I stare out my window in Denver at the snow-covered mountains and sigh in defeat. I am tired of being scared and intimidated by the idea of driving in winter conditions. The mountains were calling me; “Sherry, come play…”.
I’m not a skier. And yes, I know that makes my move to Colorado an odd choice. I don’t like hurdling down a mountain out of control. I love the athleticism of it, however, it’s just not for me so I don’t do it. But choosing not to ski in a ski-heavy state doesn’t mean you are saying ‘no’ to winter fun. There are plenty of other things I want to venture out into the mountains to do in the winter.
Even though I have driven worldwide in some of the most challenging cities in the world, my kryptonite is winter driving. I thought about how scared I was to drive a motorbike in Vietnam, drive our rally car through Mongolia, drive on the opposite side of the road in Australia, or drive an autorickshaw across India. I overcame those fears by simply jumping in and doing; it was time I jumped in and did something about my winter driving fear. I heard there was a winter driving school in Steamboat Springs put on by Bridgestone tires and decided to head up to the mountains to go back to school and conquer some fears. After all, when you don’t like how something is going, why not change it?
Back To School…Driving School
For most of us we took a driving class when we were 16 years old, somehow passed a test, were given a license, and never really thought about the act of driving again. I still vividly remember my driver’s education class and going into school early in the morning to take my ‘behind the wheel training’ with Mr. Easter. Mr. Easter was surprisingly calm sitting in the passenger seat eating donuts with a car full of teenage kids that didn’t know what they were doing. Somehow all of us pimply-faced, nervous kids passed our test and we were a step closer to adulthood.
However, we never learned anything about driving in snow or slick conditions; Peoria Illinois didn’t have much snow. If it did snow, I’d just go out and hope for the best, or more likely avoid driving altogether. And this recent move to Colorado made me decide I needed a refresher in this new wintery environment. Actually, this wasn’t a refresher. No one ever taught me about winter driving before, so it was really a new skill I wanted to learn to get more comfortable going into the mountains in Colorado.
“A lot of people take driving for granted, they just think of it as a way to get from point a to point b, and it’s a sport that you can always become better at. Just because you’ve skied for 30 years doesn’t mean that you are Olympic caliber. And driving is the same thing, there is always room to improve.” –Mark Cox Director of Bridgestone Winter Driving School
Bridgestone Winter Driving School
Forget what you know about driving schools from your youth and lazy teachers eating donuts. The Bridgestone Winter Driving School takes you through real hands-on situations on track conditions that are continuously changing throughout the day. They have a group of teachers that all come from a motorsports background and are great with people.
The school has been operating out of Steamboat Springs Colorado since 1983 (before I ever even had a license!). The school is patterned after the great ice-driving schools of Europe. It is the only winter driving school of its kind in North America. For 34 years more than 87,000 participants have attended the winter driving school, learning the proper techniques for driving in cold weather, and low-grip conditions. They don’t want drivers to be confident and not competent, but instead be competent, and then confident. After a day in the classroom and on the driving track, I was assured I would have the skills to back up my newly found confidence.
The Winter Driving Track
A 70-acre alfalfa field in the summer turns into multiple complex snow and ice tracks in the winter for the school. It is a terrain-based facility, not a lake or a parking lot like most winter driving schools. This track emulates the real world making it a great confidence booster. The school creates the most challenging situations you can find anywhere on the road and allows you to practice maneuvers without traffic.
The roads we drive on aren’t consistent, and Bridgestone creates a track that is anything but consistent too. They start by packing snow and alternating layers of water to create the course. They keep building layers until it is sufficient depth, and that becomes the base course for the season. Every time it snows they clear it back to the base. As you do the full-day class, the track conditions change. We had corners that became quite icy in the afternoon, and some that were bumpy and slushy as the sun warmed up the track. Every night after class it is groomed and all the ruts from the day are smoothed out.
Who is a Winter Driving Class For?
I took the full-day Second Gear Class that is focused on safe winter street driving. My group had diverse backgrounds. Some people were there for work reasons; they drove trucks or worked in transportation in wintery environments. One man was there because he had just bought a new Toyota truck and wanted to get comfortable with it for driving in Wyoming. Another man was there because he lived in NYC and had gotten in an accident while driving to Vermont to ski and wanted to feel more confident about driving in wintery weather.
And then there was me who had moved to Colorado and wanted to reduce my fear of driving in winter conditions. I haven’t even owned a car for 14 years, but I still do a lot of driving around the world and drive plenty of rentals and friend’s vehicles!
The class is really for anyone; men, women, young and old. They have had people from all 50 states and 17 countries attend. It’s a great class for new teenage drivers and they have even had a student that was 85 years old! They’ve trained secret service groups, security forces, and people from all walks of life.
They also offer a 2-day rally racing class called 5th Gear. It is for performance driving, racing, and people who have careers that require them to go fast in bad conditions. Something I can aspire to one day I guess!
What You’ll Learn at Winter Driving School
The 2nd Gear course starts in the classroom with presentations on techniques you’ll be learning and practicing on the tracks. However, you don’t spend more than an hour in the classroom before you are whisked off to the course outside of Steamboat. Upon arrival, you are in a car and ready to go! There was really very little time to dwell on the fact that I was nervous and still trying to remember the tips discussed in class! This is exactly why I wanted to come to this winter driving school, because it was all about getting behind the wheel, and they didn’t waste any time doing that.
2nd Gear Class Format:
Schedule: Classroom instruction, Track Practice, Lunch, Classroom Instruction/review, Track Practice.
Vehicles: The school uses Toyota cars exclusively. You have a choice of front-wheel drive sedans, AWD, and 4WD SUVs. All have Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires for optimum grip. Each Toyota is also equipped with the ability to turn off the Antilock Brakes and traction control systems in order to get practice in both types of situations.
Class size maximum: 12
Instructors: 1 instructor who communicates and guides you out of his/her car using a radio.
In the Classroom
We learned about the importance of understanding grip and weight transfer. Did you know that at any time you have only 4 small patches the size of postcards that are in contact with the road that provide precious grip? It’s these patches that allow you to corner, break, and have control. As I looked at diagrams and videos in the classroom I was reminded that driving, and winter driving in particular, is basically a giant physics lesson.
In the classroom we reacquainted ourselves with oversteering and understeering; topics I’m pretty sure I learned about when I was 16…maybe? Over and understeering are the common problems of winter driving and the goal was to learn how to safely get ourselves out of those situations; or better yet, not ever get into them.
On the Track
I pretty quickly stopped trying to memorize all of the techniques as if it were a quiz; I knew that wouldn’t work. Instead, once I got out on the track I concentrated on what the situation felt like and how the car performed. The most important thing I learned was the separation of control; keeping braking, steering, and acceleration all separate single-threaded events. It all sounded great in the classroom, but when I got on the track and screwed up, I quickly realized it was when I put two controls together like braking and steering at the same time. Inevitably I found myself doing a 360 in the middle of the track and cussing like a sailor. But it’s such a gut reaction to hit the brake in situations, and many times it makes it worse.
So not only was it a lot of physics, but it was a lot of training yourself to not do your first reaction and instead implement the physics you learned.
Getting Acquainted with Technology
The last car I owned was a 1992 Ford Escort – before technology invaded our cars. The technology of cars is changing rapidly and most people never really have a chance in a safe environment to learn more about the technology and test it out before they get into a situation where it’s used. However, on the track, we had the ability to switch the antilock brakes and traction control functionality off on these new cars so we could understand how to drive in both situations.
We practiced braking and steering techniques the old-fashioned way and learned the fundamentals. Then we turned all the technology back on and had a whole new appreciation for what the computer is doing for you digitally. I walked away with a whole new trust in ABS and traction control – and what to do in a situation if they failed.
Why Winter Driving School Is So Much Fun
The day was full of laughs, nerves, and adrenaline; 8 hours flew by in what felt like 2 hours. My driving partner, Elizabeth, and I quickly bonded and we had plenty of moments to learn from and celebrate our achievements. The class purposely splits up people who know each other so you can have a good learning experience. Even though we started out as strangers, it didn’t take but one oversteer to have Elizabeth and me bonding.
She was aggressive and I was timid – but we both met in the middle and kicked butt on most of the tests. I’m pretty sure we were our instructor’s class favorites. And we did win the all-important braking contest!
This wasn’t just a school and classroom; it was an incredibly fun adventure. Just as good as skiing down the slopes at Steamboat Springs. But the best part is that you do actually walk away a better driver. I learned how to tame the fear and know that the techniques work. I personally left there more confident that if I applied the right input to the tool, it will give me the output I am looking for. Oh…if only the rest of life were built on the logic of physics!
So you see, the skiers in Steamboat Springs Colorado aren’t the only ones who get to have fun sliding, turning, and skidding on the snow. The Bridgestone Winter Driving school has been showing people of all ages that all the snow in Steamboat isn’t just for skiing.
How You Can Go to Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs
Winter Gear for your Driving Adventure
More fun Colorado Experiences
Follow my Travels
I was a guest of Bridgestone Winter Driving School for the day. However, I sought out the school myself and all opinions expressed here are my own.