As a person who has crashed a number of cars in a number of situations, let me tell you that I have never found a better way to wreck than in the snow.

I have had a number of 'offs' ranging from minor cosmetic crunches to vehicle-totaling kapows. I have hit fence posts, bushes, trees, hillsides, and other (parked) cars. I have managed to never injure anyone with a car, myself included. I would not not consider myself an expert in crashing cars, but I certainly have a great deal of experience in the field.

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And with this experience I can say that snow must be very close to the ideal car-crashing environment.

This is worth noting because the life of the American auto enthusiast almost universally includes a car crash. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The American driving test gives very little practical information on how to drive in the real world, as opposed to the fantasy universe described in driving test handbooks where everyone knows that when two people arrive simultaneously at a four-way stop it is the person on the right who goes first.
  • America is very spread out and suburban, so Americans drive a lot. This includes young American car enthusiasts, who are not only car enthusiasts but also young. This means they are out late and tired and also stupid and also curious to see if they can take that turn at 40 this time and it turns out that they can't. It's possible that I speak from experience.
  • American racetracks are hard to get to and expensive. America's youngest, least experienced car enthusiasts need practice on racetracks the most, and they're the ones who have the most difficulty getting to them and affording them.

So average American car enthusiasts get their driver's licenses and get unleashed on America's roadways with no real experience whatsoever and no great way of getting experience off of public roads. So they end up crashing into parked Corollas on the way home at three in the morning. I know this because I did this.

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Snow, though! Snow is wonderful. Snow is difficult to drive in, as proved by the number of cars you see in ditches in the wintertime, even in areas of this country where it snows every year. Here's the trick: not only is snow slippery — snow is soft.

I was recently up in Connecticut at Consumer Reports' auto testing facility, where they have a small test track. CR was kind enough to host Jalopnik for a day, and they were extremely kind enough to leave their track covered in snow.

While my coworkers pulled off perfectly executed powerslides and AWD drifts in a Subaru STI and an E63 AMG S wagon on winter tires, I found things slightly more challenging in my little, rear-drive, rear-engine Baja Bug on no seasons.

I crashed. I crashed many times. I crashed so many times that I was on a first-name basis with CR's employee assigned to towing people out of snowbanks for the day. I crashed in a variety of ways: I crashed head on into a snowbank, understeering as I went. I crashed head on into a snowbank, oversteering as I went. I crashed getting sucked into ruts. I crashed fishtailing out of turns. I crashed into one snow bank so big that it actually turned the car around, as pictured at the top of this article.

The takeaway from all of these crashes was twofold:

1. I didn't really hurt my car.

2. I got the hang of thrashing my car.

I might have stepped over the edge of my ability behind the wheel, but eventually I started figuring out what I was doing wrong. I wasn't keeping my eyes up. I was reacting to what the car was doing. I was looking at the things I didn't want to hit.

I can remember the moment when things started going right with perfect clarity. It was one of the last runs of the day. Travis was riding shotgun. I was finally getting my confidence back after the morning full of tows. He remarked how the car absolutely didn't want to turn, and I pointed out that there wasn't really any weight on the front and no real grip either. To get it around a corner, you really have to slide it going into turns, not out of them. So I stabbed the gas before the track's one long left hander.

And naturally, the back started to come around. And the air started to get thick inside the car. And the big snowbank on the outside of the corner started to rear up in my peripheral. I knew I could not look at that snowbank. I knew that if I did, the car would follow my eyes and we would drift right into it and get stuck.

So I kept my eyes up, and I trained them through the corner, and I kept my foot in it, and we soared clear through the turn. We were sideways the whole way through, and through the next turn, and safely onto the front straight. Beaming across my face. Screaming into the radio. Overjoyed. Elated.

[Photo Credit: Tavarish]

Look at this! This is me, schlub that I am, pulling off a huge, sweeping, roaring drift like I was in one of those Björn Waldegård or Chris Harris or Ryan Tuerck videos that have poisoned my brain. Even I got things right. All I had to do was I calm down and let all of my lessons wander from the dusty back corners of my memory into the more active sections of my brain.

[Photo Credit: Tavarish]

It was my first clean lap of the track and I couldn't have been happier. I pushed things even harder going into the next lap around.

And then I crashed again. But it was fine. The car was fine. I was fine. We were fine. The day was fine.

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That's what's so great about driving in the snow, off the public road. There's a cushion for the mistakes you make, room to practice and get things wrong and then finally get them right. You have the time and the space to remind yourself of how to be good behind the wheel.

This is what American car enthusiasts need. Give US gearheads somewhere like this, a snow-covered test track, and they can actually learn a bit about how their car handles, how their inputs translate into how the car moves, and what they need to pay attention to if they want to be controlled and safe, if not fast.

That or we could just keep letting kids loose at 16, 17, or 18 with a learner's permit, a dream of going sideways, and not much else. I think you know how that goes.

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Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove, Tavarish


Contact the author at raphael@jalopnik.com.