If You’ve Never Seen Race Cars on Ice, You Probably Never Will. Thanks Climate Change!

Formula One racing on frozen lakes comes to grips with the reality of rising temperatures and melting ice.
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In a sport that typically has a 10-week season, the Adirondack Motor Enthusiast Club has only held six races in the past two years—globally, the two hottest years on record.

Photo courtesy of Adirondack Motor Enthusiast Club

On a mild afternoon in late January, while millions of protesters cram the streets of cities across the country to march for women’s rights, I begrudgingly march through a cluttered, musty garage in the far reaches of upstate New York. I’m attempting to document the overlooked and unusual sport of ice racing, but am feeling especially and regretfully detached from the rest of the world.

“Some people collect stamps—we race on ice.”

Inside, Jim Corbett Sr., who resembles a slender Teddy Roosevelt, hammers away on his cherry-red ’94 Saturn Coupe. “Some people collect stamps—we race on ice,” he yells over the clanging. In a suitably performative manner, he recounts the history of his cherished pastime while preparing for one of the last races of the season. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a mallet clenched in his hand, Corbett explains that ice racing has been around for as long as people have been brave—or dumb—enough to drive their cars on ice.

But in recent years, the event has become increasingly less common. “I’m not pro- or anti-global warming, but something’s going on,” he says somewhat defeatedly while fastening a steel plate to a fresh wound on the driver’s side of his car. In a sport that typically has a 10-week season, the Adirondack Motor Enthusiast Club has only held six races in the past two years—globally, the two hottest years on record. As the ice arrives later and leaves earlier in winter months, crowds are dwindling and frustrated racers are gradually hanging up their driving gloves. Ice racing is quickly becoming an endangered sport.

This unorthodox amusement takes place on frozen lakes and rivers of the frigid upper Midwest and Northeast, where winter temperatures have historically dipped to single digits. Up to 40 cars participate at speeds as high as 100 mph. To increase traction, tires are affixed with dozens of small metal spikes, or studs. It’s essentially the real-life version of that nerve-wracking Mario Kart course that appears to take place in the South Pole (minus the penguin saboteurs). The skill required for drivers to power over slick ice at break-neck speeds while, and somehow, maintaining control of the vehicle is undeniably impressive.

Ice racing is quickly becoming an endangered sport.

As Corbett continues to rummage through his garage, Dave Burnham is an hour north venturing out onto Lake Algonquin to test ice conditions for a race scheduled for tomorrow. Burnham serves as the president and historian of the Adirondack Motor Enthusiast Club, and it’s been his task to measure the ice at frozen lakes all over upstate New York for about 35 years.

Prior to each race, he follows the same tedious but necessary routine. Like an ice fisherman, or maybe a climatologist, he walks out onto a frozen lake and drills a series of holes through the surface. He thoroughly checks every nook and cranny of the lake, making sure there is enough ice to support the weight of racing 2-ton cars. The ice has to be a minimum of 12 inches thick for racing; any less and the event must be cancelled. Today, it’s a balmy 48 degrees. That’s more than double the average daily temperature for this area at this time of year.

“It was never like this before,” Burnham later tells me over the phone. In the 1970s and 1980s, racing on 24 inches of thick, black ice was not uncommon. “You could drive a tank out there,” he reminisces. Burnham seems to have come to terms with the fact that the sport’s years are numbered, and the irony of gas-guzzling race car drivers bemoaning the loss of ice doesn’t slip past him, either. In an area of New York that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the 2016 election, Burnham may be an outlier.

Auto racing isn’t the only sport going through climate change growing pains.

“We’re getting closer to the tipping point where we might not get ice anymore, and I’ve mentioned electric cars a couple times,” he confesses. But that has been a tough sell for racers and spectators. Formula E, a relatively new class of auto racing that uses electric cars, receives minuscule attendance compared to high-octane Formula One. The deafening, pulsating roar of combustion engines adds a palpable excitement to the sport that is entirely lost with the timid hum of electric vehicles. Suggesting a switch to electric is like asking AC/DC to go acoustic.

Auto racing isn’t the only sport going through climate change growing pains. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, was unseasonably warm, with daytime temperatures reaching 61 degrees, and poor snow conditions caused a variety of delays and injuries. Last winter, Alaska experienced one of the mildest seasons on record, and freight loads of snow had to be brought in for the opening ceremony of the iconic Iditarod Sled Dog Race. There has already been worried talk surrounding the upcoming 2022 World Cup in Qatar, in which daytime temperatures during soccer matches could reach 120 degrees. Even for the most casual fans, it’s becoming increasingly clear that certain sports cannot be sustained in their current form as a result of the changing weather. Ice racing spectators and participants are in for an inevitable era of transition.

The sun is setting over Jim Corbett’s dank garage, and he is making the final preparations for tomorrow’s race. We discuss the future of ice racing and whether there’s a future at all. “We need participation. We need new drivers,” he reasons, perhaps focusing on a problematic effect rather than the root cause of the sport’s declining popularity.

While he makes a fair point, there is still a healthy crop of younger drivers. Corbett’s son, Jim Jr., is also an ice racer, and the sport is obviously a well-respected family tradition. But traditions that don’t evolve with the changing times eventually die, and ice racing appears to be stuck in an especially precarious position. The ice is retreating, the drivers are retreating, and Earth keeps spinning.

As I pack up my things and begin to leave in my own four-wheeled carbon emission monster, there’s a call from Burnham. Lake Algonquin is a slush pile. Tomorrow’s race has been cancelled. I’ll have to wait until next year for another chance to see any racing. Well, I think to myself, maybe there’s still enough time to catch the end of the Women’s March if I haul ass.