By Stephen Petrick
Zack Wenzel has studied his favourite sport from the top of the snowbanks at Minden Fairgrounds for years.
Now, he hopes to pass on his knowledge and keep the culture of ice racing – and the unique camaraderie among its competitors – alive.
The 23-year-old from King City is getting ready to launch the Ontario Ice Academy. It’s a training program that will give drivers an opportunity to try ice racing before entering competitions. He hopes it will give people the extra “seat time” they need to race successfully, but, perhaps more importantly, give them an opportunity to fall in love with the truly unique form of auto racing.
The Minden Fairgrounds track is a busy place for auto racing enthusiasts come January and February; it’s the only place in Southern Ontario where ice racing is offered. Some of the most die-hard auto racers in Ontario – the kind that don’t mind spending a day in freezing temperatures – gather there and form lasting friendships.
“I want it to be a long-term thing, I want it to be a positive thing for new rookies and people who want to give ice racing a try,” Wenzel said.
“I want more racers to keep coming and have more competitions. As people get older they kind of stop. I don’t want that to go away. I love it, (the fairgrounds track) is a great place to be on the weekend; there’s something special about it.”
Wenzel hopes to have the Academy debut on Thursday, Jan. 27 (but, of course, COVID-19 public health measures and government restrictions could change things). It would then run on the next five Thursdays as well.
For $1,000, participants would have a full day on the track and the use of one of Wenzel’s custom-made ice racing vehicles (or they can use their own vehicle). They would also be hooked up with coaches, who can show them the ropes.
While it’s a big financial commitment, Wenzel said the charge is necessary considering the Academy has to rent the track for the day and provide vehicles.
Participants can learn about the two classes of ice racing – the rubber tire class and the stud tires class – and how to navigate the tricky roads.
Wenzel, like many in the ice racing community, agrees that ice racing is one of the safest forms of auto racing, as it’s difficult for drivers to get up to speeds where they’re at risk of a serious crash.
But the sport requires an incredible amount of driving skill, as drivers have to think quickly about how their tires will move on the track and how they’ll handle both straightaways and turns.
It’s all about traction, Wenzel said.
“Every section changes all the time. Sometimes it’s riding two wheels on the snow, sometimes it’s two wheels on the ice. It’s a lot about throttle control … and using your momentum the best you can to move around the track.”
And those who go too fast can find themselves in a snowbank quick.
“The famous words: ‘slow is fast,’” Wenzel said.
Wenzel has been driving in ice racing competitions since he was about 16, but he has been around the sport for much longer.
His father, Jeffrey Wenzel, was an ice racer and Zack tagged along at racing events with him from the time he was a toddler. His grandfather, Gordon Wenzel, was also an auto racer, though he didn’t race on ice.
Wenzel noted that to be an ice racer, it’s important to have a support system. He says father-like figures in the ice racing community, such as Richard Boake and “jack-of-all-trades” Ian MacIntyre have helped him work on cars and learn about the sport.
Wenzel hopes his academy will have a similar positive influence on drivers, and the ice racing community as a whole.
If the pandemic derails the ice racing season like it did last year, he won’t fret, because his intention is to have the course running for years
“If COVID brings us down again, I’ll be more ready for 2023,” he said.
To get in touch with Wenzel and learn more about the program, email him at email@example.com