozen Mackenzie River between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk in the Northwest Territories.

If you’d care to know more, the tale of our Winter AlCan appears in the May 2008 Roundel. Spoiler alert: I did not go off the road. For that, I credit two things: driver training and top-shelf tires. Winter rallying taught me, especially, that cheap snow tires are way too costly.

Marinus Damm winter tires

Winter tires can run the gamut from unstudded multi-sipe tires like Bridgestone Blizzaks and Michelin Alpins to Finnish Hakkapeliittas holding as many studs as you can cram into them.

I like good tires. Some people may think I like them a little too much. Pshaw.—Marinus Damm

[Photos courtesy Marinus Damm.]

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