NEWRY, Maine – The Jeep was stuck. Like real deal, someone’s going to be in trouble, and that someone is me, stuck. And the instructor in the passenger seat next to me kept telling me I didn’t do anything wrong, although I had a sneaking suspicion he was getting paid to say exactly that. The line of Jeeps behind me couldn’t go anywhere until my vehicle started moving again, so naturally (being a group of photographers and journalists) they all started taking pictures.
It’s 30 degrees in a forest smack dab in the middle of the Northeast, and this couldn’t be any closer to what my imagined version of hell is like.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t the tires’ fault. The tires allowed me to climb over rocks, get through snow incredibly easy, and pretty much make me feel like an action movie hero for the past hour or so. It wasn’t the guide’s fault, either. He did his job, told me where to go, and gave me very specific, but easy-to-follow instructions. Looking back, it wasn’t really my fault if I allow myself to admit that (although I never will). I was the first through that particular trail, and it had warmed up over the course of the day, and that tire broke straight through the ice, getting wedged in a hole with mud all around.
These things happen. That’s why all the other Jeeps had recovery ropes attached to the front. After a few unsuccessful attempts to rock it out (reverse, gun it, reverse, gun it, etc.), we went with the always embarrassing recovery pull.
Within seconds, the Jeep was free. The shame started to fade off my face, and I was moving down the trail. I had three primary takeaways: I wasn’t forgetting that experience any time soon, I am not a professional driver nor will I ever be, and I had an even greater appreciation for the fact that later that week, actual professional drivers were going to take even bigger trucks with even bigger tires on them and race them on a freaking snow mountain.
“Driving on a normal dry road is like piloting a jetski,” former rally car champion and BFGoodrich Performance Team Member Andrew Comrie-Picard says. “Driving on gravel is like being behind the wheel of a big yacht. It takes a little while for everything to respond to your controlling. But driving on snow is like trying to handle an ocean liner. All of your controls are very slow and you have to be way, way ahead of things. You’re dealing with so little friction and so much mass. Good driving on snow always involves great anticipation.”
For the nine drivers participating in the third annual Frozen Rush at Sunday River Ski Resort, that anticipation mixed with what can only be explained as a tiny bit of Jedi. Each of them – by invite only – took a 900 horsepower Pro 4 truck, strapped custom-made BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A FR2 tires with more than 700 hand-placed studs on them, and ran a course that included jumps, slaloms, tight turns, and deep snow at speeds up to 100 miles an hour.
The idea started as a brainchild from the legendary Ricky Johnson, who wanted to see what his truck could do on the slopes. He went to Vermont with the Red Bull crew, and the challenge was great enough that it made sense to bring some other drivers in on the fun.
“It’s kind of like being asked if you want to go to the best party ever,” Johnson said. “I’m stoked to be the first guy to do it.”
Frozen Rush set up shop in Maine, and naturally, Johnson came away the winner in Year 1. Fellow Red Bull teammate Bryce Menzies took the crown in 2015, and Johnson returned one more time this year to try and take down the young gun.
“When I first got here, I thought, ‘I’m not a snow guy,'” racer Rob MacCachren said at a dinner for the BFGoodrich team of drivers the night before the race. “I’m a fish out of water here. Everybody is kind of an open book, and we’re here to make this a better show. We’ve come together to make this the most badass event in the snow.”
MacCachren got his wish on Friday, although not in the way any of the drivers would have necessarily hoped. In the opening round (an eight-person bracket, with the No. 8 and No. 9 cars in qualifying racing against each other to start the day to get back into the tournament), he took on Scott Douglas for a spot in the final four. MacCachren fell behind early, but as Douglas tried to take a turn, it was a bit too steep, and his truck got caught and hit the wall, forcing him into a barrel roll before coming back to a stop upright. Douglas was ultimately okay, but MacCachren creeped by slowly and carefully, checking on him as he went around, and eventually crossed the finish line.
People are starting to catch on to how fun this race really is. While some of the skiers meet the race with a mixture of confusion, annoyance, and more than a little curiosity, casual fans – of Red Bull Signature Series events, of truck races, and of extreme sports in general – make their way up the hill in droves to watch the action.
Not everyone is entirely sure what is going on, but the sheer idea of trucks racing down a ski slope is aesthetically pleasing enough to get just about anyone to stop and take it in for a few minutes. Some have even made it something they won’t miss from year to year.
“We’ve come every year,” Brian Lancaster from Skowhegan – about 75 miles from Newry – said. “I saw it on the Internet, and we watch these trucks on TV and thought it’d be a cool event to go to. It’s pretty gnarly on snow. These things aren’t supposed to do that.”
The warm temperatures caused the track to shift and change over the course of the day, and by the last runs in the championship between Johnson and Menzies, there was even some mud and dirt near the end of the track. Some snow was so thick that guys were getting stuck coming around a turn at the top of the hill, and previously icy patches where snow was packed down would inevitably thaw.
That’s just another challenge in winter racing. What we use as a blanket term, “snow,” could mean any number of things. And over the past few years, snow tire technology has made great strides by acknowledging that and developing new specs with that in mind.
“I always like to say if the Inuits have 20 words for snow, then so do Canadians,” Comrie-Picard, an Alberta native, says. “I can close my eyes and call up 10 different types of snow. But you only get to put one set of tires on your car during the winter. There’s so many different kinds of scenarios when we’re talking about winter weather. From one instant to the next, you can go from having some traction to having absolutely nothing. The variances can be enormous.”
That variance was the biggest discussion in the pits throughout the week leading into the event, and each team was trying to make different preparations to try and predict what the weather would be like, and how the track would react. While in the first two years of the event, the sheer cold was what the pits had to prepare for, temperatures right around freezing – or even above it – posed an entirely different challenge.
After qualifying, some teams made little tweaks, but others opted to just leave things alone if their truck was running fast or the way they wanted it to. Ultimately, it came down to No. 1 vs. No. 2, and the Red Bull team got their winner.
Johnson gave it his best go and used his motocross background to find his lines in the snow, but Menzies raced with precision and calm, and his truck seemed like an extension of his body during the championship. He never took any big risks, instead opting to go the safe and sound route through the track like an experienced father carving through his 15th Thanksgiving turkey.
If Menzies has the face of a 23-year-old (he’s actually 28), he has the soul of a 30-year veteran on the course, and his decisions mid-race reflect that en route to his second-consecutive victory. Following the race, Menzies whips his truck around to do some donuts, and he rips down one of the Frozen Rush banners, which trails behind him like a battle flag before settling to the right of the finish line.
“I’m not even this tired after a desert race,” Menzies said in an interview before the podium ceremony. “Everybody’s going to think this was scripted.”
For Johnson, the Frozen Rush baton was officially passed, and he’s on to other things and other terrain. You get the sense that the racing lifer will never really stop, even if himself, his family, or his sponsors tell him it’s time to give it up. He’s always looking for new ways to take a vehicle somewhere and push it as far as it can go in places it was never meant to be in the first place.
He pauses when he’s asked what the next place he wants to race could be, and looks off in the distance before a tiny smile creeps over his face.
“Mars,” Johnson says. “I watched that movie The Martian, and the dirt looks pretty consistent. You just gotta watch the storms.”