Man, Machine, Ice: What Can Go Wrong?

Story: Alex McCulloch Photography: Peter Thompson (Contributed), Alex McCulloch (Contributed), Steve Clark

Rocky Mountain Chapter BMW CCA Ice Gymkhana

I’ve you’ve driven Interstate 70 in the winter in the last decade, there are two notable landmarks about halfway between Denver and the Eisenhower Tunnel. The first is a lifted yellow Pontiac Firebird that resided just north of Georgetown, easily visible from the highway. After years of being parked, it has been conspicuously absent for the last few years, but has been occasionally sighted elsewhere in the region. The second is vehicles driving on the frozen surface of Georgetown Lake. Usually, they are off-roaders with Mad Max-style spikes on the wheels, but if your timing is just right, you may see something out of place—a quiver of Porsches, Audis, or BMWs. 

The latter is likely the BMW Car Club of America Rocky Mountain Chapter’s Ice Gymkhana. The annual event marks the highlight of our winter calendar and is the most professional of all the local German marque club events held on the lake. This year it was hosted by organizers Tim and Ted Schultz, course designers Grant and Carol Barclay, and timing chief Fred Lacino. Run as an autocross, the course hosted a mixture of high and low-speed sweepers, a long slalom, a stop box, and a maniacal 360-degree circle. 

The 360-degree circle can make or break your run. Tire modifications are limited to street-legal rubber, and the classes are broken up into rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, studded and non-studded snow tires. We take it way too seriously, leading to fierce competition for the fastest Bemmer on the ice, however all marques are welcome. 

Contrary to popular misconception, big and heavy all-wheel-drive cross-overs and SUVs are not the best vehicles in the snow and ice. If you go back in the BMW timeline before the current line-up model crept into obesity, you can find some of the best winter cars out there. What makes a BMW good in the snow and ice, is what makes them good in the dry—a balanced and communicative chassis. In the early 1990s, the winter package for the rear-wheel-drive-only E34-generation 5 Series consisted of heated seats, a ski-pass-through, heated mirrors and door locks, a limited-slip differential, and a “good luck, we’re all counting on you.” Of course, you didn’t need luck because back then, BMWs were unapologetically driver-focused, and snow and ice did little to phase them. 


If you really wanted to be a god among mortals, the BMW of choice was the E30-generation 3 Series 325iX. True to form, what made the 325iX exceptional was not its viscous limited-slip all-wheel drive system, but its telepathically communicative chassis. For the Ice Gymkhana, an E30 325iX with studded Nokian Hakkapeliitta snow tires is the weapon of choice. Our original plan was for Ice Gymkhana regulars Marc Swanson and Andrew Colfelt to co-drive Swanson’s 1989 325iX, but that was thwarted by a bad front CV axle boot the week before the event. Scrambling for an alternative, I did happen to have the Glen Shelly M Coupe race car sitting at the shop. All I needed were some tires. Through the magic of Craigslist, I was able to find a set of new-old-stock studded Hakkas in the correct fitment. I added a roof rack that I had from a previous M Coupe we built for the Roaring Fork Snow Trial and loaded up for a pre-dawn departure to Georgetown Lake. 

The morning consisted of practice runs, with the timed runs happening in the afternoon. Being fast on the ice is always an exercise of patience. The ice will punish mistakes more than pavement or snow, and being slow and tight is usually faster, albeit less fun, than hooning. Patches of snow offer much needed grip, and going off line to grab a snow patch is usually worth it. The course’s most complex and punishing feature is the 360-degree cone, which will hemorrhage seconds if driven incorrectly. The best technique is to keep it tight, painfully slow, and channel spiritual levels of patience until the exit. A rear-wheel drive car will usually rotate better, but you can give it all up if you carry too much energy and go wide on the exit.

Our morning times hovered in the 2:25 range, but by mid-day, the course softened, and the three of us started to drop our times down into the 1:40 range. The M Coupe was a handful, but it was honest and controllable. It would do exactly what you wanted it to do, even if it were the wrong thing! With all three of us driving the same car, it was up to driver talent and a little bit of luck. Our nearest competition was an E30 325iX that had come down from Basalt, and they looked properly composed—which means fast. By the end of the day, Colfelt had edged out Swanson and I by one second with a hot lap of 1:38. We would have to wait for the awards ceremony to see how we stacked up against the mighty E30 325iX. 

As the sun got low on the horizon, the course went cold. We took the opportunity to put our recovery rope to good use and tow photographer Peter Thompson around. What could possibly go wrong? Fortunately, he emerged unscathed, and we headed into town for the final times and awards ceremony. It turns out Colfelt tied for the fastest lap with the E30 325iX driver, Chris Bair, at 1:38. Swanson and I tied, in a three-way tie with Bair’s co-driver Cathrine Downard at 1:39. The five fastest times of the day were within less than two seconds of each other, showing just how heated the competition was! 

Video Links


Generic Ice Gymkhana video:

Andrew Colfelt’s Lap:

E30 325iX Plowing Snow: