As Dave Burnham drove to the Adirondack Motor Enthusiast Club’s annual meeting outside Saratoga Springs, N.Y., this January, he thought this was likely the end.
The group’s 65-year-old president knew he wasn’t going to run again. He’d only agreed to take on the duties for the past year—his 20th turn as a club officer—because no one else had. Now he didn’t know if anyone would want to fill his shoes, or what would happen to the 69-year-old ice racing organization if nobody did.
He hoped the AMEC wouldn’t disappear, like so many of its peers have, under assault from generational trends as well as warming winters. But he wasn’t confident.
Ice racing is basically exactly what it sounds like—taking cars (either street legal rides or modified wheels) and pitting them against each other on a frozen surface, most commonly a lake.
Motorcycle ice racing has been traced back to 1930s Scandinavia (horse racing on ice goes back to the 1800s), while the four-wheel version took off across the northern U.S. in the 1950s. All the big car manufacturers used to sponsor racers, professionals started showing up, and competitions drew TV air time. The sport may have reached its cultural zenith in 1969, when none other than James Bond found himself in the middle of a race during On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The appeal is pretty straightforward. Where else can you bomb a car 100 miles-per-hour down a straightaway and then slide through a series of curves? Burnham got his start in 1982. “I remember how excited I was,” he said. “I just couldn’t sleep all week, just waiting for the next race.” In between Saturday and Sunday events, competitors would stay up late, lying to each other about how fast they’d gone that day.
For many, the sport has also proven to be less expensive—with shareable cars starting in the hundreds or thousands of dollars—than other forms of speed-based thrills. “I’m always harping on my friends to try ice racing,” racer Caleb Pocock said. “Everybody loves it and gets hooked.” But getting them on the ice in the first place has gotten increasingly difficult.
The number of race days available started shrinking in the ‘90s, Burnham said. Then clubs themselves began falling away, for all the reasons you’d expect. Rural populations dwindled, especially in northern states, along with their nearby urban centers. Albany shrunk by a quarter between 1960 and 2000. Car culture lost its grip on youth.
Clubs across the U.S. have adapted by organizing time trials in addition to races and adding more accessible divisions of cars to make participating easier. But most accept the hobby’s heyday is likely in the rear-view mirror.
“Within about 15 years, it’s just going to be something we tell our kids about,” former Sports Car Club of Vermont president Paul Dudley said.
Burnham recalled the New York State Ice Racing Association, where he’d gotten his start. By the early 2000s, the club leadership was in their 70s, and there wasn’t a generation to keep the club going. “At that point,” Burnham said, “they just kind of fizzled away.” More recently, young people simply have other things to do on winter afternoons.
Then there’s the issue of the ice itself. It’s disappearing too.
Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway, a destination for tourists and a transportation staple for locals, didn’t open this year for the first time since 1971. Near Montreal, ice racers were lucky to emerge unscathed after two drivers fell through the ice on the St. Lawrence River.
Others have been less lucky. Three fishermen from Vermont, an ice fishing couple in the Catskills, a snowmobiler in Upstate New York, and a 17-year-old near the New York/Massachusetts border all died after falling through ice during another winter marked by record warmth. Across the country, temperatures during meteorological winter (December to February) were 2.7 degrees above average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Over the last few months, Burnham drove nearly 1,000 miles to drill holes in various ice sheets in the hopes of finding a solid, 12-inch chunk. On February 26th, he gave up. The 2023 season would be the third in four years canceled without a single race being run. “I hope everyone will consider trying it again next season,” he wrote to the club. “This is not the last you will hear from AMEC.”
Other clubs have faced similar difficulties. This was the first year the Sports Car Club of Vermont couldn’t hold an official ice event, for instance. “We keep trying to think of them as a fluke—’Oh yeah, next year will be better. Blah, blah, blah,'” Dudley said. “Will it? I don’t know.”
Even in its diminished form, the AMEC might be the biggest group in America putting together road races on ice, Burnham said. For now, all he can do is hope it lasts long enough to race again.
Back in January, Burnham brought a car full of club memorabilia dating back to the ‘50s as part of that effort. At The Factory Eatery, he made sure highlight videos played, too.
“I was trying to get people all excited about ice racing,” Burnham said, “and I think that worked.”
When it came time to elect a new president, to Burnham’s surprise—to his shock—someone volunteered. Allen Pashley, whose father, uncle and grandfather had all led the club previously, took the reins.
Pashley started racing in 1986 and won a couple of championships before feeling priced out. Last year, when the club managed to hold four events, a strong schedule by modern standards, Pashley felt himself pulled back in. “I remember going out for practice the first day on the lake and thinking to myself, ‘Why did I stop doing this?’”
Pashley was one of about 50 people at the meeting, and likely not the only one looking around to see if someone would step forward when the time came. Then a friend a couple seats over nominated him.
Burnham turned to Pashley.
“Is this something you would seriously consider?” he said.
“I can’t just let the club go down, Dave,” Pashley responded.
Pashley will officially take charge, with Pocock as his VP, on April 1. Burnham, meanwhile, has made it clear he’s not going anywhere, even if he’s burnt out on leadership. He looks forward to getting back behind the wheel as soon as he can.
“I’ll race until I can’t race,” Burnham said. Basically until hell freezes over—assuming New York’s lakes ever do so again.