The Revived GP Ice Race Turned Zell Am See Into A Wintry Rally Playground
Photography by Will Broadhead
I can’t feel my feet. Despite having two pairs of thermal socks on underneath my winter boots, the nerve endings in my toes have given up and gone into hibernation—I’m pretty sure you could plant a flag through my trotters and I wouldn’t even notice. My fingers have gone numb too, and I’m struggling to hold my camera steady. I’ve never been this cold before and a quick check of the mercury later would reveal temps somewhere near -18°C after the sun had descended behind the snow-capped peaks that stood sentry around this flat valley in between the Austrian Alps.
Behind me lies the darkness, punctuated on occasion by the odd light of a chalet or gondola mast, quiet and still otherwise. But in front of me there is a great deal of excitement happening, the snort of engines and their rev limiters, clouds of ice being tossed into the air then dancing back down to the ground under the glow of spotlights. This is Zell am See, and I’m here for the return of the legendary ice races.
Racing at Zell am See first happened way back in 1937, with motorcycle “skijoring” on lake Zell, with cars joining in on the fun from 1953 on until the last races were held here in 1973. Thanks in large part to Ferdinand Oliver Porsche, the race meetings that once bore the name of his Great Grandfather have been reborn for the first time in almost 50 years. Things have changed somewhat since the ‘70s. We aren’t racing on the lake this time around, for one, (seeing as it was still completely liquid), but a new circuit has been carved out of the frozen tundra next to the ski resorts’ airfield, and as this past weekend proved, it is ready to receive a huge mixture of machinery. The weekend included demo runs of historic racing machinery and modern e-racers, as well as all the competitive action featuring rally cars, buggies, go karts and of course a healthy contingent of Porsches, some towing brave skiers in their wake.
It’s a strange sight for me, walking across an expanse of frozen earth that is populated by the race trucks and awnings that I’m used to seeing on the concrete and asphalt of traditional racing circuit paddocks. It’s exciting to be here though, it looks a bit like a rally stage in some places, and there is a definite hum of energy in the air, with large swathes of racing fans enjoying the unrestricted access to almost everything that’s going on here.
It has the feel of a festival about it, and I’m pleased to see that the fences lining the circuit are teeming with fans. There is a full complement of automotive entries as well, with 150 cars recorded across the various racing categories in a program that will see MK1 Golfs sharing the track with KTM X-Bows; M3s facing off against Alfasuds, and even a Steyr-Puch 650 TR making it into the mix.
With a mix of amateur and pro drivers in town, the action on track ranges from the ultra-fast and highly talented, to those sliding around a bit more wildly. Spins and scrapes against the snowy embankments elicit huge cheers from the thousands of faces trackside, and although everything is taking place at a relatively low speed, it’s properly exciting to watch, and the spectator vantage points here are as close as you’re likely to see at any motorsport event.
It’s when the sun drops however that things really get going, and despite the cold it’s wonderful fun to be out under the lights watching your breath mix in with the plumes of snow sent up by the cars and karts. To see the crisp night air filled with crystalline white and beams of headlights sawing back and forth is a unique experience you won’t find outside of a snow stage in the WRC. There are racers like the great Walter Röhrl on track too, the rally veteran swinging his Audi Sport Quattro around like it was the Group B era all over again. Hans-Joachim Stuck was in attendance, as well as Mark Webber representing the Porsche brand, and whereas parade laps at other events are often lacking pace and vitriol, the cars and drivers involved in this weekend make the most of the opportunity to really hand the back out and elongate the slides for the fan’s amusement. There are also the traditional Skijoring races that are worth a watch, a format wherein skiers towed behind the cars, something that I didn’t know was ever a reality in today’s days of waivers and lawyers. I must admit I was quite happy to be on my side of the fence for that particular session.
While the racing that took place over the weekend was certainly not the fastest, we all know that speed is not the definitive piece of the automotive experience, whether we’re driving or spectating. The atmosphere in Zell am See made the frozen toes worth it, and while I can imagine that this form of motorsport isn’t to everyone’s tastes, how can you not smile at the fact that such a thing exists in 2019? Roughly 8,000 people attended, and I’m looking forward to seeing them and plenty more here next year. If you plan to join us I’d advise packing a few extra layers.