I slither the beefy RS4 up a narrow banked channel through the handsome rocky mountain snowscape until we reach what looks to be the tradesmens entrance to Santa's North Pole compound. A man steps out from the guard hut. " Im here for the Gruppe Q event" I announce. Like a lieutenant in the SS the attendant walks slowly and suspiciously around the car, inspecting the undercarriage for dirt and leaking fluids before requiring all the cars occupants to sign a "if i die it was my own stupid fault": waiver.
The bar is raised and our special Dunlop ice racing tires start to claw ecstatically at the virginal snow and ice as they finally meet their destiny.
My co-adventurers and I arrived the previous night in Steamboat Colorado to attend the Gruppe Q (group Q as in Quattro) Audi drivers meeting after a marathon 900 mile drive from Los Angeles. Our German rocket banana happily propelling us along at the computer regulated 155mph. The meeting, held at a parquet floored Alpine apartment was attended by a lot of middle aged white people in ski socks drinking micro brewed local ales and eating pizza from the box. Unlike other drivers meetings there is little posturing going on between the alpha males. After a clockwise round of state your name and reason for attending I realize that, with the exception of a father son team from Wisconsin, I am the only newbie. After the official talk I re-acquaint myself with the reason I'm here, Colorado Mike whom i met at the Team O'Neil Rally School some months back.
I sense a whispered discussion about the Rookie that brought a brand new $80,000 car, Later when we retire to the garage to check out each others cars I realize why. My audi is worth $78,000 more than the other cars brought to this event. Haha. There and then I decide that the paint job of the RS4 wasn't going to stand between me and ice driving fame.
Gruppe Q started 18 years ago as an offshoot to an Audi winter driving event. Scott Davis, the silver haired fox running the show decided to rent one of the ice tracks from the Bridgestone Academy every winter for a week of un-supervised and socialized ice driving. So every year a collection of North American enthusiasts and a few of their wives gather to slide their Quattros around a man made frozen track.
As we pulled the RS4 into pit lane there were already five cars lined up, tailpipes smoking in the morning freeze. A box of Starbucks coffee and un-toasted bagels set in a snowbank the only visible hospitality. My co-pilots Lisa Loven, A sexy tomboyish Norwegian actress and Matthew, a nice jewish boy from London stand around nervously trying to fit in like a stoned teenager in line for the cinema as the track rules are explained by the events organizer David Hackle. Pit lane entrance and exit etiquette. warning flags. Everyone's hear it all before and all just seem eager to get onto the track. As a novice I take my first few laps with a seasoned driver W.G Giles, a former American Rally champion. Im not at a total lose when the car starts to oversteer because of said experience at O'Neils Rally school and after a dozen laps I'm allowed onto the track unsupervised with my crazy co-pilots.
Pit lane. I look over my shoulder before discharging the clutch. A lot of Hazzard county yee-haws promptly become overwrought silence as I get the car into third gear in the straight away. I sense a lot of eyeballs following us from pit lane as the 400+horsepower V8 descends on a rather icy left hander. Fists reach for handgrips as the massive Brembos go to work. As the back end sways around I counter wit some steering. The cars occupants brace for a crash that never happens as I give the car a sip of throttle. We complete the turn with a rooster tail of snow and then its back on the gas to let the Dunlop's claw for the next turn. More yee-haws erupt.
During lunch Lisa spends her time wisely flirting lessons from some of the other drivers as their chubby wives look on. Mat and I acquaint ourselves with some of the other characters. I start with the two rookies from Wisconsin who speak with that particular Fargo accent. Apart from being related through marriage they are snowmobiling buddies that thought two days of ice racing in his wife's newish A4 would be an acceptable bonding experience. Then I'm introduced to Peter, the groups prized nut job, an Australian immigrant that turned up driving a Audi 5000 with a transplanted 5.7 liter corvette engine. The car definitely doesn't sound Bavarian.
Colorado Mike only offers two words about Peter "he's business". For Peter the snow banks are definitely not boundaries but merely capricious suggestions. His car can often be seen widening the track in a massive eruption of white powder. His wife Leeann, also a successful race car driver, shares her time between photographing the event and seat time in the Audivette. At lunch I overheard her discussing home decor with Amber, another wife that came all the way from Florida with her husband Justin, a computer engineer in the Army. I think to myself this group makes rural farming look edgy...but you wouldn't find a nicer more inviting group of people.
Before returning to the ice W.G. shows me how to dis-engage the traction control completely. All late model Audi's will have an ESP button. If you press it once a tiny symbol of a car skidding illuminates on your dashboard and the traction control will partially disengage and only re-engaging when the cars computer feels you have completely lost control and steps in. The coveted secret is to hold the button down for five seconds until the illuminated skid starts to blink. This means party time. No traction control and free wheel spin. With this new knowledge Mat and I take to the track and then ultimately to and through a massive snowbank. Every time anyone sticks it into a snowbank the whole track is stopped until the tow car comes and pulls you out. One also gets the feeling that this annoys the other drivers who are not that interested in how much fun we are having.
As Matt and I put more ice miles on the car and snow in the grill I get the subtle feeling my copilot is becoming restless. Constant playing with the radio and calls to his mother force me to afford him a turn behind the wheel. Mat is cautious and has zero sideways experience. I watch from the passenger seat as the taste of forbidden fruit washes over his soul. Like with children, what you give one you must give the other. Lisa, with tons of snow driving experience from back home is raring to take the 420 horsepower bratwurst after a couple of lessons from the other drivers. I've ridden through LA traffic in her 91 golf so I know her Scandinavian bravado will be seeking gold. I decide its best she ride with W.G in the hopes that having a professional onboard will keep the car in one piece. We all watch from the sidelines as Lisa makes it halfway around the track, the engine screaming for sovereignty. She enters the straight away and streaks past as we all stand holding our open mouths. She knows we are watching. The car starts to understeer then POOF! the entire car disappears. It takes three men with shovels and a tow vehicle 20 minutes to retrieve our car and I notice Lisa's crash doesn't quiet illicit the same negative response to the track closure from the other male drivers as my encounters with the snow banks did.
After a night of dinner and boozing we sleep in and meet Colorado Mike at the car wash to steam the darkened slush from the bottom of the vehicle ( a track rule) and have a bite before heading back to the Bridgestone winter driving academy. Warmer weather conditions coupled with a cold night have made the track particularly glassy. All that was taken for granted on the previous day now needs to be rethought. I gain confidence as the day wears on and start to give rides to other drivers and their wives and ride along with other people. Its with this new found poise that I manage a particularly impressive crash that has the car stuck up to its rear wheels. When retrieved their is radiator fluid leaking. Our seat time here in Steamboat had come to a perfect end.
With our car down I go for a final ride with Justin, the Floridian Army engineer. As we slide askew around the track I watch his manly hands delicately threading the car around the track with the sensitivity of a surgeon and the grace of a ballroom dancer. I see that this is this mans true passion in life. Speechless I sit back and share in his absolute delight.