A group of enthusiastic gearheads gathers in a yurt overlooking a vast Colorado snowfield. During breakfast by a warm, wood-burning stove, there’s a detailed briefing from a squad of expert rally car drivers.
We step outside into a sea of white, ringed by dramatic mountain peaks, and crack open the wing doors on a fleet of 12 Aston Martin sports cars priced from $99,900 for the standard Vantage GT model to $284,995 for the Vanquish coupe. We buckle up, rev the engines to a growl, and soon enough are rocketing across the snow—drifting sideways at disquieting speeds, tires spitting ghostly clouds.
It’s the first day of Aston Martin on Ice, a weekend-long program run by the brand each February, in which adventure seekers are schooled in the art of “winter performance driving.” For $10,000 (there’s also a cheaper, single-day option that runs $2,495), participants zip around a snowy expanse on the outskirts of the little mountain town of Crested Butte, cosseted by the sumptuous comforts of James Bond’s signature ride.
“We’re going to give you a taste of the Aston Martin lifestyle,” says silver-haired, British-accented Julian Jenkins, president of Aston Martin the Americas. Jenkins himself looks like he could ably play a bespoke-suited superspy. “We’re going to share our passion with you,” he promises us. The weekend will include accommodations in privately owned, secluded mountain lodges and elegant meals with a regional focus—seared elk loin, Colorado chardonnay—all prepared on site by a chef who’ll happily take requests. But the time away from the track, however extravagant, is secondary. This weekend, Jenkins assures us, is all about the driving.
The first hours of the school, which has a maximum of 24 pupils, are spent warming up with a slalom exercise, slowly snaking the cars between orange pylons placed in the snow. This alone is humbling. The tires on the Aston Martin Vanquish I’ve chosen are designed expressly for winter conditions, yet they provide only a 10th of the grip tires typically generate on dry pavement. Accelerate at the wrong moment, and my wheels spin furiously on the snow, finding no traction. Steer too loosely, and my car slides off the course.
After a couple of runs, we try swerving into corners. The instructors have us gun it up to 50 miles per hour on a straightaway, gas pedal slammed to the floor, then abruptly hit the brakes. (We’re alone in the cars, but each is equipped with a walkie-talkie, so spotters can issue commands and offer instant feedback.) It feels death wish-y to purposefully skid on snow with my car moving that fast, but with a bit of practice I’m able to maintain decent control. As the curve approaches, with the car already skidding, I nudge the steering wheel to coax the Vanquish into a sideways drift. Once I swivel into the turn and get my tires pointed straight again, I hit the gas to accelerate into the next stretch.
The “skid pad,” a circle marked out on the ice with an orange cone at its center, is where we practice the fine art of ripping doughnuts. We drive in the tightest circles possible at the fastest speeds we’re able to. After a few turns, my car inevitably twirls out of orbit. The resulting disorientation is terrifying, as we’re used to associating a loss of steering control with imminent disaster. The temptation is to panic and steer harder, jamming the wheel in a futile attempt to wrestle the car into submission. But, as instructors demonstrate, the wiser technique is to let the wheel unwind, wait for my tires to regain traction, and ease the car back onto its path with more subtle steering.
The next phase that morning combines these newfound skills in a timed trial—a short slalom followed by three tight right turns to a finish line. I clock the second-quickest finish in my group, just under 40 seconds. Which shocks me. I thought I’d been too cautious, but my humility worked in my favor. Head instructor Paul Gerrard, a professional race-car driver for more than 20 years, praises my smooth, measured approach.
“You weren’t cocky out there,” he says. “You had respect for the surface. Some of the other drivers were overconfident and pushed their cars too hard, which cost them.” Then Gerrard informs me that a pro driver could have shaved at least eight seconds off my time.
Lunch is back inside the yurt, where we’re seated at shared tables with a view of the craggy Crested Butte mountainside beyond the door. We all introduce ourselves and recount our hairiest personal moments out on the track.
“I have a need for speed,” says Dianne Baker, one of my tablemates. She’s a 70-year-old grandmother of four who lives much of the year in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and spent 25 years as a professional pilot flying corporate jets—including 737s—before she retired. In her spare time she flew homemade, experimental aircraft designed to handle advanced rolls and spins. Now she gets her kicks mostly from cars. She owns a 1970 MGB and a Porsche 911 that she bought in 2007. “The acceleration is the fun part,” she says, eyes glimmering after a full morning of high-speed hijinks. “It’s the same feeling you get in a jet.”
Also at my table are Daryl and Scott Mercer, a father-son duo. Daryl, 61 and “in the rare coin business,” seems to view the outing mostly as a bonding experience. Scott, 28, the chief executive officer of a startup in San Francisco that makes electric-car charging stations, is the more dedicated motorhead of the two. He owns a ’71 Alfa Romeo and an ’87 Mercedes-Benz AMG Hammer, among other intriguing vehicles. “I watch too much Top Gear,” he acknowledges with a grin. Out on the course, he had cheekily lowered the top on an Aston Martin DB 9 convertible, even as flurries of snowflakes floated past the windshield.
Myron Goforth, the 60-year-old owner of a Texas oilfield leasing company, brought along two of his workers as a sort of employee thank-you. “They do a lot of driving to meet clients in bad winter weather, in places like Wyoming and Pennsylvania,” Goforth says, “so practicing on this snow and ice also seemed like it could be a good safety course for them.”
In fact, winter driving instruction is more firmly rooted in safety than in goofy, off-duty fun. The Bridgestone Winter Driving School, down the road in Steamboat Springs, Colo., has operated for more than 30 years and was the first of its kind in the U.S. In addition to ordinary folks who want to learn to drive more safely in bad conditions, the school’s clientele includes law enforcement, the military, and fleet drivers for delivery and utility companies. Its tracks host ambulances, fire trucks, and Humvees, all careening around on ice. “Some people need to go fast no matter how slippery it gets,” says Mark Cox, the school’s director, “and we can make that happen.”
Carmakers such as Audi, Bentley, and Porsche host similar courses to burnish their upscale cred—the trips often include luxe accommodations and gourmet feasts—and sometimes snag a few individual sales through low-pressure tactics. “There are no dealers here,” says Aston Martin’s Jenkins. “Instead, people get to engage with the rally car drivers, with company executives, and with like-minded enthusiasts. They experience the cars together and feed off each other’s excitement. There’s an atmosphere of camaraderie.” Jenkins says about 30 percent of customers of the programs already own at least one Aston. Some treat the events as elaborate test drives and end up buying a model they’ve fallen in love with.
Aston Martin, a more than 100-year-old company, has long possessed a certain ineffable cool. It has its British heritage. It’s known for the distinctive roar of its engines. Its cars have been outfitted with rockets and ejector seats in Bond films dating back to 1964’s Goldfinger. Prince Charles received an Aston Martin as a gift from his mother as a young man and passed the vintage model on to his son, Prince William. Yet Aston Martin remains a boutique brand, with global sales of about 4,000 cars a year. Every buyer counts.
After lunch, the instructors prep us to take laps at full speed on the twisting 1.1-mile track. Gerrard first explains how to find the ideal path to take in any curve. An “out-in-out” arc lets a driver enter the turn wide, almost clip the inner edge of the curve at its most acute point, and then exit wide again, minimizing the amount of steering, which creates drag.
Gerrard also gives tips on how to “manage the transitional energy.” Aston Martins are rear-wheel drive but have fairly even front-to-back weight distribution. One of the stated missions of Aston Martin on Ice is to convince potential customers that rear-wheel-drive cars are not ill-suited to winter conditions. “This is not a fair-weather ‘occasion car’ that you need to garage for half the year,” Jenkins says.
When we tap our cars’ brakes at high speed, the weight of the car seems to surge forward. Our goal is to channel this momentum into a controlled, sideways slide. The bigger the Aston Martin we’re riding in—such as the four-door Rapide, which boasts the widest wheelbase—the more exaggerated the weight transition.
The last bit of advice centers on the danger of “target fixation,” which happens when you stare at a spot you’re hoping to avoid (say, the outside bank of a turn) and, because the human brain is wired this way, you’ll steer directly for the hazard. The key is to instead focus up ahead on the track, where you want to go, and not on the obstacle you fear.
Another vital point: We’ll need to recognize where the snow on the track has been already polished into hard-packed ice. The areas with less-trammeled powder provide much better traction, if we can identify them mid-lap and adjust. “Seeking the grip,” as Gerrard terms it, is the winter driver’s constant battle.
As we buckle into the cars and launch back onto the track one at a time, we’re told to begin with a slow lap and then open the throttle a notch with each ensuing go-round. We’re encouraged to see how far we can push the cars, and our own nerves, before reaching a place of discomfort or spinning out in a burst of glory—whichever comes first.
I feel in control on my first couple of leisurely jaunts around the loop. I’m enjoying the soft leather of the car’s cabin, its heated seats, its ergonomic pleasures. I’m tempted to simply sit back and watch a fleet of these 500-horsepower objets d’art flow across the snow. But this is not a day for laid-back leisure. I resolve to drive faster, and then faster, attacking the curves aggressively at 60 mph. I experience what Gerrard calls “the nirvana of four-wheel drift,” in which the entire car shuffles gracefully sideways in a high-speed dance. I’m confident at every tricky point on the course. Except Turn 5.
Aston Martin spent months building this track, and it’s designed to challenge us with shifting elevations. In the particularly nasty fifth turn, the track falls steeply away just before we have to scramble back uphill toward the higher tier at Turn 6. “The camber works against you,” Gerrard explains to us in the yurt, tracing Turn 5 on a course map affixed to the wall.
Again and again, I approach Turn 5 thinking I’ll nail the proper path and compensate for the incline. And every time I find my car sliding hopelessly down the embankment, with me powerless to arrest the descent. Meanwhile, I can hear accolades coming over the walkie-talkie for other drivers who’ve managed to get it right. “Very nicely done!” comes the shout of an instructor complimenting the driver behind me.
Still, after several laps, I begin to fancy myself a pretty decent winter driver. I decide now is the moment to see what will happen if I push myself not merely to the edge but a little beyond. I lunge into turns at 70 mph, which, on the ice, feels like 150. I whip the car around so fast I can feel the rear wheels fishtailing up alongside me.
At one point, I stomp on the gas so hard coming out of a turn that the car erupts in violent, sideways shudders. “That’s a tank slapper!” a spotter laughs into my radio, using a motorcycle racing term to describe the sideways oscillations that cause a bike’s center-mounted gas tank to slap the rider’s crotch.
It’s all delightful fun, but I feel relieved to dial things back on the next lap. Others continue to push further: We’re forced to take a short break when someone “got a little adventurous in a corner,” as Gerrard puts it, which means the car has to be dislodged from a shallow snowbank.
Later we swap cars so each of us can try the various entries in the product line. My unexpected favorite is the $204,995 Rapide S coupe, a hefty, dignified touring car that turns like an aircraft carrier when I slide it around on the snow. Gerrard takes the wheel and brings me along on a “hot lap,” during which he effortlessly drifts the car sideways at 80 mph, instead of the wussy 60 mph I’d managed.
“Are you in the market for one of these?” I ask Baker, the jet pilot grandma, when I notice the mischievous look on her face as she emerges from her car after a maniacal lap.
“Test drives can be very expensive,” she says with a big smile.