Lots of action, little traction

SUN JOURNAL

Competition: It's not Indianapolis or Daytona, but auto racing on a frozen lake supplies some inexpensive thrills.

March 02, 2004|By Daryl Lang | Daryl Lang,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WELLS, N.Y. - After Richard Graham wrecks his Volvo, he drives back to the pit and surveys the damage. Apart from a flat tire and a few dents, it doesn't look too bad.

"I think I have more duct tape," he says, "so I'll be OK."

Tape holds together the front of this car, a yellow 1971 Volvo P1800 sports coupe with "Graham's Pest Control" painted in red on the sides.

Graham is the proud owner, driver, pit crew and sponsor of his own race car, one he takes out onto frozen lakes for a cold-weather sport called ice racing.

Think of it as NASCAR on ice. And on a shoestring.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is winning $1.4 million in the Daytona 500, a plucky group of amateur auto racers is sliding around on an icy lake in Upstate New York.

They endure single-digit temperatures, blinding snow and a series of damaging wrecks. The prize for first place is a sticker.

Ice racing lives in relative obscurity, even in the racing world. There are no celebrity ice racers, no ice racing magazines, not even a standard set of rules.

Still, for a handful of racing clubs in the coldest parts of the United States, it's the most affordable way to feel the rush of speeding around a track.

"It's for the small guys who don't want to spend a lot of money," says George Lyons, a racer from Voorheesville, N.Y.

Most drivers can buy or build an ice racing car for a few thousand dollars and keep it running on less than $1,000 a year - a bargain by racing standards.

At the high end, racer Matt DeLorenzo drives a custom A-class car he and his father built in their garage. Their bug-like car is little more than an engine and a roll cage with a large wing on top, accented with chrome and red and purple paint.

A skilled racer, DeLorenzo often finishes first in his class. But when he drives through an icy puddle, he has to duck because his car lacks a windshield.

At the lower end, ice racing's "street-legal" division is open to unmodified cars, including some plain-looking Nissans and Hondas. Though all drivers must wear a helmet and carry a fire extinguisher, the street-legal cars don't require the safety modifications needed in the faster classes of cars: roll cages, ice-gripping tires and a fog light mounted on the back.

Beyond that, drivers put in hours of work souping up the engines and stripping away unnecessary parts such as headlights and back seats.

Darryl Carl, who owns two car dealerships near Albany, N.Y., races a bright red Saab modified to have almost all its weight over the front tires, making it easier to maneuver on the ice.

The back half of his Saab is little more than a roll cage, an axle and a gas tank.

A recent event was organized by the Adirondack Motor Enthusiasts Club (A.M.E.C.), the biggest ice racing organization in New York, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. It drew about 40 racers to frozen Lake Algonquin, a normally quiet spot in the Adirondack Mountains.

The day before the race, volunteers with snowplows cleared a 1.2-mile oval track and a pit area on the surface of the lake.

Drivers arrive Sunday morning, most of them towing their race cars on trailers behind pickup trucks.

When the temperature is extremely cold, the cars kick up a blinding dust of powdery snow, and today whiteouts are troubling the drivers.

Near the beginning of the first race, Lyons drives his modified Volkswagen Golf into a snowbank and another car, rolling his car onto its side. Track supervisors quickly red-flag the race, calling the other drivers to stop. Race officials speed to the scene in a small fleet of pickup trucks.

Although the cars are built to easily sustain a rollover, it's still bad news for the driver. A rollover halts the race, damages the car and creates a potential danger to other racers.

"I wasn't wanting to do that," Lyons says after climbing unhurt out the passenger window of his car. A race official and another driver help Lyons tip the Volkswagen back onto its wheels.

The race is delayed for several more minutes as the track crew labors to unlock the doors of A.M.E.C. President Dave Burnham's pickup truck. In his quick response to the accident, Burnham locked his keys inside.

In another race, Robert Reed, a driver from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., can't see the road and overturns his car on a snowbank, shattering the windshield and destroying a front tire.

Back in the pit, Reed slides an orange plastic sled under the damaged wheel to make it easy to pull the car into his trailer. About six other racers gather around to help, and Reed thanks them profusely.

Reed is confident that he will get his car fixed in a week or two.

"All the guys I compete against will help me repair it," he says.

Dick Vedder, 74, who has been racing with the club since it began, says he still enjoys racing because it attracts a "good bunch of people."

"Another nice thing about ice racing is that it makes the winter go fast," he says. "Gives you something to look forward to."

It's a mostly male sport, but not entirely.

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