BAUDETTE, MINN. – Joe Miller remembers his first visit to the town that bills itself as the “Walleye Capital of the World.”
“I thought, ‘These people are hardy,’ as my left eyeball froze shut,” he recalled with a chuckle.
Four years later, Miller has developed a new appreciation for wintertime here along the Canadian border.
Miller manages the Bosch cold-weather testing facility, a 625-acre expanse of ice and snow where vehicles from the world’s leading automakers are tested for performance in severe weather conditions — or, what Minnesotans call “winter.”
Seven days a week, 12 hours a day, cars and trucks slide down icy hills, skid through snowy slalom courses and race down slick roads designed to test just how far they can go before spinning out of control.
It might seem like a 17-year-old’s dream — like getting turned loose to spin doughnuts in the school parking lot. But these are serious tests, conducted with rigorous accuracy, designed to improve vehicle safety.
Many of the safety features that drivers take for granted today — such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control — were developed through testing in this city of 1,000 residents some 335 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
“They bring in people from all over the world to show what they’re doing,” said Dave Marhula, a retired real estate agent, speaking with pride of the city’s role in the high-tech business. “And they all rave about the world-class facility in Baudette.”
Northern Minnesota is a hot spot for cold-weather vehicle testing, with more than a half-dozen other facilities scattered throughout the region, including in Bemidji and International Falls. Some are full-service outfits like Bosch; others are simple “cold boxes” where manufacturers park cars for extended periods and then see if they’ll start after a good stint at 30 below.
In a region whose economy is heavily dependent on summer tourism, the winter business is not only welcome, it generates millions of dollars.
The state of Minnesota once had an office that tracked the impact of cold-weather businesses, but it was eliminated in state budget cuts during the early 2000s. Back then, when cold-weather testing was a smaller business than it is today, state officials estimated it provided 500 jobs and brought in $9 million a year.
In Baudette, Bosch books so many rooms at the AmericInn for the entire winter — a block of 45 — that the owners added a new wing to handle the traffic.
“It’s very, very positive,” said Bob Anderson, mayor of International Falls, home to three test sites. “Having those folks here for weeks at a time very definitely impacts the economy — hotels, restaurants and auto-related businesses, as well as the local citizens who are hired to drive their vehicles.”
Far from prying eyes
Baudette was chosen by Bosch, a German company, 30 years ago for a few simple reasons. It’s reliably cold, it gets snow — but not too much — and it’s remote. It might help, too, that Lake of the Woods County is the only county in the Lower 48 without a stoplight.
The vehicles tested here often include prototypes of new models that won’t be on the market for several years. Auto magazines and websites often station spy photographers at test facilities to snap sneak peeks at the test “mules,” as the prototypes are called.
In Baudette — where the temperature hit 45 below for several days this month — few, if any, photographers hang around the gates.
At the height of winter testing season, which runs from Thanksgiving through early March, as many as 90 people are working at the site. About 35 are local residents, many of them involved in building, grooming and maintaining the snow and ice fields where testing takes place.
When Bosch first set up shop in Baudette, the company hired local farmers for that work, and they proved to be so good at it that they still make up a big portion of the track crew today.
Three decades later, Bosch is as much a part of the fabric of Baudette as Willie Walleye, the giant fish that greets visitors near the Canadian border.
“When I first opened my shop [in 2005], they brought me a lot of business, basically got me on my feet,” said Devlin Reece, owner of Custom Auto Repair. “We probably have some of the most up-to-date equipment in the area because we’re going to be doing that kind of work.”
Steve Levasseur, who manages the local American Legion post, said the Bosch contingent has become part of the Legion family.
“They mix right in with the crowd,” he said. “Some of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet. We’re just glad to see ’em come.”
Every day at lunchtime, a dozen or more engineers head over for a pickup hockey game at the local ice arena, where Bosch donated the scoreboard. The high school lets Bosch employees use its gym and swimming pool.
Marhula remembers when Bosch first arrived back in the 1980s. Three guys showed up at his office on Main Street, dressed in dark suits, white shirts, ties and hats.
“And you think, ‘The only guys who dress like that are teachers, preachers and undertakers,’ ” Marhula said with a laugh. “And I thought, ‘Well, these guys don’t look like teachers or preachers.’ ”
Marhula rented them office space, and their eyes lit up when he told them that for an extra $50 a month, he’d throw in the four-car garage behind the building.
That was the start. Later, the company moved into a rented hangar at the local airfield and eventually built out the facility with offices and workshops.
Watch out for low mu
On the course, certified test drivers follow strict protocol on and off the 10 miles of roadway.
“This is a test environment,” Miller said. “It’s not the Indianapolis 500.” The test-drivers’ mantra: “Keep the round things on the ground.”
There’s talk of algorithms and lateral adhesion. A big topic is “mu,” a measurement of the friction between the vehicle and the surface. “High mu” means there’s grip; “low mu” means conditions are slippery. They also test with “split mu,” where one set of wheels is on ice or snow and the other is on dry pavement.
Scattered throughout the grounds are large, open fields of snow or ice, some as large as six football fields. Test cars, often encased in camouflage wrappers, throw up plumes of snow as they fishtail through turns and weave among pylons.
It’s a hive of activity that brightens the long winters for the locals.
“They’re welcome and they know it,” said Levasseur, the Legion manager. “We would be devastated if they pulled up and left here.”