Austria, February 2019

I hadn't been to Austria since 2001, when I had been in Vienna for a day (and even then it was a side effect of going somewhere else).

So this time I tried to make the trip to Austria a bit longer than that (though not that much), but also to fill it with a lot more activity.

And for activity and action - which better place to start with than around a racing track?

Porsche on Drive Experience Track

(Probably lots of places, but I didn't know that.)

I wanted to drive an KTM X-Bow, but since I never been at Spielberg (the site of the Austrian Formula 1 race), I got there a couple of hours early and asked what else they had on offer.

They had some intriguing winter options, like cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and biathlon.

I hadn't thought about it, but I knew that the main racing track was not available for driving until the end of February, so I thought they might have snow on the racing track and then allow people to ski along the Formula 1 track.

But that turned out not to be the case.

The main track was snowless and closed because they do repairs and maintenance during wintertime.

They have, however, a snow filled parking lot on which you can do some winter sports.

Snow filled parking lot

So I asked what would be available and then decided that snowmobiling sounded like fun.

Which it would have been, but it was already too warm and too late in the season for Spielberg.

So what they had on the parking lot was not so much snow, but more like an ice skating rig with a lot of frozen grooves in it.

Snowmobile on parking lot at Spielberg Snowmobile on parking lot at Spielberg

Which is not an ideal environment for snowmobiles.

Especially if you don't go straight lines.

They had a slalom track laid out on the parking lot. And during the instruction they pointed out that I would shift my body weight a lot, specifically to the front side in the direction I wanted to turn, as, on the ice, the direction the runners pointed would have almost no effect on the way the snowmobile was going. So I would need to put weight on the runner, to make it have any traction on the ice at all.

But that still wasn't enough for going around corners, so the best technique turned out to go into the corner, hit the brake and have the snowmobile slide around until it pointed into the right direction.

And, preferably, not slide sideward into a frozen grove and tip the snowmobile over.

That worked to get around the track, but it was very slow going - I think my top speed was about 20 km/h. But since I was doing stop'n'go most of the time, my average speed was around 12 km/h.

Slow snowmobile slalom Slow snowmobile slalom
The video is not slowed down for effect - that is actual speed.

While it was nice to be on a snowmobile again, the driving experience itself was close to being in a traffic jam on a highway.

In retrospect, it would have been better to go for a Buggy ride (as some other people did later). If you drive in an environment that needs drifting, it's a good idea to use a vehicle that drifts better than a snowmobile.

And these things do.

Buggy drifting

Even though they sometimes do a bit too much of it.

Buggy drifting too much

Going for the snowmobile wasn't the best decision, but as it was a 'filler' activity anyway, it didn't matter much.

Next thing I did was having a look at the racing track by walking around it.

Red Bull Ring in Spielberg Red Bull Ring in Spielberg Red Bull Ring in Spielberg
Red Bull Ring in Spielberg Red Bull Ring in Spielberg Red Bull Ring in Spielberg
Red Bull Ring main straight Red Bull Ring boxes Red Bull Ring boxes

There is a path that leads all the way around the Red Bull Ring. So I took that. And some pictures on the way.

There is also a small detour from that path that takes you to the central sculpture - the Red Bull.

Red Bull sculpture at Spielberg Red Bull sculpture at Spielberg Red Bull sculpture at Spielberg Red Bull sculpture at Spielberg
Red Bull sculpture at Spielberg Red Bull sculpture at Spielberg Red Bull sculpture at Spielberg
(More like the Rusty Bull from close-up, but the idea is obvious.)

And it needs to be an obvious symbol, since for some reason (probably not to conflict with event specific sponsors) the actual name of the sponsor is absent.

There are some waysigns at the fence pointing out that this is the "Red Bull Ring Spielberg" and the price lists on the refreshment stands mainly list the various Red Bull softdrinks. But that is outside the track limits.

Inside the fence, there's no mention of the main track sponsor at all.

To make up for that, they did use a colour scheme that should be familiar. And the grandstands echo the design of the drinks can - without the name written on it.

No sponsor name shown No sponsor name shown

And, in case you missed that, there happens to be a large Red Bull sculpture right in the middle of it all. Although, technically, it's not within the track itself either - just a sort of panhandle island surrounded by the track.

They also have a second orange coloured Red Bull inside the entrance building. You have to look at it from the right angle to see it, though.

Glass sphere red bull Glass sphere red bull Glass sphere red bull

My main 'playground' however was the "Drive Center".

Spielberg Drive Center Spielberg Drive Center Spielberg Drive Center

Here you can drive the KTM X-Bow (supposedly pronounced Crossbow), a (barely) street-legal car produced by KTM, better known for their motor bikes.


The X-Bow is (realistically) a go-kart with way too much power.

There's not much in the way of driving comfort - no doors, no roof, no adjustable seat, no space for luggage, not even a windscreen. And no ABS, traction control, power steering or power braking.

In that sense, pretty much like a go-kart.

Or, except for the number of wheels, a motorbike.

So from the view of the manufacturer, it makes sense.

From the view of "making sense", it doesn't.

There's no reason at all for building a car like this, except for racing.

For that, however, it's probably great - if it doesn't kill you first.

Because with a 300 horse power and rear wheel drive, it isn't a friendly or well-adjusted car.

It's behaves like two half-cars which hate each other.

The front side wants to go somewhere, but once you press down the throttle, the back side of the car strongly wants to go somewhere else.

So unless the car is lined up almost perfectly straight when you speed up, it will swerve and you have to work hard on counter-steering (no power steering available) to keep it from spinning off the road.

Trying to keep the X-Bow from breaking out

And as an 'driver unfriendly' bonus, the car has a turbo, which kicks in after about half a second. So you try to accelerate, the car swerves, you try to point it into the right direction again - and then the turbo kicks in and throws you off again.

Fun to drive on a track with lots of space on all sides.

But taking that on a street?

I would even hesitate to take that on the racing track proper.
Which is, admittedly, a complete lie made up for dramatic effect. I wouldn't hesitate for a second...

Because it's ok to spin around on a flat area at 50 km/h. But on a track, even misjudging the acceleration a bit will send you into the tire stacks at a hundred kilometers an hour. And while you're reasonably likely to survive that, it's going to be a very costly experience.

But the way they set it up on the "Drive Center" is great.

They set up a track with lots of corners, so you can do a lot of sliding around at reasonable speeds. So, essentially, they set up a go-kart track. A bit larger and without tire stacks to run into. But the layout is that of a go-kart track.

KTM X-Bow Track at Drive Center

As an additional safety measure, they even break up the one 'long straight' they have and put in a slalom section there. (Probably to keep you from picking up speed and then running into the hill at the end of the straight.)

So, yes, driving a 300hp go-kart around lots of bendy bits for an hour is fun.

But that still doesn't mean that it makes any sense... (Neither the activity, nor the car.)

Next day I went to the area around Turracher Höhe and did something non-motorized by walking a bit along the Mühlenwanderweg along the Roßbach.

The natural scenery is great.

Along Muehlenwanderweg Along Muehlenwanderweg Along Muehlenwanderweg Along Muehlenwanderweg Along Muehlenwanderweg Along Muehlenwanderweg

The human made scenery is a bit odd.

I'm not talking so much about half-hidden sculptures that still have their winter protection.

Semi covered wood carving

Or the annoyed looking goose being part of another sculpture.

Bad tempered goose sculpture

I'm talking esoteric bullshit.

Esoteric sign near walking path

"Energetic Place - this is an energetic place that has a constructive energy field, which strengthens body and aura. Stay here for 5 minutes."

Yes, sure...

The sign is just there (and there is more than one along the trail) - not the slightest indication that this is not any kind of factual statement. Not a "some people believe" or even an "it is believed" disclaimer anyway.

If I had more time in that area, I would be strongly tempted to make up a few signs stating "Negative energy point - if you stand here for ten minutes, you will cause WW III" or "You looked at this sign - now you're responsible for the next three mass killings that occur", just to provide a counter point to that sign. (And I assume that my signs would be gone quite fast, while the esoteric ones would stay on.)

At least there were attempts of creating humor by defacing signs, but unfortunately not on the "Energy Power Points" signs.

Altered sign
(Just in case an explanation is needed: The original signs says "Parents and Supervisors are responsible for their kids. Dogs are to be kept on a leash." The defaced version means "Parents and Supervisors are responsible for their kids and keeping them on a leash.")

The afternoon activity had a lot more power and energy - and that in a much more measurable way.

I was booked for a snowmobile tour.

And this time I was going a bit faster than on the previous day.

When I booked the snowmobile tour, I was a bit surprised. They did have daily tours (which was a good thing, since I was there on a weekday). Many other activities were only available on specific days or depending on the number of participants, but they were obviously confident that they'd have enough customers on most days to make it worthwhile.

But they only offered tours at 16:00. Every day.

My assumption had been that if you have a steady stream of customers on workdays, you would benefit from offering extra tours on the weekends.

And, especially early in the year, having the tour from 16:00 to 18:00 would have some of the tour in the dark. So why not start the tour earlier in the day?

The reason became clear once I got to the snowmobile track.

They are using the cross-country ski tracks. And those are closed for cross-country skiers after 16:30. (And though the meeting time for the tour is 16:00, by the time you got the gear, the instruction and are ready to go, it's 16:30.)

Snowmobile time

Which is a good arrangement.

Usually skiers (especially cross-country skiers) hate snowmobilers. Partly because they are noisy, but mainly because they tear up the loipe and make it hard to use.

But as the ski tracks are redone every night, it doesn't matter much if snowmobiles ruin them after they're closed for the day.

And at the end of the day, no skiers are supposed to be on the tracks, so they should not be affected much by the noise either (or run over by snowmobiles...)

Hence the 'have snowmobile tours only once per day shortly before it gets dark' made a log of sense.

Not so much sense (but a lot of fun) was made by the snowmobiles they used.

When the guide pointed out his snowmobile, he mentioned that it had 220 hp.

But then, it's the guide's vehicle, so it kind of is sensible to have one that is powerful, as it might have to pull some other snowmobile out of trouble or something like that.

And then he introduced us to our snowmobiles - which had a 'mere' 180 hp.

High power snowmobile High power snowmobile

Which is quite an insane amount of power for a snowmobile (the M 1000 model is a couple of years old by now, but when it came out, it had more power than any other production snowmobile at that time.)

Luckily, unlike on the KTM X-Bow the excess of power is controllable and the snowmobile doesn't behave nastily.

The only thing we were be warned against was pushing the throttle down too hard. "If you carefully press the lever down one centimeter, you will be fine, but if you then push it in another centimeter, you will be sitting on the snow and the snowmobile will be a twenty meters in front of you, so go easy on the acceleration at first."

We then had a fun tour - it was clearly not one of these tours where the guide drives slowly at first, so that everyone can follow comfortably. It was one of those tours where the guide rides ahead and you're scared to follow at that speed, but also worry that you might lose him out of sight and get lost, so you try to keep up somehow.

Lots of fun - once you realize that the snowmobile is well behaved and not trying to catapult you into the trees.

Even more fun was the ski slopes.

The tour is mostly along the cross country tracks, but at that time of day, the ski lifts were no longer running and the ski slopes were closed, so we used the snowmobiles to run up some ski slopes.

I'd never done that before and definitely would love to do that again.

Scenery at Turracher Hoehe Me on snowmobile with helmet

And it's something where having a snowmobile with lots of power under the hood comes in handy. (I really wouldn't want to run out of steam halfway up a slope...)

They also had a nice way to end the tour.

The guide picked a bit that was about 500 meters of basically straight track with a similar track running in parallel and told us that we could take a couple of laps at our own leisure (or lack of it). "Just be slow around the corners connecting the straights."

So if anyone felt restricted by his driving speed (which I am sure wasn't anyone on this group of clients) or wanted to see what the snowmobiles could do, there was the opportunity to fool around a bit with the machines in a (reasonable) safe environment, get some 'driving action' and get out on a high note before the trip ended.

Doing a few snowmobile laps Doing a few snowmobile laps Doing a few snowmobile laps

Nice idea for finishing the tour.

(And I did go 'full throttle' on my snowmobile to see what it would feel like, only to find that this falls into the 'interesting but scary' category and go back to normal driving quickly. (I don't think I was at full throttle for more than half a second...)

After the snowmobile tour I went to Ramsau am Dachstein, where I did something with a lot less power (i.e. my own) the next day.

Ramsau is known (at least to people who google cross-country skiing trails) for cross-country skiing.

Scenery near Ramsau am Dachstein Scenery near Ramsau am Dachstein Scenery near Ramsau am Dachstein Scenery near Ramsau am Dachstein

I sometimes go cross country skiing, if I am in an area that has beginner trails that are flat (usually around a lake or something), but I have no real idea on how to do it properly.

I had a short 'starter' lesson in Finland a couple of years ago, and it seemed like a good idea to learn a bit more. So I booked another cross-country skiing lesson.

Ramsau ski school

The lesson was quite good - they have a set of short tracks specifically for teaching, so you can concentrate on what you are doing (or supposed to do) and don't get in the way of experienced skiers.

It's not like this made me competent in cross country skiing, but I got good advice on what I was doing wrong, what I can do to improve it and what I need to pay more attention to. So the next time I rent skis and go on a track on my own, I have a better idea on what to do to get better - instead of repeating the things I am doing wrong, because I don't know better.

Originally I wanted to have the lesson before noon and then do some more skiing on my own in the afternoon. But one of their trainers sick and they moved my lesson to the afternoon. Ultimately, I was happy about that - the lesson was more strenuous than I expected and it was nice to have an excuse ("Need to drive back to Graz now.") for not having to do any more activities afterwards.

Didn't do anything touristic in Graz - except for one thing.

Sliding down.

A week earlier they had opened the Schloßbergrutsche (Castle Hill Slide), which is the highest 'indoor slide' in the world (with an altitude difference of 64 meters). (Although that is a bit of special pleading - 'The Slide' in London is nearly twice as high - but obviously there are few places that have enough space 'indoors', so almost everyone that builds a really large slide will do that in some amusement park outside. So being an 'indoor slide' reduces the possible competition significantly.)

In the Schloßberg, there is a lift going up from river level to the park on top of the hill. And the slide (for most of its length) goes in a long spiral around the lift. The slide is somewhat difficult to see, as there is also an emergency staircase going around the lift blocking it from view.

Underground lift and slide and stairs in Graz
(A bit of the slide can be seen going through the bright light at the top right of the picture.)

The ride itself is unexpectedly leisurely.

From the outside it looks like it is a fast ride, but except for a small bit at the end, it isn't very steep, so most of it is done at 'fast walking speed'.

On my ride, it took me 46.7 seconds to cover the distance at an average speed of 3.1 m/s. So that's about 11 km/h average speed for the whole slide, so without the fast bit at the end, average speed in the spiral is probably around 8km/h.

Graz underground slide scoreboard Graz underground slide scoreboard

I'm not quite sure about their claims on the web page, which state 175 meters length of the slide and average speed of 25 km/h for a 40 second ride.

If you do 175 meters in 40 seconds, that should be 4.375 m/s, which is 15.75 km/h, not 25 km/h. And that's assuming you do the whole 175 meters in 40 seconds. (Given my speed of 3.1 m/s and 46.7 seconds, that multiplies to 145 meters, not 175 meters. But probably the timed section is only a part of the track and they count the run-off section in their 175 meters.)

But even of you do the whole length of 175 meters in 34 seconds (the fastest time achieved), that still is an average speed of only 18.5 km/h.

So let's assume that the 25 km/h is the top speed, not the average.

In any case, although the ride is slow, it still is fun and worth doing.

Even though you look a bit silly in the 'half-open sleeping bag' they require you to ride in.

Sliding down in Graz

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