I Tried Motor Skiing For The First Time Behind This Cosworth’d Ford Escort RS
Photography by Máté Boér
It all started with a friendly chat, in which I received an unexpected question from my friend, Michael Gross from ChromeCars. “We’re participating in the GP Ice Race and I’m looking for skiers for our team. Are you in?” All I knew about that was the name of the sport, skijöring, and what I learned from the well-known black and white footage and photos from the 1950s and ‘60s depicting Porsche 550s, Otto Mathé’s Fetzenflieger, Volkswagens, and other cool (and typically air-cooled) cars from the era drifting through snow and ice with daredevils being towed behind them on skis. I thought that the combination of two great things, classic motorsport and skiing could be very fun indeed if things went to plan, so I didn’t hesitate in saying I’d be happy to come along for the figurative and literal ride.
Skijöring originated in Northern Europe, the word itself is derived from Norwegian. In the sport’s original version, the skier is pulled around the track by a horse or a group of dogs. At the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, a demo race was organized, but skijöring didn’t become an official part of the games beyond that and remained in general obscurity. A few years after this demonstration event in Switzerland however, the motorized version of skijöring was born in Zell am See, when some brave skiers were willing to be pulled around the ice by ropes attached to motorcycles. Cars became involved in this Nordic-style sport around the early 1950s, most agreeing that it was 1953 specifically.
The original “Eisrennen” events were held in the Austrian ski resort, Zell am See until 1974, and attracted thousands of spectators on each occasion. Now, with a little bit of experience behind me, I have to admit that this lunacy is at least as fun to participate in as it to watch.
We had to wait 45 years for the revival of the legendary ice races in Austria, and I drove to Zell am See with a great brew of excitement on the Friday afternoon before the busy racing weekend. The preparations for the temporary track began in middle of December, and the crew had to move huge amounts of snow to form a first-class automotive ice rink in the field nearby the area’s eponymous lake. To be honest, I felt a bit scared when the first pictures of the racetrack popped up in the ChromeCars team’s feed. The track wasn’t covered in snow at the time, and the surface was an imposing sheet of ice, almost impossible to even walk on. The cars were equipped with spikes, but how will I brake and turn with my skis I thought to myself.
I’d hoped to be pulled along this slippery course by the team’s Mk1 Lotus Cortina—this is one of my all-time favorite cars, I love the history, the styling, and its giant-slaying potency as a race car in any number of settings. But it was booked for someone else apparently, and so I ended up behind this Mk1 Ford Escort, often mentioned as the “dog bone,” because of the shape of the front grille. Old Escorts were a common site back in their day and for decades beyond it, but my red and white ski lift was no ordinary compact car. This is a 1971 MK1 RS 1600 ex-works rally car, powered by the mighty bled-driven Cosworth BDA engine.
In its heyday, this exact car, “PVX 400K” conquered the rally stages in the hands of Roger Clark on the 1971 RAC Rally, and later the Timo Mäkinen and Henry Liddon duo also sat in it during a few championship outings. During the GP Ice Race weekend, ChromeCars’ mechanic and Slowly Sideways rally driver, Heiko Knast was at the wheel.
We soon found out that we already met each other at the 2015 Eifel Rallye Festival, where I photographed Heiko sliding into a ditch with his Lada VFTS. Hmm, perhaps not the best memory before hooking myself up to my skis and his car.
In the qualification rounds, the duos performed two rounds and only the best four teams made it to the finals. Since there was only one category, we had no chance against the newer, more powerful, all-wheel-drive cars, but this didn’t wither our competitive spirit. My pulse rose ever as we approached the starting line, and I was amazed by the speed of the professional, mainly Austrian teams that had gone before us.
Heiko said he won’t go too fast, seeing as he’d never driven with a skier behind him before. But have you ever seen a racing driver who doesn’t push the pedal down once the flag lifts? The spinning rear wheels got me covered with crushed ice particles as we set off, and I inhaled the fumes from the classic racing engine as we left the line—off to a comfortable start!
Despite the ice and exhaust and the extra grip provided by the studded tires, I could still easily handle the acceleration from the standing start, and with this my greatest pre-race concern was gone as we left the line without me being dragged on my stomach. From that moment my adrenaline level increased and more than canceled out that brief relief as I tried to concentrate on the braking distances before the corners, working to find the right angle behind the wildly broadsiding Escort.
Seeing this car only 4,5 meters in front of me in full sideways action is a scene I’ll never ever forget in my life, considering I was quite literally tied to it. The photographer inside me wanted to shoot this very much, but sadly it will have to remain one of those unphotographed memories—sometimes those are the best ones.
I quickly learned to always make sure the rope was taut, because once the tires find enough amount of grip at the end of a wide (and pace-reducing) slide, the Escort aggressively shoots out of the corner and it’s tough to hold the rope if the slack is snapped away in fractions of a second. Still, it is surprising how much influence the momentum and the weight of the skier has on the car’s movement. We played an important role in how the cars were able to get around the course, not just playing the role of inanimate cargo!
On Saturday, on our first outing we made it to the 10th place overall out of the 31 participating teams, only beaten by Instagram’s @powerslidelover and his famous winged Porsche 550 Spyder among the classic cars in the competition. It was a nice result, but I would have had the same fun had we finished very last. Overall I’d say that skijöring is a strange dance between an unusual pair. I’d also say that I’ve found my new favorite sport, shame there aren’t as many ice courses as football pitches.