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One of the Coolest Rides Around
Zamboni Zealots Take Shots at Taming the Rumbling Giant of the Rink

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2009

Zamboni.

Fun to say. Fun to watch.

But oh-so-much more fun to drive.

"I've been wanting to do that since I was 6 years old," said an ebullient Vickery Brewer as she climbed down from the seat of a boxy red . . . um . . . truck? Machine? Appliance? What is the right term for a vehicle that looks like a cross between a defanged forklift and a souped-up toaster oven?

Well, it's hard to beat "Zamboni." On a recent evening, Brewer, 41, had fulfilled the dream of many an ice skater, hockey fan and gearhead by driving an actual Zamboni Ice Resurfacer, the brand-new $85,000 Model 545 belonging to the Herbert Wells Ice Rink in College Park.

A couple of times each year, the rink offers civilians a chance to join in on a two-night Zamboni training class that they give to rink personnel. For $90 ($75 if you pay two weeks in advance), you can learn the basics of blade changing, tank filling, scraping patterns and vehicle storage.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The rink managers know full well that what people really sign up for is the chance to drive the thing. And they understand completely.

"People are just fascinated by them," said Russell Barrett, 44, the rink's head Zamboni wrangler and the night's instructor. "They line up to watch as we do cuts," the professional term for the Zam's periodic solo performances between hockey periods and breaks in the all-skate. "The kids wave. It makes some of the guys nervous to operate it with all the people watching."

Few machines enjoy such cultural renown. Snoopy drove one in the Peanuts comic strip. The Gear Daddies had a minor hit with "I Want to Drive the Zamboni," and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told People magazine she thought it would be a great name for a son. At last night's Frozen Four collegiate hockey semifinals at the Verizon Center, two machines worked the ice, but they were made by another company, Olympia, which just doesn't have the same ring.

For Brewer, a biologist with the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park and lifelong figure skater, the chance to get up close and personal with a Zamboni was irresistible.

"As soon as I saw it advertised," she said, "I signed up."

Barrett said several women have taken the class, but the most zealous Zamboni fans tend to be boys and their dads. At his last class, a middle-aged man was there as an anniversary gift from his wife.

And really, what could better bridge the many epochs of male life -- from sandbox to cocktail hour -- than a tractor that makes ice?

"It's like those videos of front-end loaders that boys love," he said. "They can't take their eyes off it."

The first 20 minutes of the class are devoted to mechanics. A short video describes the three things going on under a Zamboni as it trundles around the rink: first, the scraping of the ice by a 77-inch steel blade and the removal of the shavings by twin augers; second, the washing of the surface with cool water; and, finally, the controlled flood of hot water that freezes into a new smooth layer of ice.

The video is introduced by one Richard Zamboni, and Barrett stops the tape to pay homage to the family character of the company.

"When you call Zamboni, you usually talk to a Zamboni," he said. "I talk to Don Zamboni four or five times a year."

It was grandfather Frank who revolutionized the ice resurfacing process and launched his surname into the pantheon of unforgettable brands. Before he combined all the steps within one machine, it took several workers several hours to plow the ice and spread the water by hand. Now, as any impatient skater can tell you, the Zam can do it all in the course of four or five pop songs played over the loudspeakers.

Herbert Wells is itself a mini-Smithsonian of Zamboni history. Stored on an asphalt basketball court just off the ice are three of the machines, dating back to the rink's first, a 1974 model with 3,655 hours on its Volkswagen engine. It still works, as Barrett proudly demonstrates by cranking the motor.

But it's the gleaming 545 that is his joy, painted Maryland Terps red and boasting a 2.0 liter, four-cylinder dual overhead cam, liquid-cooled, 78-horsepower Hyundai engine and automatic tire washers. Barrett, who has been driving Zams for almost 20 years, told the class that this one "drives like a Rolls-Royce."

"I never get to touch this one when he's around," whispered Evan Hall, a rink staffer taking a refresher course. "I have to use the old one."

But after backing it from its outdoor shed next to the rink, it was up into the seat of the newest Zamboni that Barrett invited a nervous Brewer. She settled in, and he explained the thicket of levers that control everything from blade height to water pressure. She started it up and, with Barrett walking beside her, pulled out onto the rainy basketball court and through a series of wide loops.

She wouldn't get to drive on the ice until the second class, which had to be postponed a few days because of a schedule conflict at the rink. But no matter. Brewer climbed down after her outdoor test drive a very happy FDA biologist.

"Well," she said, "that's one childhood goal accomplished."

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