Thunder Bay ice racers put the pedal to the metal as they navigate frozen track on Mission Bay

As their tires glide along the ice and drift around crystallized corners, clouds of snow dust surround them like white smoke. 

For race car drivers in Thunder Bay, Ont., it’s just another day on the track.

Ice racing has been a tradition in northwestern Ontario for decades. The sport is akin to regular racing, except instead of sweltering heat, athletes are prone to extreme cold warnings and the track is made of frozen water instead of dirt and pavement.

There are two classes:

  • Studded, where the tires have more grip.
  • Rubber to ice, where the turns are more unpredictable.

The Thunder Bay Autosport Club is in its 56th year. Races are held on Mission Bay in Fort William First Nation, just outside the city. This is the first regular season open to the public since the COVID-19 pandemic started early in 2020, said the club’s president, Gary Adomko. 

On Sunday, when the temperature reached –27 C with the wind chill, the biggest challenge was the snow spraying up off the track, reducing drivers’ visibility. The first two weekends were relatively mild with clear ice, he said, which made the course easier to navigate.

“This type of racing, you’re pretty loose at times,” said Adomko, driver No. 57. “You really learn a lot about your car and the car control and your bite, your grip level per corner.

“It’s quite different from anything else.”

A spectacle for spectators

The skills learned on the ice help make better road racers, since they’re used to being loose and pivoting on a dime. It also helps them on the street, since they’re prepared to avoid accidents in uncertain conditions, he explained. 

Hundreds of racing enthusiasts and their families are drawn to the races every week, Adomko said. Spectators line the hillside overlooking the track, either from the comfort of their cars or just a few steps away from the ignition, cheering as the sound of revving engines reverberates across the bay.

A close-up photo of a male race car driver giving a thumbs-up from inside his car.
Josh Rogerson of Thunder Bay, Ont., tries ice racing for the first time, at the Thunder Bay Autosport Club’s track on Mission Bay in Fort William First Nation. (Sarah Law/CBC)

Tin Qing, an international student at Lakehead University, was among the fans bracing the cold on Sunday — his third time at the track.

He said the sport is unlike anything he’s seen before.

“Every time I come here, it’s like, amazing,” said Qing. “I’m from China and I never see [this] in China.”

His favourite part, though, is what drives most racing fans to the grandstands: “the speed.”

The need for speed is what inspired Josh Rogerson to get behind the wheel for the first time on Sunday. 

Rogerson — driver No. 5 — is a big fan of the summer racing at Thunder City Speedway, so with encouragement from his friends, he decided to get his car ready for the winter.

“I just like going fast. I just love racing. It’s fun,” he said after his first practice round, which he called a success, considering he didn’t crash into a snowbank.

A smiling race car driver stands beside his black race car, which has the number 77 painted on the door in gold.
Anthony Sticca of Thunder Bay shows off his race car before heading to the ice track on Mission Bay. (Sarah Law/CBC)

Anthony Sticca got his start when fellow racer Warren Kettering said his team needed a driver to fill in one weekend.

“I came out and fell in love ever since,” said Sticca, No. 77.

For Sticca, who’s been competing for a few years, racing makes the cold conditions more bearable, as he’s got something to look forward to every Sunday.

Coming into a big turn, he described how he rocks the car back and forth a bit so he can slide into the drift without losing control. But if he’s ever in trouble, he said, his peers are always there for him.

“Everyone’s like a big family out here,” Sticca said.

‘Ice is not predictable’

Ron Evans came out for the first time in a few years to watch the action. He was glad to see so many people attend the event, despite the temperature, to support the sport.

A blue race car drives across snow-covered ice against a blue-sky backdrop with hills and trees.
Gary Adomko, president of the Thunder Bay Autosport Club, does ice racing in the studded class on Mission Bay. (Sarah Law/CBC)

His friends’ truck rattled with laughter as the three men watched the racers blast through the icy air. There’s nothing quite like live sports, he said — especially a sport as unique as this.

“The racing in the warmer months, you’re on dirt and it’s a lot more predictable than ice. Ice is not predictable — it’s frozen water — and things slide around on it.

“It’s fun watching them bounce off the snowbanks and trying to get traction out there especially,” he said with a smile.

When asked if he would ever put on a helmet and give it a try, the answer was a quick no.

“Probably not at my age. I still like my body intact.”

The ice racing season goes from January to mid-March. Races are held Sundays at noon. The next big event of the season is the Don Kettering Memorial on Feb. 18 and 19, which will feature racers from the U.S.

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