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Skills, Smiles, and Slides: Bridgestone Winter Driving School

If you want to be a safer driver and have more fun behind the wheel when conditions get snowy and icy, attend the Bridgestone Winter Driving School.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School(Photo/Bryon Dorr)
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The Bridgestone Winter Driving School was started in 1983 by a rally driver, with the tradition of performance driving skills development carried through to today. That’s right, this specialized performance driving school has been around for over 40 years! I can attest, they are doing lots right.

I visited the school in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and spent a full day behind the wheel of a new Toyota 4Runner rolling on studless Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2 snow tires. Performance driving is good fun on any surface, but especially so on a custom track built on snowy rolling hills. Fun (and lots of learning) was had!

In short: Big smiles, loads of skill building, and a top-quality professional experience combine to create a day of performance driving you’re sure not to forget anytime soon. The Bridgestone Winter Driving School is an amazing value, which is multiplied by the skills learned that will make you a much safer winter driver.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

Bridgestone Winter Driving School Review

A winter driving track — actually, three tracks — is custom-built on cattle grazing land, not a lake, on a private ranch 20 minutes outside Steamboat Springs every winter. The tracks offer a wide range of corners, straights, and elevation changes to challenge every driver’s skills. In the summer, there is little trace of this wintery driving paradise.

The school kicks off each year just before Christmas and finishes the first weekend in March — weather-dependent. It is extremely popular and classes fill up fast, so be sure to sign up very early.

The full-day Bridgestone Winter Driving School Second Gear program is the one you want to take, and one I took. It costs $625 and runs 7 days a week during the season.

There is a max of 12 students per class — likely 12, as they tend to sell out — and at least two instructors dedicated to the class. The class entails about an hour of classroom time and 4-plus hours of on-track driving time.

School Vehicles

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

A wide range of FWD, AWD, and 4WD Toyota vehicles — Camry, Highlander, and 4Runner — are on offer for the school. I spent my time in a 4WD Toyota 4Runner, as it is most similar to my personal Lexus GX 460 — which means my experience at the school will directly translate to my own winter driving.

The only modifications to the vehicles are the addition of Bridgestone Blizzak tires and a radio communication system. There is also a switch added to each vehicle to allow the ABS to be completely turned off. This is essential for some of the drills to show off the impressive help ABS provides on low-friction surfaces as well as prepare drivers to drive older non-ABS-equipped vehicles.

Yurt Classroom

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

The program starts in Steamboat Springs at the school’s office. You are then bused out to the ranch where the course is run. You start off with about an hour in a yurt for some classroom instruction.

Up front, the class’s goals are laid out: “Today’s Goal: Building car control techniques that incorporate precision, perfection, smoothness.”

Then, you dive into some track safety items, plan for the day, tire and vehicle overviews, a 20-minute instructional video, and some PowerPoint slides. PowerPoint slides aren’t normally exciting, but these are well thought out. Graphics and information tidbits are shown that help you quickly gain comprehension of the skills and theories being taught, so you can take them to the track.

On-Track Drills

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
Accident avoidance drill explained and illustrated; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

Expect to get two morning on-track drill sessions and a lapping session. Then, in the afternoon, another two exercises and a lapping session. You’ll also get a midday break — with a quality lunch provided.

The drills are super cool and quickly show you what you’re doing right and likely very wrong. With the radios in each vehicle, the instructors provide feedback right away and then you give the drill another go.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

Favorite Exercise

One drill that I probably had the most fun with was on the track’s skid pad — a large circle, with a snow bank in the middle, that had quite a lot of elevation change. This was a lift and turn oversteer exercise.

Once you experienced oversteer (when the car rotates faster than you want it to) and learned a bit about how to control it, you tried to hold the same steering angle for the entire circle of the skid pad. With no steering angle adjustments, you have the throttle, and sometimes brake, as tools to maintain the circle radius.

This drill takes finesse and is not easy. This is especially true because the circle is on an angled hill — and got quite icy at the bottom as the tires pushed the snow off the surface.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

Performance Driving on Snow

What quickly becomes apparent is that you need to think way ahead, be very smooth with all your inputs, and likely go a lot slower than you think you should when driving on snow and ice. All of those things will help you build vehicle control, which will then allow you to go faster.

Dial your speed back, apply the lessons and skills taught, and then slowly build speed — a good plan of attack for any performance-driving school.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
A few key reminders that are on the dash of every school vehicle; (photo/Bryon Dorr)

You will likely experience understeer right away, which is when the car turns less than desired, or pushes. Oversteer is when the car turns too much, and something you’ll likely experience early in the class as well.

Oversteer is way more fun, especially once you’ve dialed in how to control it — as you’re essentially drifting. Both can send you into the snow bank on track, or another vehicle or a solid stationary object in the real world, so they need to be controlled.

A key concept for any driving situation, but especially so on low-friction surfaces like snow and ice, is weight transfer. The end of the vehicle with weight on it has more grip. Accelerate to get rear grip. Brake to get front grip — which is very helpful when adding steering inputs.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

End-of-Day On-Track Fun

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

To put your newfound skills to the test, you get to finish off your time behind the wheel on the track with some open lapping. This allows you to let loose just a bit and will no doubt put a big smile across your face — no matter your skill level.

Of course, the school ends on a high note as the instructors take you out for some hot laps. These guys and gals can drive! Many of them ice race on the weekends for fun.

Add in the time they get behind the wheel at the school, and they have exponentially more experience driving on low-friction surfaces than the average driver. Your mind will likely be blown, even if you thought you were doing a pretty good job on track, by how fast and in control these instructors can drive.

Bridgestone Winter Driving School
(Photo/Bryon Dorr)

Bridgestone Winter Driving School Takeaways

  • Always buy the right tires for the conditions
  • “When in doubt, two feet off” and unwind wheel
  • Steer in the direction of the skid in an understeer situation (back end broke loose) and look where you want to go
  • Be early on inputs while giving yourself lots of time and patience between inputs — be smooth
  • One input at a time
  • ABS is awesome on snow and ice
  • Look where you want to go (keep eyes up) — hands and feet follow the eyes

Bonus tip: Lighting conditions change quickly and make a huge difference in your ability to read the terrain. When the light goes flat, it’s really hard to judge distances. If you wear polarized sunglasses, you’re able to get some of that depth perception back — even though it can make your vision a bit dark.

A huge thanks to Claire and Gary, my instructors for the school. Their experience and professionalism were top-notch. Also, a big thanks to the Bridgestone Winter Driving School for the quality experience, with skills learned that I’ll be using for the rest of my life.

Keep an eye on the schedule and sign up early to get into the Bridgestone Winter Driving School for next year.

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