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How Learning to Drive Race Cars on an Arctic Lake in Sweden Helped Me Cope With a Difficult Year Amidst the Pandemic

How one woman turned fear into drive...literally and figuratively.


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“How are you going to hit the drive box in those boots?”

It wasn’t the first judgemental thing I had heard about what a woman was wearing at the Jaguar Ice Academy, but it was the one I had the biggest problem with—not because of the dig at my furry purple snowboots, but because I had no idea what a drive box was.

And yet, there I was, getting behind the wheel of a right-hand drive car for the first time in my life, joyriding out onto a frozen lake at the edge of the Arctic Circle in Sweden.

At the time, I was scared to death. At the ice academy, you learn to drive Jaguars on the same frozen lake that Jaguar and Land Rover’s engineers use to calibrate the ice and snow performance of the cars available at any of their dealerships. But as much as you learn to “drive” them, you learn to let them drive you. The main goal of the experience is not to control what happens on the ice, but to slide and power drift across the ice on purpose, and to enjoy the ride. The whole point is to be out of control… and to like it.

I didn’t know it then, but what I took away from that weekend was the exact skill set I would need to cope with the year that came afterwards.

I went to the Jaguar Ice Academy, in Arjeplog, Sweden, at the end of January 2020, snapping up a last minute vacancy from a car writer who couldn’t use his spot. At the time, coronavirus was just a headline, not something that would shut down the world and kill more than two million people. What felt like moments after, the stay-at-home order happened. I couldn’t do any of the things that, as a travel writer, were part of my normal life. I felt deeply out of control, of my job, of my leisure time, of any facet of my life down to what I wanted to buy at the grocery store. We’ve all been in that same position for nearly a year now. But every time I feel myself spiraling about how bad the pandemic is, in my mind, I go back to the ice.

There, I was pushing my own boundaries, going against my every instinct about driving. I have always loved to drive fast, too fast really, but not in the snow. When you grow up in New England you learn very early to be respectful of icy conditions, and to monitor your car’s movements on a micro-level to make sure you’re staying as stable as possible. So the first loop around the first track, with the Dynamic Stability Control function off, when the goal was to take a Jaguar F-PACE SUV and whip it around some practice cones, I was not ok. Gripping the wheel way too hard. Spinning a tiny bit and immediately correcting with my instinctual snow driving.

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“We’ll experience the weight balance of the vehicle, get used to the car moving around, and also it will help improve your technique before we go on some of the courses today,” Karl Jones said through a walkie as I was driving out onto the ice. “It will give you a good understanding of what the car’s doing in regards of understeering, oversteering, balance and throttle control.”

Jones is a professional racer of vintage Jaguars. He was part of a team of instructors who stood outside on the frozen lake, its shores dotted with pine trees and cozy little cottages, while we, each driving with a partner, went through the courses. He was coaching each of us individually, though we could all hear his advice in our cars. Some of us were going too fast, or over-adjusting our trajectories. I wasn’t pushing hard enough.

“You want to punch the throttle to get the back out, but then modulate it,” Karl said as I came around the checkpoint. Once I decoded that, I realized he was encouraging me to spin the car intentionally. I tried to listen, but my instincts were in the way.

Our group had four cars and Jones as our instructor; the other group of four cars had another instructor. We each had rescue teams—not for us, but for the cars. There were many times when we’d lose control on the ice and (gently, with no injury to anyone or any vehicle) end up in a snow bank, and they’d tow us out and get us back to driving.

By the second course an hour later, I wasn’t any more comfortable. Significantly less so, in fact, because we had swapped our SUVs for Jaguar F-TYPE sports cars, little two-seaters so small I had to put my winter coat in “the boot.” They were definitely not designed for the ice.

“Don't forget, this is the place to push things a little bit,” Jones said as I pulled into the new, more complicated track. “If you spin, or if you hit any cones or anything, don't worry about that. That's fine. This is why we're here, and this is the place to do it. So don't worry about things if it gets out of shape. This is just a great opportunity for you to get a feeling of this real wheel drive car.”

I took a breath and hit the gas—what I quickly learned was “the throttle” at the ice academy—and all of a sudden, everything was fine. It turns out I was happier spinning out in a tiny sports car than I was playing it safe in a car designed to protect families. There I was, punching the throttle, kicking out the back of my car to create drifts and power slides, skidding on the ice on purpose as flakes of snow drifted down from the Arctic clouds above.

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If you’re worried about whether the cars might fall through the ice, well, so was I—until one of the driving coaches told me that the ice at 30 cm thickness could hold a 12-ton truck, and the ice we were driving on was almost double that. Arjeplog has more lakes (about 8,000) than it does people (just under 2,000), and the town has become a center of luxury car testing. BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Ferrari, Porsche and many other manufacturers have calibration facilities there, and one of the main industries in the town is grooming the lakes to ensure solid enough ice to be used by the car companies. Another is locals renting their home to auto engineers for the three-month ice season, because there aren’t enough hotels to meet the demand. “It’s not a list of who is here,” a Jaguar engineer said to me on a tour of the testing facility, “it’s a list of who isn’t here. It really is the world’s center of winter testing.”

By the end of the first day, I was so comfortable with being uncomfortable that, when it was my turn for a ride with a professional racecar driver in the 2020 Jaguar XE SVR Project 8 sedan, one of only 300 of those cars in the world, I practically ran to the car. I was barely strapped in when he hit the throttle and blasted out onto the ice faster than I could have imagined—it’s the fastest Jaguar ever, with top speeds of 200mph. It was an adrenaline rush like I’ve never felt before. We spent more time in the air, or on two wheels, than we did on the ground. I could barely remember the person who, just that morning, couldn’t let herself lose control for a second.

Afterwards, we went back to the Hotell Silverhatten where we were staying, which only opens in winter for the car crowds. We had elderflower gin and tonics with dried citrus, dill-and-beet cured salmon, and reindeer with lingonberries. Swapped stories about our other adventures.

The next morning, we went back out onto the ice. The difference that day: I was first in the car, behind a steering wheel in what I have always known as the passenger seat, driving us the 20 minutes through snowy Arjeplog roads to get to the track.

The courses accelerated in difficulty throughout the experience, so the last track of the second day, with its hairpin turns and double helix curves, was by far the most challenging. It was also the one where I felt most deeply at ease. I was punching the throttle, kicking out the back wheels, drifting through curves and riding out the spin into the next turn. My eyes were two turns ahead at all times, anticipating what would come next, but I was deeply in the moment. I wasn’t controlling the chaos. I was going with the flow and trusting it would all be ok in the end. I’m still doing that, a year later.


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