Get a Grip: Bridgestone Winter Driving School is the most fun you’ll have on ice
posted by: Amber Johnson
“Respond, don’t react,” our instructor coaxed as we looped the icy track in our 2020 Toyota Highlander. I channeled my inner Mario, eased off the brake and trusted my instincts as I raced around the icy track.
My husband Jamie and had been invited by Toyota to attend the Bridgestone Winter Driving School (BWDS) in Steamboat Springs on my birthday weekend. I have long been curious about the DWDS and I was ecstatic at the opportunity! Established in 1983, it is one of the oldest continually operating driving schools in the United States, the signature ice and snow-covered tracks perfectly designed to teach all levels of drivers car safety controls in the most perilous of conditions.
Top O’ The Morning to Ya
We met our group at BWDS’ Steamboat Grand office for Second Gear, their most popular all-day intensive course. Our day started with a video demonstration and chalk talk about tire grip, acceleration, weight control and how to embrace the skid, during which time I became increasingly nervous. Embrace the skid? As a Canadian native, I have driven on snow my entire adult life and I have done everything I could to avoid the skid.
The track’s location is on a stunning 70-acre conservation easement overlooking the iconic peak, Sleeping Giant. As we rode the shuttle, the bustle of Steamboat Springs melted into an expanse of emptiness with pristine white snowfields and frozen bulbs clinging to branches like wasps’ nests. The temperature was a barely-comprehensible -15 degrees Fahrenheit as the Park Range ensconced us in an icy embrace.
Jamie and I jumped into a Toyota 4Runner to warm up. Our instructor patched in over the radio and gave us our first set of instructions. “Make sure your hands are at the 9 and 3 o’clock position on the steering wheel.” Did anyone else learn 10 and 2? My learning curve would be steep.
But fortunately, we had a full day to do it. The campus has three specially-designed, purpose-built ice and snow-covered tracks. Following our orientations of the 4Runner and Camry, we slowly lapped the track, becoming familiar with the elevation changes, banked and off-camber turns and numerous traction changes.
We started with skid control exercises on the Skid Circle. As I accelerated down the icy hill, I mused “I can’t believe I’m purposefully skidding.” But with each loop, my competence grew as I trained my reflexes on how to respond. I then had an epiphany: It is only in the skid that you truly learn how to control your vehicle and its capabilities. Isn’t that life?
We switched to a Toyota Carmy for our emergency braking exercise where we performed drills with our ABS (anti-lock brakes) turned off and on. I realize the importance of good winter tires as our Bridgestone Blizzak tires’ impressive grip performed seamlessly on the ice. Note to self: Stop being cheap when buying tires; a quality tire could save your life.
We convened in a cozy yurt for lunch and a brief classroom discussion, followed by a tour of the 2020 Toyota Highlander. If you’re a third-row seating family, you will appreciate the additional 2.36 inches in overall length which translates into more room inside and slightly easier access to the third row. I, personally, was sold on the Driver Easy Speak, the built-in microphone that lets you talk (not yell) to your misbehaving cherubs through the rear speakers.
Slip Slidin’ Away
The sun was drifting across the sky in a shallow arc as the temperatures thawed and the track became slicker with each lap. Following lunch, we delved into their most popular session: Accident Avoidance Exercises where we barrelled down a slick hill and trained ourselves to look where we needed to go and how to navigate our vehicles. Thankfully, the only carnage for our initial lapses in judgment was a wall of pylons.
With all these techniques under our belt, our course participants were set loose for a final session as we lapped the course like circus horses dancing in a circle. Jamie marveled at our progress as we sped along the icy loop. “When you think about it, Bridgestone Driving School forces you to face your worst fear …on purpose. And in that simulated and controlled environment, you can finally learn how to drive.” Translation: This school teaches you to save your life and those around you.
Our day ended with applied adrenaline a.k.a. Hot Laps when our BWDS instructors got behind the wheel. They hail from a range of experience–Performance Rally, Autocross, Touring Car, Pro Solo, Formula Ford Championship Series, and Formula 2000–and it was the ride of a lifetime as they skidded, did 360s and showed us how it’s really done.
Exhausted and empowered, we shuttled back to the offices for a brief graduation ceremony.
High On A Mountaintop
In a final, sweeping grand gesture, our group boarded Steamboat Ski Resort’s new gondola where a luxurious snowcat met us at the top and whisked us higher up the snow-mantled mountain. A 4-course dinner awaited us at Four Points Lodge (not included in BWDS). The fireplace roared, white lights sparkled and our group bonded over our day. We had looked our anxieties in the eye and conquered them as we cheered for one another’s successes while also relating to our failures.
I may be another year older but participating in the Bridgestone Winter Driving School sure made me another year wiser.
Bridgestone Winter Driving School offers several different half-and full-day courses for the teen, casual driver and all the way up to the pros. Custom, group classes and private lessons are also available. Some insurance companies offer discounts to students who have successfully completed one or more of their driving school classes. For additional information, be sure to go to https://winterdrive.com.
Steamboat Springs Insider Tips
Ski. My husband and I knew a trip to Steamboat Springs isn’t complete without visiting Steamboat Ski Resort. Known for its famous Champagne Powder snow, legendary trees, top family programs, Olympic heritage and friendly western roots, this is a prime vacation destination for generations of winter enthusiasts. Some of our favorite finds: Steamboat replaced their Gondola after 33 years and access to the mountain is now quicker than ever. A fun find on the mountain is their new Taco Beast, an on-mountain food truck snowcat that roams the mountain. The locations changes daily!
Stay. I was repeatedly grateful for our stay at the Steamboat Grand during our visit. With 328 beautifully appointed guestrooms (that include hotel rooms and condos), a gorgeous 85,000-gallon heated pool and two large hot tubs, spa and restaurants, this full-service hotel was at the perfect location at the base of the ski resort. Bridgestone Winter Driving School was located on the premises, a free shuttle took us to town and our absolute was the ski valet. Upon check-in, our skis were taken to the Grand Hotel’s secure ski storage in Gondola Square at the base of the mountain…and then brought back to the hotel when we were ready to check-out. Families who are used to hauling all their kids’ ski gear will particularly appreciate this amenity!
Eat. For the ultimate experiential experience, the Four Points Snowcat Dinner stop Storm Peak is an unforgettable night out. If you want to stay closer to town, we inadvertently stumbled upon one of our favorite dining experiences, ever. When my husband and I were skiing Steamboat, we asked a local where we should eat that night and he recommended Besame Steamboat, THE cool spot on Lincoln Avenue for elevated Latin-fusion eats featuring the tastes of Cuba, Argentina, Portugal and Spain. I’m still dreaming about their Soup Dumplings with Thai coconut soup, pork sausage and nahm jim. Trust me, they’ll change your life.
Play. Why should kids have all the fun!? The Howelsen Ice Complex in Steamboat Springs recently introduced bumper cars on ice, the first (and only) of its kind in Colorado.
With or without kids, this new activity will have you giggling the whole drive home.
In partnership with Mile High Mamas; all opinions are our own and we think every Colorado driver should take this winter drive course.