The Frozen Show: A Photographer’s Frozen Rush and NAIAS Road Trip

Unless you spent the last year trapped in a cave by the polar vortex you’ve undoubtedly heard about Red Bull Frozen Rush and the North American International Auto Show. These two staples of the North American winter months are fairly different events, one involves Pro 4 trucks racing through the snow and the other is a fancy auto industry cocktail party. But this year, they had one thing in common. My name is Matt Kalish; my job involves going to these events and photographing everything that happens. I also eat all of the free media center food that I can, but that’s more of a perk.

Three thousand miles. It looks so nice on paper, three words, two T’s, and a distance unit. How does driving that distance over the course of a week affect a person? This article is going to be a recap of my work travels, a sort of road trip piece. Starting from my apartment on Long Island I traveled north to Maine and west to Michigan before returning home. So what car did I take on this drive? A plush midrange luxury car? A large SUV? A Miata? No!

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Meet Roxanne. She’s a 2008 BMW 135 with one-hundred fourteen thousand miles, three dead shocks, and two different oil leaks! This would be the first time that I had driven this car so far in such a short period of time. So it’s a good thing that the N54 is a motor internationally renowned for reliability and not suddenly exploding or I might have had second thoughts before setting off.

The plan was for Red Bull Global Rallycross media honcho Chris Leone and I to meet up in Boston before heading together to Maine. The drive to Bean Town was pretty uneventful, just a bit of snow on the 4 hour jaunt up the east coast. Driving in Boston is always a bit strange for me, though. I will never get used to sharing a roadway with light trams. They’re just so much bigger than I am!

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On our way out of Boston, Chris and I would pick up photographer Matt Cronin and graphic artist Emily Pacht before setting off on the three hour drive to the Sunday River resort in Maine. I don’t know if any of you have caught on yet, but that’s a total of four people in a 2+2 that shares its footprint with a large labradoodle.

Fortunately, we were all somewhat recently college students. In other words we were used to tight confines and body odor. So we filled the car – four duffle bags, three camera bags, two computer bags, and a case a beer. There were bags at people’s feet, in between the rear seats, and even on the dashboard. But most important was the 30 case of PBR, safely stored and chilling in the trunk.

The drive up to Maine wasn’t actually that bad. Everyone was talking, joking, and generally making the best of it. By hour two the drive had started to seem a bit long. Cronin had gotten a bit bored, so he started singing Taylor Swift songs. On the whole, it was a tight and uncomfortable few hours. But, we managed to shake it off.

There was work to do that day, so we drove straight through to Sunday River. For those that haven’t been, this place is seriously pretty. Take a look.

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Red Bull Frozen Rush takes place on one of the slopes behind the building on the right. We got in a bit late and practice was already over with. So day one involved a trip to the paddock to say a quick hello to the drivers and crew that were still around. The paddock for Frozen Rush is pretty open, so it’s easy to quickly survey the state of the trucks and the drivers.

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These Pro 4 trucks are used to driving on dirt, gravel, and sand so a few modifications needed to be made for the alpine conditions. The standard rubber won’t cut in on the ski slope, so B.F. Goodrich supplies a special run of studded tires specifically, and only, for Frozen Rush. There is also the addition of big mudflaps to the rear bodywork of the trucks. These were added in an attempt to limit the snow roost coming off of the rear wheels, a major problem in the previous year’s competition. Some teams took advantage of the extra area and used the mudflaps as additional team sponsor space. Though, personally, I would prefer to see a higher number of trucks running Mudflap Girl or Yosemite Sam sponsorship in those locations.

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Day two of Frozen Rush was cold. It had gotten down to -30F the night before, in other words it was damned cold. That cold had caused some issues with the bimmer that I only noticed when it was time to start it. I put the key in and the dashboard lights didn’t come on – the battery was dead. I pushed the start button just to see what would happen and after a very tense five or six seconds the car groaned into life. The motor sounded like a diesel school bus for a few minutes, but it was running.

Despite the literal rough start to the day, we managed to make it back to Sunday River before qualifying started. This was great for me, because it meant that I got to stand outside and work in a high of -20 for two hours. Does that sound a bit like complaining? I guess I’m just used to warmer climates.

 

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Qualifying for Frozen Rush is exactly what you would expect; a single truck goes on course and runs two timed laps. The elimination bracket for the following day is then created based on those lap times. The laps are set up in a pseudo ROC style with two separate lanes with the drivers needing to alternate lanes over subsequent laps. The back half of each lap puts the trucks on a combined route for some side by side racing in front of the crowd and through the finish gate.

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Qualifying days are always a breeze to work. There’s never anyone around aside from the drivers, crew, and occasional journalist. The track is your kingdom, and you have free reign over it. It’s great. I can walk around wherever and get the angles that I want. You know who are terrible to deal with at Frozen Rush? Spectators. Let me explain.

The main issue with this event is that it’s very much made for TV. The small spectator area is divided into two sections: the main area for normal attendance and the VIP area for those who want to pay more for a worse view of the racing. So where do photographers fit into this? They don’t. Unless they’re Red Bull affiliated and can snag one of the very few FOP track passes and vests.

There’s no separate section for media at Frozen Rush. Which meant that on day three I needed to fight through people if I wanted an angle – any angle. It makes this event a nightmare to work on race day. Getting shots like this required fifteen minutes of planning a route and shoving my way through a crowd denser than a puppy litter at feeding time.

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But I wasn’t simply making my way through a group of people; I needed to get to the fence. And as anyone who has ever been to a sporting event knows, the fence is an area populated by people more stubborn than Mitch McConnell. They simply won’t leave their fence spot for any reason, not even for a guy with two cameras and a media hard card strapped to his belt. So how did I get those photos from the fence line? I bribed a guy for his spot with a can of Red Bull.

As it turns out, this crowd fording experience would be fairly good practice for Detroit, but more on that in a bit. The day three of Frozen Rush went very well. There was surprisingly close action and the whole day had pretty exciting racing. You can read more about that here If hell froze over… they would race trucks….

But then the racing ended and I need to get to part 2 of my work. Part 2, like the second installment of any movie franchise, is the darker one. It involves finding a dim corner and looking through the literal thousands of photos shoot throughout a race day. I then need to sort out the ones I like, before editing, scaling, and delivery. I don’t have a hard deadline for this process, but I strive to do it all within two hours of the checkered flag being dropped.

Photos up, goodbyes said, and 30 pack of PBR drank, it was time to head back to Boston. But not before I needed to brush off the back of the car. Somehow an inch of snow accumulated like this from the drive in to Sunday River. Maybe I should have stolen a mudflap from one of the Frozen Rush teams. I don’t have any official sponsors, so you know I would use that retail space properly.

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The following day I would be heading out solo to my second job of the week, coverage of NAIAS the Detroit Auto Show. This is where my trip really gets tiring. Boston to Detroit is an 800 mile drive if you don’t go through Canada. And since US Border Control has a history of stealing my toonies, that way was out. So the long way around the lakes it was. If you haven’t driven outside of a city in the Northeast, most of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio look like this.

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Two lane road, light snow cover, and dead trees. At least the roads aren’t straight for long periods of time, so it still isn’t as bad as Indiana. Bet you didn’t even remember that Indiana was a real place, did ya? The lack of scenery piled on top of hours of sitting behind the wheel start to wear into you, eventually. I’ve found that most people have the same reaction to this type of driving once they start to get worn out.

First you grab a snack at a rest stop, I chose Teddy Grahams. Or maybe you chew some gum. Once you get bored with eating you then move onto a drink, maybe some water or juice. You need stay hydrated after all. Eventually you get worried about needing to stop once an hour to pee, so you turn up the radio a bit. Maybe start humming along to a good song that comes up.

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A song about drawing dicks on the walls of a bathroom, perfect!

But that never works, so then you try to keep your mind active. When I get to that point I like to play a game called, “what the hell can I see that’s at least somewhat interesting?” The answer in these states is…not much. But I did what I could to entertain myself. Here’s what I ended up coming across.

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I found a horse racing team and a highway rest stop with a player piano just south of Buffalo. Not much else. So what do you do in that situation? Be bored. Unfortunately, there’s no way to sugar coat that. The problem then becomes exhaustion, and how to mitigate it. That’s where caffeine comes in.

One of the really nice things about going to a Red Bull sponsored event is the Wings girls. No, not that particularly vocal female group of Paul McCartney fans. The Wings girls are basically Red Bull cheerleaders. They walk around the event and give out free cans of the energy drink. Just ask for a can and it’s yours. I may have abused this system slightly and ended up leaving Maine with half a dozen cans of the stuff.

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Filling all of the cup holders in the car with Red Bull was a great way to keep yourself alert. But energy drinks come with their own set of dangers. For instance, when I pound that special mixture of caffeine, taurine, and ginseng I become highly energetic. It’s great at parties where I have the room to go harder than Slurms MacKenzie. But in the confined space of a vehicle moving down a highway there’s no room to do anything. The only outlet for the extra energy is singing. Loud. Obnoxious. Terrible. Singing. Whimmy wham wham wozzle!

I had to put an end to the squeals masquerading melody when I hit Cleveland. There I picked up my partner for the show, Ben Aghajanian. Having another person in the car allowed to me calm down and focus my extra energy into talking and planning a route through the auto show, which was set to start the following morning. Despite a sudden snow storm near Toledo slowing the highway to a brisk forty, we arrived at The D without much issue. Yes, that is an actual nickname for the city of Detroit. You can stop giggling.

The following morning we were welcomed into the show with a red carpet. And no, that’s not a metaphor. They actually put out a red carpet from the parking garage to the Cobo convention center. And in true Detroit fashion, it was one of the grubbiest things that I’ve ever walked on.

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But none of that mattered, because I had heard rumors of Ford unveiling the new GT during their press conference. Those rumors turned out to be true. By now, everyone has seen photos of the car, and the speculation of what all the fancy aero does, and how fast it will be, whatever. What I haven’t heard spoken about is their actual press conference. And I want to share that with you all now, because it was ridiculous in the best possible way.

A few years ago, Ford realized that the typical convention center way of introducing products was a mess. Typically an army of journalists will stand in and around a manufacturer’s booth on the flat floor while someone from the company announces new products. Inevitably, people start climbing on top of everything and everyone in an attempt to get a good view of the stage. So what did Ford do?

They rented out the Joe Lewis Arena, the Red Wings home ice. This is what you see when you walk into the Ford press conference.

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It’s like walking into the biggest movie theater in the world. Grab some popcorn and take a seat next to the thousands of other media people and watch the show. The conference began, like most, with a short introduction video.  Unlike most conferences, however, this video had production values that rival Avatar, and I don’t just say that because blue was the primary color. It soon became clear just how huge of an investment Ford put into this short movie and their entire conference. The film quickly went through Ford’s company history before setting the stage for a rundown of current Ford technology.

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The tech section was a series of basic talking points that every automaker hits at these events. Phrases like, “Were Number 1 at this”, “Future Vision”, “Environmentally Friendly“, or “Hey at least we didn’t have as many recalls as GM this year” get thrown out.

But then it happened, the words Ford Performance showed up on the screen – the only words that I came to this conference to hear. And it was finally time to see…the new Ford F150 Raptor! While caught off guard, I immediately recognized how cool it was. But my excitement for that car was short lived once I heard the words “Born on the Racetrack” to describe the next car that was coming. I was salivating.

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The new Ford GT350R! Alright Ford, good fake out. It was pretty well known that this car was going to be shown at Detroit, but in my excitement I had forgotten about it. Carbon Fiber wheels are cool and you did do a donut on stage, so I will forgive you for the intentional misdirection.

When the Mustang drove offstage the curtain dropped one more time and another three minute video began. The video had a lot of tight shots, quickly edited together to show something. I wasn’t sure what. But then it slowed down, and letters started to appear. Power figures, engine specs, and yes those two letters that I wanted to see the most. The video ended with minor pyrotechnics display and disco lights, but more importantly an engine was started and sat rumbling behind the stage. A door in the stage opened up, and there is was. The new Ford GT.

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Sploosh. Or whatever the male equivalent of sploosh is.

The crowd erupted, cheers abounded, and cameras flashed. All while a visibly excited Bill Ford and Mark Fields looked on from the stage. After the crowd died down the two Ford executives started to talk. At first, reiterating a few things from the introduction video. Then they dropped the mic.

 “When do you think we should build it?”

“How about next year?”

And then they high fived. Seriously, they high fived because the new Ford GT is just that amazing.

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With that, Ford’s press conference was done. We were invited onto the stage where I took a few closer shots of all three cars. But, I was now on a schedule. I had to sort, edit, and send out photos of the Raptor, GT350R, and GT immediately for my release. So I rushed back to the media center and did my work. I nearly missed Acura’s press conference because of everything that needed to be done after Ford’s.

Ohh hey, remember when I said that the traditional automaker press conference was a mess? This is why. In case it isn’t obvious, the NSX is behind that black curtain on the left.

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All that I could do was listen to the speaker and take notes at that point. “Human centered”. A silly tagline that the Acura speaker kept putting out there. The only things human centered about this press conference were the parts involving Jerry Seinfeld. He was the subject of nearly everyone’s attention, including the Acura executive on stage. The rest of the conference was fairly standard, fairly mechanical.

I didn’t even see the car until the conference was over. After a few minutes of shoving my way forward I made it to the stage, set to do my job and photograph the production ready Acura NSX. Apparently, about five hundred photographers and reporters had a similar thought.

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Journalists are surprisingly viscous when it comes to getting a story. This collective group was not only shoving each other for shots of the NSX interior, but also for shots of Jerry Seinfeld. The stage was pure madness. It took about a dozen Acura personnel, or rather, Acura bouncers to get the crowd back enough for anyone to actually take a shot of the car.  And even then, it wasn’t easy to get through the swarm and see the car.

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Unfortunately, experiences like this would come to define the show’s other big reveals, the new Cadillac CTS-V and Chevy Bolt.

Just kidding about the Bolt, nobody was anywhere near that thing. Despite the crowds, the show was quite enjoyable. Acura gave out a media kit that included a paperweight version of the new NSX and it’s pretty cool. This kit later garnered some controversy as less than reputable journalists tried to sell them online for cash. If anyone is interested, mine is still listed on EBay for $500. PM me for details.

And that wasn’t the only thing that Acura gave away. I also received a nice glass of Champaign. The weird thing is that’s the norm during press days. You see, automakers think that if they booze you up a little bit you’ll write better things about their brand or products. Pictured here is my great appreciation and positive experience with the new Volvo XC-90.

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It was like I was back at college during Mayfest, jumping between houses for free alcohol. But just like my benders of years past, the Detroit Auto Show needed to end. I took advantage of one last free media center meal and finished the bulk of my editing. I set off towards my apartment on Long Island with a haul of questionably stolen bananas and mini pretzels for the drive.

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It was a stimulating and intellectual drive just like the one that I had taken a few days earlier. Ha!

Joking aside, my drive home was fairly similar to the one that brought me into Detroit. I even felt all of the same feelings that I did on the way in – hungry, thirsty, singing, tired, and hyper all in that order. Only this time those feelings were all enhanced by physical fatigue. By this point, I had logged two thousand miles in the car on top of the four days of difficult photo work. My entire body ached, and I simply could not get comfortable for the trip. The bolstered bucket seats in the 1 Series didn’t help the situation, either. But that minor discomfort paled in comparison to one of the most horrifying sights ever to befall an interstate highway.

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Three trucks, all slowly passing each other on a three lane section of road somewhere in Pennsyltucky.

Thankfully, despite such trials I managed to make it home in one piece. A tired, sore, and a slightly irritable piece, but an intact piece nonetheless. Once back in my apartment the job was mostly over, only a few web galleries to edit and photo requests to deal with, but those could wait a day. Not even the awful caffeine headache could stop me from sleeping in my bed that night.

But what of the car that stuck with me through all of this abuse? Apart from nearly not starting in Maine, it performed better than Laser Floyd live. It easily handled snowy back roads, slush filled highways, and extreme cold all while returning twenty five miles to the gallon over the course of the trip. Not bad for a twin turbo car. As it turns out, you can drive a cross country distance in an aging BMW without it completely falling apart or exploding. Who would have thought?

The only bad thing about the car was how it looked the day after the trip.

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Was the 135 the most intelligent choice for this kind of driving? Absolutely not. I was nearly driven insane by the drone of the aftermarket exhaust and the harshness of the stiff suspension. I was constantly in fear of being stranded in the woods by a mechanical issue and subsequently eaten by a bear. Having more than two people in it should be listed as some form of battery against those forced to ride in the back. And above all else it only had two cup holders fit for Red Bull cans.

With all that said, I’d still pick it again in a heartbeat. There is just something special about making a stupid decision and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with succeeding. Maybe that’s what inspired me to take this trip in the first place. Or maybe it was the paycheck. Yeah, I’m going to say paycheck.

 

 

Matt Kalish is a photographer with a masters in engineering and a passion for racing. He will do anything for a shot and even more for a free meal. One of his road trips once brought him to the Tail of the Dragon, he didn't really see the appeal. So he spends most of his time shooting rallycross and talking about vorticity and wake turbulence to his visibly bored sister.