I imagine there's a suggestion box or tip line at Red Bull's headquarters -- perhaps both -- where people are encouraged to drop ideas for new racing and sporting events the energy-drink and action-sports giant could sponsor. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when they sort through the suggestions, if only to hear the rejects.
That's the only way I can figure that Frozen Rush came about. Someone said "hey, why don't we have a bunch of Baja 500 trucks race up a ski slope," and whoever makes the decisions about these things at Red Bull said "that's a great idea!"
Incidentally, who doesn't want to work for that guy?
While my scenario may or may not be accurate, what happened next is certainly true. Last year, Red Bull talked the Sunday River Resort in Newry, Maine, into letting it turn one of their ski runs into an off-road short course, complete with jumps. They shipped off-road racing legend Ricky Johnson up from California and turned him loose on the track and, naturally, filmed it. It was so popular they decided to do it again this year, and they invited seven of Ricky's biggest competitors up, too.
So it came to be that Ricky Johnson, Bryce Menzies, Rob MacCachren, Johnny Greaves, Greg Adler, Scott Douglas, Todd LeDuc and Carl Renezeder all converged on a ski resort in northwestern Maine. All race in either the TORC or Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series with an untold number of race wins and championships between them.
With them came their race teams and trucks. The trucks were lightly modified for the event, receiving new carburetor jets to account for the colder, denser air than they're used to, not to mention the altitude. Gearing, spring rates and shock valves were adjusted and careful attention was paid to the cooling systems, which needed to be far less efficient to keep the mechanical bits up to temperature. Most importantly, each was fitted with specially made 35-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A FR2 studded tires with an inner liner. BFGoodrich designed a special tread pattern for the race and shipped the tires to Sweden to have nearly 700 half-inch studs hand-screwed and epoxied into the tread blocks. BFGoodrich officials boasted that not a single stud fell out during practice, qualifying or racing. Those studs did, however, shred the trucks' fiberglass fenders when the suspension bottomed out.
The trucks themselves featured 900-horsepower carbureted and naturally aspirated V-8s driving a mechanical transfer case splitting the power 50-50 front and rear. Half the field ran manual transmissions, half automatics. The massive tires hang at the end of impossibly long control arms in front and a solid axle in the rear with 18-20 inches of travel at both ends. The drivers outfitted themselves with gear borrowed from snowmobile racing, such as heated helmet visors and thicker gloves.
As for the track they'd be racing on, it would be situated on two ski runs known as Broadway and Mixing Bowl, just up the hill from Sunday River's South Ridge Lodge and right under one of the ski lifts. A mile long, it was pear-shaped figure eight with an over-under jump near the bottom end that saw a several instances of one truck leaping over another. It featured seven additional jumps, five turns and two slaloms with five-second time penalties for taking out a flag or missing a gate. There were actually two courses that were nearly identical, with just a change in the hairpin turn at the top of the hill and different colored slalom flags to differentiate them. The racers would follow one course on their first lap then the other on their second. In all, the course climbed 550 vertical feet up the mountain.
According to the drivers, it wasn't all that different than racing in the desert, particularly on sand. In fact, they said, the studded tires gave them more grip and their grip in the snow was actually more consistent than on dirt.
"There's really about two different grip levels that I guess I've witnessed so far," said MacCachren. "One's pretty darn good and the other one's when you're in a corner and you get in looser snow, and it seems like you actually get up on that snow and it seems like that snow starts to give and you just start going with it. Kinda like an avalanche, I guess is a good way to explain it. I've driven sand buggies in the sand and that's a pretty good analogy. When you're going downhill, all of a sudden, a pile or a shelf of sand underneath you ends up breaking away with you and kinda goes down the hill with you. That's the other grip level I feel we're getting here."
Most reported using a heavy right foot to rotate the trucks around the corners rather than the hand brake and said the key to a fast lap was being smooth both with the throttle and through turns. Their big complaint? The snow made it difficult to see changes in the terrain such as bumps and holes, which are much easier to see in the dirt where the colors can change. Out here, everything just looks white.
"I'm used to being able to see the variations of the track and the corner better," said MacCachren. "When everything's white, it's pretty hard to differentiate flat ground from a rut."
On top of that, the grip changes rapidly as the course gets torn-up.
"The toughest obstacle on the course is the snow," said Johnson. "It's changing every lap and you gotta make sure you hit your marks right and there's a fine line between being too aggressive and not aggressive enough. If you go there and you do everything right and you lose by a tenth of a second, how pissed off are you going to be? Then again, you go out there and get a five-second penalty for driving too rough or too hard over the gates, you're screwed, too."
"The track's going to get more and more torn up as the races are going," agreed MacCachren. "The person that can figure out how to drive around those sections the best will probably do very well."
The original plan had been for the racers to go head-to-head, two at a time in a bracketed, single-elimination format. It was quickly discovered in practice, though, that the snow kicked up by the leading truck was blinding to the driver behind, essentially guaranteeing victory to whomever got the hole-shot at the start. To fix this, the start was staggered with the second truck leaving 25 seconds after the first. Quarter-final and semi-final races were two laps each and once the first truck took the checkered flag, a 25-second timer was started. If the second truck crossed the finish line before the timer ran out, he won (having run a faster race, thus closing the gap), barring any penalties.
The format change, while denying the bundled-up spectators lining the side of the track true wheel-to-wheel racing, did have its advantages. Splitting the trucks up made for several occasions when one truck was actually jumping the other. The 25-second countdown timer on the video screens also made for a bit of excitement as the audience audibly counted down while the second truck raced to beat the clock.
Johnson was the early favorite coming into the event, having had actual experience trying to race up a snowy hill the year prior during the Frozen Rush test event. Then again, according to Douglas, "Ricky Johnson's advantage is that he's Ricky Johnson."
MacCachren, the winningest driver in off-road racing, took pole position with a qualifying time of 100.619 seconds (two laps) and the fastest recorded speed of 95 mph. The fastest and slowest qualifiers were separated by 16 seconds when all penalties were accounted for. Johnson had to make some repairs to the front of his truck after over-rotating while sliding around a slalom gate and nosing into a concrete barrier during practice.
"I made a boneheaded move," said Johnson. "I came out on the first lap too aggressive, over-rotated on the slalom. Five-second penalty to hit a gate, but with the truck being 4500 pounds, well, like I said, I over-rotated so I kinda just had to hang on to it and I bounced off the concrete wall on the right side, bent the bumper and tore the hood, stuff like that took our light bar out. Slowed me down, but our second lap time was decent. I was in the ballpark, so I feel confident for the main event."
Come race day, MacCachren would line up against LeDuc, Greaves against Douglas, Renezeder against Johnson and Menzies against Adler. MacCachren, Greaves, Johnson and Menzies would dispatch their rivals to move on to the semi-finals. Some, like MacCachren, would win by a mile while other races would be nail-biters. Johnson caught a lucky break when Renezeder repeated Johnson's qualifying mistake and ran into the same wall in the same fashion on his first lap and took himself out of the race.
Entering the semi-finals, things got intense. Teammates Johnson and Menzies squared off against one another, Red Bull against Red Bull. Johnson would just beat his young accomplice. The Greaves/MacCachren race was one of the best of the day, with Greaves in the second truck finishing at what appeared to be the exact moment the unofficial countdown clock hit zero. A penalty against MacCachren, about which he was none too pleased, would settle things without having to judge at precisely which moment Greaves crossed the finish line.
The race to determine third place pitted MacCachren against his former protégé, Menzies. It was another extremely close race, with Menzies just edging out his old mentor with a very clean run. MacCachren appeared to carry a bit too much speed into the final corner and bounced off the snow wall, scrubbing precious speed and helping to cost him the win.
That set the stage for the final race, which couldn't have been scripted any better. Greaves and Johnson have a long-standing and very public rivalry that reportedly extends to their teams and families and has become physical at times (though the two are actually friends when they're not racing). Greaves, who recently beat Johnson in the 2013 TORC Pro 4 Championship, clearly relished the opportunity to face him again, telling the sideline reporter he was hoping to "kick Ricky's ass" in the finals after knocking off MacCachren. Johnson, after beating Menzies, retorted to the reporter "Tell Johnny my ass is right here, come kick it."
The final race was another nail-biter. Just to make things interesting, Red Bull made the final race four laps instead of two, doubling the opportunities to make mistakes. At the end, Greaves appeared to beat the unofficial countdown clock by 1.44 seconds (officially: 0.24 seconds), but a pair of penalties negated the effort and handed Johnson the win.
The event appeared very successful with a large spectator turnout. Officials at Sunday River Resort reported getting more web and social media traffic than ever leading up to the event and parking lots were overflowing on race day. Much of this is likely due to the come-all nature of the event. Red Bull made it completely free to spectators, not even charging for parking. Anyone could walk right up and find a spot on the fence and watch the whole thing without paying for anything but the gas to get there. If they caught one of the Red Bull girls walking around, they might've even gotten a free can or two on top of it all. Even the after party was free to attended and open to anyone who wandered in.
If you couldn't make out to rural Maine, you can still catch the Frozen Rush at home. Red Bull will air the race as part of the Red Bull Signature Series on NBC on Super Bowl Sunday, February 2, at 3 pm Eastern.