For most New Yorkers, a frozen Lake George signals the onset of winter and some of the year’s most brutal weather. But for a handful of upstate gear heads, the ice represents something completely different: the perfect race track. “This is my favorite time of the year!” shouts Paul Dudley on a chilly February morning. He revs up his ’99 Mazda Miata and peels out onto the frozen lake, running laps along a makeshift course marked by cones along the ice. His stripped-down Miata-“a Miata on an 800-pound diet,” he jokes-is fitted with studded tires that dig into the ice, providing significant grip while kicking a thick mist into the air on every turn.
For Dudley, and more than 100 other drivers like him, these ice races are the ultimate adrenaline rush. They are also emblematic of what the country’s grassroots racing scene has become: a unique but increasingly accessible way for hobbyists to fuel their need for speed.
“This is probably the most economical form of racing,” says Michael Westhouse, the vice president of the Adirondack Motor Enthusiast Club (AMEC), the local organization that has hosted the races since 1965. “You don’t need a racing license. All you need is a helmet and some snow tires and you’re all set.” AMEC hosts races for nine different classes, including home-built vehicles, modified cars with studded tires, and even street-legal cars, which cautiously navigate each twist and turn with virtually no traction.
“I’d love to be a rally driver and compete in the full series,” Westhouse continues, “but rally racing can cost as much as $3,000 per weekend. With ice racing, I spend maybe $1,000 for the entire year, and the fact you can race your daily driver makes it even more affordable.”
David Burnham, AMEC’s president, warns that just because it’s easy to get into ice racing doesn’t mean it’s easy to compete. “I’ve done all kinds of racing,” says Burnham as he tunes up his home-built yellow racer equipped with a vintage Maserati engine. “Ice racing is, without question, the most difficult because of the changing conditions. If it’s extra cold, the ice is slick, but if it’s warm, the ice gives a lot of bite.”
AMEC has a strict no-contact policy, but the competitions remain fierce, with adrenaline-pumping, wheel-to-wheel action a hallmark of each race. “This isn’t a Mickey Mouse kind of thing,” says Westhouse. “You’re battling other people, battling car control, but unlike other forms of racing, you don’t risk hitting a barrier at 100mph. The chances of damaging yourself or property are low.”
Like with most grassroots racing, cash prizes are not involved. Winners walk away with a small trophy and-most importantly-bragging rights. For drivers like Dudley, the opportunity to test his mettle on the open ice is a prize in and of itself. “I started doing this 15 years ago because I wanted to race in a legal capacity,” he says. “I quickly discovered that you can do this and get a dash plaque instead of a court date, and that’s just fine with me!”
Ice racing isn’t the only peculiar form of grassroots motorsports that has seen a surge in popularity. Enter the Lawnmower Racing Association, which bills itself as America’s “oldest and largest national mower racing sanctioning body.”
Inspired by similar leagues in the United Kingdom, the Lawnmower Racing Association began as a publicity stunt on April Fools’ Day in 1992. Automotive company Gold Eagle hosted the first-ever US lawnmower race as a way to advertise its products, but the event proved more popular than anyone had anticipated. In the 27 years since, the league has grown to about 50 smaller clubs scattered across the country with as many as 900 racers in a given season.
“You can’t get more grassroots than us,” says Kerry Evans, the association’s president. He’s making final preparations for a weekend race in Alpharetta, Georgia, and he can hardly contain his excitement. “We got guys who drive 14 hours to be here, just to race 20 minutes in two days, pick up a plastic trophy, and go home,” he says. “We’ve got 10 different classes of racing, including a junior class, so we really push for a big family feeling at these races.”
The most important rule of lawnmower racing is that each vehicle must have started out as a consumer-grade lawnmower. “After that, you can stiffen it up any way you want to,” Evans adds. “We’ve even got a factory experimental class, which has some lawnmowers with motorcycle carburetors, big ignition systems-a lot of fun.”
Despite their relatively small size, lawnmowers can pick up serious speed. In 2010, Evans was part of a team that traveled to the Bonneville Salt Flats to set the lawnmower land-speed record of 96mph.
As the league continues to expand-“mowing and growing,” as some members describe it-Evans is quick to credit much of the success to the association’s founder and former president, Bruce Kaufman, whose passion for racing (and lawnmower puns) knows no bounds. “He likes to go by ‘Mr. Mow-It-All,’ but sometimes I call him the ‘Sodfather,’ Evans jokes. “Bruce helped bring the concept over from the UK and has really publicized our sport to make it a nationwide league.”
Power to the people
From the Lake George ice races to lawnmower battles, grassroots racing has been trending toward being more affordable and more accessible. Even conventional racing organizations, like the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), have taken note, expanding programs in recent years so that just about anyone can get involved.
“We were founded 75 years ago by seven or eight aristocratic white dudes who liked rare British sports cars,” explains Heyward Wagner, SCCA’s senior director of marketing and experiential programs. “It was a very elite club with all sorts of weird rules, like you couldn’t sell your car to anyone outside the club. Stuff like that.”
Over the years, the SCCA grew into a sprawling amateur racing organization, reaching a crescendo in the ’80s when actor Paul Newman took up the hobby. It remained a fairly exclusive pastime, however, reserved only for those with the means and unbridled passion to make racing their lifestyle. “The people who used to compete were the type who would go to work solely because it funds racing,” Wagner says. “They’d own a house solely because it has a garage where their race car lives so that they can do racing. But that’s a shrinking mentality in American culture.”
In the last 10 years or so, SCCA has grown to 116 local, mostly volunteer-led, regions, offering programs like “Track Night in America,” where amateurs can run time trials with their everyday cars. In all, SCCA’s suite of programs attracts approximately 75,000 participants each year, and “Track Night in America,” which began in 2015, is poised to break 11,000 racers this year.
“It’s all part of our goal to make grassroots motorsports more accessible to a broader range of people,” Wagner says.
And grassroots racing shows no signs of slowing down. While winning and losing are certainly a part of these competitions, Wagner points out that new drivers, especially millennials, are less concerned about trophies and more interested in the overall experience. [ As a Gen-X grassroots racer, I can tell you I am very much concerned with winning when I go racing-Ed.]
“People don’t run Tough Mudders to win,” he says. “They just want that experience. And with racing, people want to just break away from Excel and Outlook for a couple of hours and feel something visceral, something you can’t feel in any other environment. They want to just clear their heads and enjoy the drive.”
Listing image by Gregory Leporati