Why am I pointing the wrong way on a freeway, in the middle of Snowstorm Nemo, in a car with no heat, no defroster, no snow tires, and no four-wheel drive? Why am I laughing? Because sometimes the worst drives are the best.
I'm behind the wheel of my 1973 Volkswagen Baja Bug. I have the windows down because the car has no defroster. I have gloves, a hat, and a fat jacket on because it has no heater. And I've just spun 360 degrees on an empty highway because the car has rear-wheel drive and all-season tires.
I'm laughing because I was having the most fun I’ve had behind the wheel in ages.
The drive started earlier in the day when contributor Thomas McIntyre Schultz and I piled into my Baja as Snowstorm Nemo was laying into NYC. We set off from Harlem to the vast parking lot of Giants Stadium and the Meadowlands sports complex in New Jersey to meet coworker Travis, our boss Matt and Timothy Burke of Deadspin, who are in a brand-new (and also rear-wheel-drive) Cadillac ATS. I've never really driven in the snow, so this is going to be interesting.
My car’s 40-year-old wipers are just keeping up with the snow pouring onto the windshield and I am, surprisingly, having a great time. The Baja is happy on the half-plowed roads of New Jersey, streaming past timid commuters in four-wheel-drive SUVs and front-wheel-drive compacts. The car is light (it weighs just around 2,000 lbs), and both the front and back ends tend to wander a bit as we sped down the fast lane, but that’s normal right? Totally fine car, if you ask me.
Really, once you realize that you don’t have to get anywhere, driving into a bizzard isn’t that bad. If you’re rushing to get home as night falls in Alaska, yes, it might be a bad thing that the car wants to slide its ass out on every turn. When you’re just driving around north Jersey for shits and giggles, it’s a blast.
For instance, it might disturb a more serious motorist that the exit for Giants Stadium has a huge, glowing red sign saying “off ramp closed.” We figured we could use a bit of an adventure and took it anyway. It turns out the ramp wasn’t closed, it was just unplowed. We had the whole roads to ourselves. Virgin snow, sideways around corners, donuts in the middle of the street, everything. That wasn’t even the best part, because as we finally find Travis, Matt, and Tim in the endless Meadowlands parking lot, we also find out they’ve had a brilliant idea: they set up a racetrack.(1)
I cannot stress enough how ‘building a racetrack’ is among the greatest things a human being can do with a motorized vehicle. Instead of just hooning as we’d been doing, now we could be timed.
You can see the course yourself on this Google Map we set up, courtesy of Tim, who also made the video.
I never got to drive the ATS but holy crap is the Baja amazing in the snow. Wait, did I say amazing? I meant the opposite of that. I turn the thing into a corner on our little track and…nothing happens. I can crank the wheel all I wanted, but the car is going to go straight. The only way to get the car to turn was to use the gas.(2) Travis, who is a much better driver than I am, whipped both my car and the ATS. The Baja felt fast, but the ATS was much, much faster. Also, everyone inside was warm and comfortable.
Most of my night was spent taking pictures, peeing behind telephone poles, and getting to know the feeling of oversteer in a big empty lot where I'm sure I won't hit anybody. Travis and Matt spent most of their time breaking caked-up snow out of the Caddy's tight wheel wells.(3) You pay for that stance, guys.
Matt eventually managed to get it sideways.
A snowy and cold drive home after stopping at a diner with the crew (4) gives me a moment to be reflective.(5) Why am I out on the roads, driving when it's cold, and snowy, and dangerous? Why did I explicitly choose this vehicle, worse in every way from something like a Toyota or a Nissan? Why do I actively search out my own discomfort?
Easy answer: Cars are getting better and better at isolating you from the environment and keeping your comfortable. Every so often, it's good to let freezing rain pelt your face through an open window. There’s a pleasure in taking yourself out of your comfortable little circle. It's healthy to get your soft ass out of your heated apartment to remind yourself what it's like to be cold and wet and miserable.
There’s something to be said for driving into blizzards.
(1) When I say that Thomas and I met Matt, Travis, and Tim, what I mean is that we spent a good 20 minutes aimlessly driving around the stadium until we spotted their car, and then did some inadvisably-close donuts around their ATS. If I had hit that car I would have been in a lot of trouble.
(2) Getting the Baja to turn on the throttle wasn’t as simple as I thought; I figured hey, just pile in more power and the car would rotate, but if I got on the power too early, I only pushed the front end wider. If I then let off, the tail would swing out, with the weight of the engine pulling it along.
So sometimes laying on the gas gave you oversteer, sometimes it meant hilarious understeer followed by massive oversteer. This is how I found myself spun out on the highway. This is how I found myself almost sliding into a parked car on a mad dash through the East Village.
(3) The Baja never clogged up its wheel wells, but both cars did thoroughly fill their wheels themselves with snow, as you can see.
(4) The food at this diner was hot. That is all I will say about it.
(5) While I was being reflective, I should have been buying a shovel, as getting my car out of the snow bank I Tokyo Drifted into was a challenge without one.