Racing at Daytona International Speedway this past weekend was surreal…
Red Bull Frozen Rush is an event unlike any other. 900 horsepower Pro 4 trucks are no stranger to short-course racing throughout the Midwest and southwestern regions of America, but they’re not especially prominent in places like New England—nor had they ever run on snow until two years ago, when Red Bull’s Pete Brinkerhoff had the idea and brought Ricky Johnson out to Vermont’s Mount Snow to give it a try.
Two years later, the event is a crown jewel on the Pro 4 schedule. Only a select group of drivers are invited to Newry, Maine to tackle the slopes of Sunday River, but the evolution from a single truck tearing up the slopes to a head-to-head, side-by-side competition means that it takes a lot more than just making room for a few more trucks in a makeshift paddock. It means that you need a sanctioning body to officiate the racing, just like any other major motorsports event.
Enter the United States Auto Club—one of the most prominent auto racing sanctioning bodies in the world. Though USAC has a hand in everything from Red Bull Global Rallycross to vintage sports car racing, and is no stranger to racing on snow with snowmobile events, putting Pro 4 trucks on snow is its own ballgame.
“We first got involved in August 2013,” said Jason Smith, USAC’s executive vice president of operations. “That kind of put us on a fast track, believe it or not, because we had a lot to get done between there and the event, which was January 2014. We had three or four site visits, and we had a lot of confidence in everything in that short five month period.”
The first event at Sunday River, won by Johnson, was enough of a success to merit a return this January. That meant taking some of last year’s lessons and applying them to challenges both old and new. The first, and most important: snow.
“Obviously, there are some hurdles that you have to overcome right off the bat,” Smith said. “Number one is snow—that’s what makes a place like Sunday River perfect. They have the most up to date and best snowmaking equipment that’s out there. So having it here makes perfect sense. They have an incredible machine that makes a football field worth of snow in about 12 hours.”
“We’re out here making snow weeks ahead of time to get it going,” added Jay Scambio, the terrain park development manager for Boyne USA, which manages Sunday River. “When it comes to this event, we started prepping for it last spring, with meetings on course design with USAC and Red Bull, and us saying ‘yes, we can do that there,’ or ‘no, we can’t, we have limitations there.’ (The process) works its way right through to (the day before the race). You start building and it kind of changes some things on the fly, especially when it gets driven once or twice and the drivers get in it. So every day is kind of a change.
“There are just piles of snow up there, and we start dozing them to get them where they need to go. We were basically running four or five machines a day for five days, and doing about 16-hour days. It’s a lot of build hours, and a lot of diesel fuel. There’s a lot that goes into moving the snow in the right spot, cutting it, shaping it, and getting the end vision to be there.”
“The one thing that most people wouldn’t ever realize is, if you came here in the summertime when all the snow is gone, and look at what’s out there right now, it’s incredible—not only the amount of snow, but the ability to push the amount of snow that the course has,” Smith continued. “We’re dealing with people building the track, people building this entire course, that have never done racing events. But they did their homework. They came to us at other off-road events, they literally went out and measured jumps, measured faces, and did all that. So when they came here to build the track, they had never done it, but they knew what they were doing.”
After building the course, the next challenge was ensuring that drivers had visibility on the course. Last year’s event was a time attack race: the first truck would launch by itself, the second truck would launch 25 seconds later, and the second truck would have 25 seconds to make it to the finish after the first truck crossed the line. While each matchup was dramatic, the goal was to race head-to-head in 2015—and that required a handful of changes to both the trucks and the course.
“We looked at it from two sides: number one, from the track build, and number two, on the trucks, with what we could do to them to minimize what that snow roost was,” Smith explained. “On the track, we looked at the two lanes that we were taking, and the amount of time that they were actually going to be racing side by side was minimal. So we kept them in separate lanes to where they don’t necessarily have to be in the roost, except for a short period of time.
“On the trucks), we came up with a mud flap system, and I think we’ve learned a lot on that since we’ve been here. We came up with a light system, so that each truck has a front light and a rear light. The rear light serves almost like a dust light purpose, so a truck behind can maybe see the light on the truck in front of them if there’s a lot of roost.”
Because the course is left as-is on race days—Scambio noted that the only maintenance would take place if USAC determined that a safety issue was present—and because of the amount of unique elements to the production, the drivers’ meeting on race day at Frozen Rush can run almost an hour long.
“You do have a lot of nuances to this event,” Smith explained. “When you get here, you almost assume that with all the track walks you do, the trips up to the track, that it gets ingrained in a driver how you actually get up there. But you can’t assume that. So you have to go through every step they have to take—everything from when they leave the tent, where they go to get the tires on, where they go up the hill, where they turn, how they stage—you have to go through all of those little nuances that a lot of the time you don’t have to when you’re going to a track for the tenth time.”
“Part of it is the iterative process,” added Dave Dusick of RaceTrack Engineering, who helps run Frozen Rush from race control. “We have it planned before we get here, but almost every morning in the driver’s meeting something changes. At most race events, we have it structured to a spec. Here, it changes daily with track conditions.”
“That adds a lot to it, but there are a lot of show quality elements that also have to be discussed,” noted Smith. “With all the effort, energy, and resources that Red Bull has thrown with their live stream, their TV, their Signature Series, everything that they’re putting into this, the drivers have to be in tune with everything they’re doing. So we have to go through a lot of things like that just to make sure that the show comes off. Because at the end of the day, we’re entertaining the live audience, and we’re entertaining the people at home.”
All of that effort comes down to a single day. The trucks take to the course, the cameras turn on, and for a few hours, Sunday River goes from a ski resort to the most prominent racetrack in the world. It’s the culmination of weeks and months of preparation, refinement, and intense focus, and it ends with a show unlike any other in the world of motorsports. And, in typical New England fashion, it’s all because every party involved knows its role, works to its specialty, and makes it happen.
Images: Dave Dusick, Matt Kalish