You’ve probably seen ice skaters, hockey players, snowmobiles, and even zipping across the ice. But what about motorcycles? Ron Davis takes us inside the ice racing scene.
In January and February, weekends in the upper Midwest are often a problem for me. I can only watch rehashes of the last NFL season, clean my basement, or binge-watch old seasons of 24 so many times before I have to get out and do something. My knees are shot, so skiing would put me in a wheelchair. And snowshoeing, while I can appreciate the aesthetic attraction, combines two of my least favorite activities: sweaty labor and moving at a glacial speed. And I will forever be mystified over why someone would want to spend an afternoon doing something called “Curling.” So, I was basically up for anything when I heard about a motorcycle race…on ice.
The Central Wisconsin Ice Racing Association schedules races for motorcycles and “quads” just about every weekend in January and February all over Wisconsin. I chose to head for one on Partridge Lake near Fremont. Despite a biting wind driving sleet that crackled on the hood of my parka, the lake was packed with trucks, heated trailers, motorcycles, four-wheelers, and lively clusters of friends, families, and racers clad in snowmobile suits and hi-vis racing gear. Brats were being grilled, hot coffee and cocoa were being poured—it was a party.
Jim Falke, president of the CWIRA, kindly began my initiation to the sport by showing me the bikes and introducing me to a few racers. I was immediately struck by the wicked-looking carbide studs sprouting from the bike tires like ragged claws. One rider, Mark Muth from Black River Falls who’s been ice racing for 40 years, showed me scars crisscrossing the top of one hand. The studs had chewed through his glove as he tipped in front of another racer’s front wheel. Now, all bikes wear special fenders that shield their wheels to prevent most injuries. Racers also use all the safety gear they’d wear in the summer, usually more because of the cold conditions.
After a short rules and schedule meeting with the riders, bikes in the first heat edged up to long bungee stretched across the starting line. With little delay, the bungee dropped and the bikes blasted off onto a plowed, half-mile track that offered hairpin right- and left-handers and straightaways where riders hit speeds of more than 80 miles an hour. I didn’t see any riders go down all day, and some told me they felt that ice racing is actually less dangerous than summer motocross or enduro since ice tracks are level and traction is even throughout. Riders in elbow-to-elbow packs as tight as any I’ve seen at Road America created little blizzards of ice shards as they tilted their bikes at scary angles through the turns, one foot stretched out to skim the track.
The air was filled with the sound of red-lined four-strokes and cheers from fans and families. It didn’t seem to matter to most who won or lost. I had the feeling the enthusiasm for motorcycle ice racing has less to do with purses and trophies and more to do with shaking a triumphant fist in the face of four or five months of short gray days, life-threatening wind chills, and hours spent toiling behind a snow shovel. Yup, winters can be tough here, but there’s something I find heartening in the ways we defy it.