DICE ON ICE
Too cold to ride? Naw, it's never too cold to ride.
JON F. THOMPSON
IT'S 8 A.M. ON A SUNLESS MICHIGAN SUNDAY MORNING IN late January. The thermometer hovers at 20 degrees and any man with any sense is still in bed, or has at the very least strayed no further from bed than the kitchen table, where he has the newspaper in front of him and his hands wrapped around a mug of coffee. His motorcycle? Forget it; it's garaged for the winter, its battery leads disconnected.
What, then, is all the racket from Albright Shores, a tiny community along the Tittabawassee River in the center of the state? What is this commotion which reeks of exhaust gasses and shatters the steel-gray patience of early-morning ice fishermen? It can't be a motorcycle race.
Oh, but it is, never mind the cold.
The cold, according to the thick-blooded northerners unloading their bikes and hunkering in the hard-frozen mud of the pits to change jets, adjust chains, swap lies and fiddle with the ice screws encrusting the tires of their race bikes, is part of the deal, is maybe even the point of the whole thing. You can't ice race, they explain patiently. pulling their canvas suits a bit more tightly around themselves, unless it's cold.
Ice race? You mean, race motorcycles on a frozen surface, in this case a half-mile oval? Ice? The stuff of which your ex-wife's heart is composed? Are these people completely nuts?
As in so many things, the answer to that question depends upon who you ask. Explained one racer, “Naw. we’re not crazy. We just don't know any better."
Maybe that’s it. Up here in the sweetness of small-town America, where life moves more slowly than in the cities and where winter lasts half the year, a truly committed rider could grow old waiting for weather warm enough to ride in. He also could go batty with cabin fever. So. 212 riders here this weekend for an AMA District 14 Amateur National have, like hundreds of others across the wintertime northern U.S., chosen the only sensible approach. They've opted for sanity. They'll race. On ice.
A truth: Ice is slippery. Because motorcycles tend to work best when they have traction, ice and motorcycles would appear not to mix. But the evidence here is that they mix every bit as well as the fireplace smoke rising from the chimneys of local cabins mixes with the river’s frigid air. The reason for that is a simple one: studs, hexagonalheaded screws designed with front and rear edges on their heads, five-eights of an inch long, screwed by the hundreds into the lugs of a race bike’s front and rear tires.
The most thoughtful of the racers spend at least as much time experimenting with screw patterns as they do tuning and preparing their bikes. They experiment because there's more to ice than meets the eye. Ice isn't just—well, ice. It can be as changeable as any other racing surface. When the ambient temperature rises it gets soft, and thus slippery, even for studded tires. When temperatures drop traction improves as the ice becomes harder, and the harder it becomes, the more securely the screws bite into it.
Racers respond to changes in the ice in several waysthey fiddle with the patterns of the studs in their tires, and with the front-to-side orientation of the cutting edges of those studs, and they juggle tire pressures f rom a low of seven pounds or so to a high of about 25 pounds. This track, on a man-made pond adjacent to the river, will prove nearly as fast as a dirt half-mile flat track, and as varied and changeable, with ice that tends toward softness. Turns T hree and Four, down at the far end near the river, are tacky and fast, and so is Turn One. But in Turn Two there's action. The track is especially slick there and it narrows just a bit at the turn’s exit. Thus anyone who’s dipped a bit too deeply into the throttle stands a fair chance of eating it here. Many who count on consistent traction throughout the entire sweep of Turns One and Two do crash, most washing out in the middle of the turn, with several going wide and nailing the berm of ice deposited on the outside of the track.
But for the most part, traction seems no problem. As the starting light flicks green and riders drop their clutches in each of the 30-or-so short heats to be run this day. the bikes hook up and wheelie. And they’re on their back w heels as the riders catch top gear on the exit from Turn Four onto the front straight.
No. traction’s not a problem—unless perhaps you mix too much of it w ith generous amounts of horsepower. Dan Sams, a local, is here with his brother, Tim. and an Openclass Honda CBX-based sidecar rig they estimate puts 140 horsepower onto the ice. This six-cylinder beast, which howls around the track in lurid, full-power, opposite-lock broadslides. its rear tire flinging up an enormous roost of shredded ice. has so much traction the brothers have had to screw the bead of its rear tire to its rim, 10 wood screws per side, to keep the tire from turning on the rim.
Wait a minute: an Open-class CBX sidehack? That isn't-all. This air-shifted monster, with thousands invested in head work to improve its lowand mid-range power, shares the pits with a bewildering variety of bikes from other racing classes—smaller, single-cylinder sidehacks and solo bikes which include vintage British iron, a classic Ducati 250, current motocrossers, off-season dirt-trackers and a solo Open-class Sportster, last in its heat, looking for all the world like a hog on ice.
Many of these bikes, especially the four-stroke Singles, rely on heavy engine modification. But except for the removal of front brakes and the addition of front tire guards, their chassis are relatively stock, with many riders saying their ice racers double as their summer cow-trailers or street bikes.
Instead of parking their summer rides, they race them on ice during the winter, they say. because it doesn't make any sense not to do it, a explanation which offers a certain charming logic.
Explains Pat Doyle, a printer from Belleview, Michigan, who pilots a GSX-R750 sidecar outfit, “You get bored if you sit at home all winter. You turn on (cable TV program) ‘Moto World.' and you want to go racing. Plus, if you sit at home all winter you're too fat to go racing.” And then Doyle offers the ice racer's creed: “It’s really only too cold to ride when it’s 50 below,” he says.
Charlotte Waldbuesser, a willowy strawberry blonde here from Union, Illinois, trail rides with her husband during the summer, but races on ice in the solo 250cc and 500cc classes during the winter “Because I like to beat the guys,” something race watchers say she does regularly. She adds, as if this explains all. “Plus, Í don't like the heat. I'm a winter person.”
Bob Anderson, working as a race marshal here, explains. “You just get hooked on it. Some people say they have nothing to do all winter. But we race every weekend. Some days it's too cold and I'd rather be inside.” Then, eyeing the icy track and kicking the frozen pit mud with the toe of an insulated boot, he adds, “But other days, when it's warm like this, it seems like racing makes the winter go real fast.” 0