My Other Car Is a Zamboni
By stern on Dec 30, 2006
I have always wanted to learn how to drive the Zamboni,, the ice resurfacing machine that is de rigeur for anything larger than a backyard rink. Today I got my wish, attending the Zamboni Training Class at the Union Sports Arena in Union, NJ.
The technology is pretty clever and has remained relatively unchanged for nearly half a century. Under the hood is a 4-cylinder truck engine, modified to run on natural gas and speed-governed to top out at a pedantic 9 miles per hour. It doesn't sound fast until you're racing into the corner on your Zamboni, peering around the nose of the beast to make sure you don't take out the dasherboards. The advice offered by Ken, my Zamboni instructor, was pretty much what I get from my adult hockey teammates: don't get too close to the boards, know where you are, and make sure you know how to stop.
Fortunately, driving the Zamboni is significantly easier than navigating an ice-covered New Jersey county road. Being stuck in first gear helps; it gives you strong engine braking (so that the Zamboni almost lurches to a stop when your foot comes off the gas) and prevents you from down shifting through the penalty box in a burst of acceleration. Besides the difficulty in seeing over ice dump box (think: driving a dump truck in reverse), the strangest part was the low gear ratio of the steering mechanism. Took about four cranks of the steering wheel to execute a quarter-turn in the corners, explaining the little knob on the steering wheel -- it's easier to whip the wheel when you're not in a constant 10-to-2 clock face shuffle with your hands. And here I thought the wheel knob was so you could drive the Zamboni while wearing handcuffs (not statistically likely, I realize, but if Mark Cuban's HDnet wants to do an adaption of "The Longest Yard" meets "Slap Shot", it would be a great comedic device).
Being a Zamboni-newbi, I wasn't allowed to perform an actual resurfacing. Another thing I learned: Rink rats always talk about "ice cuts" rather than "resurfacing" or the even more shoobie-like "Zamboni-ing" of the ice. It literally is an ice cut -- the Zamboni is effectively a huge sno-cone machine sans flavored syrup. No wonder we love'em in New Jersey. Directly under the driver's butt is a row of horizontal blades that scrape the ice in a rotary razor fashion statement. Levers to the right of the steering wheel move the blade tray up and down and the large horizontal wheel establishes the depth of the cut. These augers remove dirt and shavings and channel the ice into a set of vertical augers that lift the proto-sno-cone into the ice dump bin. The large lever in the middle of the control area (usually with a knob on it, but here shown with a hockey puck finial) clears the ice from the junction of the perpendicular blade systems, preventing clogs that can lead to dreaded ice contrails.
The final stage of the ice cut is to pour hot water onto the ice, from a 150-gallon tank under the hood, which fills in any deeper cuts in the ice, replaces the layer shaved off by the augers, and almost instantly bonds to the existing cold surface. There's an optional ice wash system as well, which does what it says: sprays water to loosen debris and non-water soluble objects, then slurps it back up where it's filtered and recycled. If you're cutting the ice during a public skating session, or there's a lot of particulate nastiness coming from decaying bench or hallway rubber flooring, the ice wash prevents the ice from attaining a depressing grey color.
I'm far from ready to hop on the Zamboni in an emergency, or get into the subtler parts of ice cuts like double waterings to build an extra layer of fresh, firm ice on top of the base, let alone switching gas tanks in mid-cut (yes, like a Jaguar, the Zamboni has twin tanks). But now my other car really is a Zamboni, and driving it was a great way to say farewell to 2006.