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Ice Capades

March 1, 2009

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It all started with an email from Ryan: “So the doctor from the Love Boat was on the radio this morning…” Somehow that same paragraph ended with “so who wants to go to the ice racing finals in the suburbs tonight?” I couldn’t think of a better way to end the Cold Weather Challenge.

Both of us somehow convinced our wives that driving out into the suburbs through Friday rush-hour traffic to watch motorcycles slide around on ice was better than sitting around the house, (“and the doctor from the Love Boat will be there!”) We packed a bag of coloring books for Mina, picked up Rye and Alison, and headed out in search of cold motorcycle racing action.

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As none of us had ever witnessed ice racing before, we weren’t sure what to expect. My total spectatorship of two-wheeled motorsports involves two extremes, a handful of MASS scooter races and the MotoGP race in Indianapolis last year, with literally nothing in between. Ryan’s been to all kinds of motorcycle races, but he’d never been to an ice race, either. We were surprised that any motorcycle racing events outside of major AMA or world events could fill an arena the size of Sears Centre (Hoffmann Estates, IL), and we were right, we arrived just as things were getting underway, and the parking lot was pretty empty. Once we got inside, it would be charitable to say the arena was 1/4 full, and it was obvious as the introduced the 30-or-so riders that a lot of the crowd was friends and family.

I bought a program to try to keep track of the races, classes, and riders, but it didn’t help much, aside from listing some of the top riders and explaining the rules a bit. The races were the finals of the 2008-09 (33rd Annual) World Championship ICE Racing Series, “ICE” standing for “International Championship Events.” All the races were held on a hockey-rink sized track, with the track radius adjusted for different classes. There were five classes:

  • “Manufacturers Cup,” (450cc motorcycles)
  • “Outlaw Quads” (highly-modified ATVs)
  • “Ice Breaker Quads” (run-whatcha-brung ATVs)
  • “Xtreme Karts” (4-stroke nitro go-karts)
  • “Big Dogs” (50cc minibikes)

All the vehicles used tire studs, though “Ice Breakers” are only allowed 100 studs per vehicle, and the frictionless, crashy minibikes didn’t appear to have bothered with ‘em. On top of those five classes, there seemed to be some further divisions, but with 40+ riders and (generally) 4 vehicles per race, it was hard to keep track. There were loads of heats, and qualifiers, and sudden-death re-qualifiers, and Al-Franken vs. Norm-Coleman last-chance-head-to-head elimination heats and it seemed like the announcers and judges couldn’t keep track of what was going on, let alone the fans. The “Ice Breakers” and “Big Dogs” seemed to be mostly locals who showed up a couple hours before the race, and a lot of names and numbers were mixed up in the starting grid announcements. All this (and occasional indoor fireworks) sort of added to the fun, rinky-dinkness of the event. The organization was light-years ahead of MASS, for instance, with sponsors and banners and signage, but not as flashy and commercial as a big AMA event, and not even close to a world-class event like MotoGP. Of course, tickets were 1/10th the cost of MotoGP tickets, and my scooter wasn’t stolen from the parking lot.

We were expecting to be bored by the karts, but they turned out to be pretty fun to watch, the drivers were aggressive, with the outside front wheel rarely touching the ground, and there were a few spectacular but harmless crashes thanks to the size of the track. I don’t know the first thing about quads, but the “Outlaw” class looked to be pretty highly-modified, one with a Buell/Harley V-twin, for instance, and even the “Ice Breakers” featured some 2-strokes, and definitely some aftermarket bling.

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I don’t know much about speedway bikes, either, for that matter, but it was all fun to watch, and most of the heats (usually 4 laps with 4-5 riders per heat) were short, sweet, and pretty closely-matched. There were a few women riders, which was good to see, and the racers ranged in age from their teens up into their 50s. Some sported sponsor livery and slick leathers while others (especially in the “Big Dogs” class) were racing in Carhartt jacket, jeans, and boots.

The crowd was friendly and into the racing, and all in all it was a good time. Even with TV rights, I have no idea how the event made enough money to pay for the arena. Even though this was the final event of the season, motorcycle and quad points leaders were awarded a paltry $1000 each, which as Ryan pointed out, is about enough to buy a new performance clutch and pay the entry fee for the next race. Some of the racers were local, others were allegedly-nationally-known cross-discipline racers. The motorcycle points leader was heading out at 5AM to a grass-track race in North Carolina, so his $1000 was surely spent on airfare. Obviously these guys just love to race, and must fight hard for sponsorship (or hold up liquor stores) to feed their need for speed. That’s a lot of heats, a lot of tires, a lot of wrenching in arena loading docks, a lot of traveling, and they’re surely not doing it for the slim-chance $1000.

Sadly, after dozens of heat races and qualifiers, it was getting late and Mina was getting tired (we all were, but these days, we can blame it on her). The arena was also filling up with carbon monoxide and we were feeling pretty loopy, so we didn’t see the last few races, we left after a couple insane 8-vehicle qualifiers. Our hope was that the last race would be a couple quads, a motorcycle, a pit bike, and a go-kart all racing each other for a bucket of tire studs, and it probably was, but we missed it. ICE’s site is a few months behind, and by the time they post the winners, ice racing will be the last thing on my mind, but maybe next year I can get a press pass and bring a better camera. Or maybe I can show up three hours early and get a Vespa 50 with studded tires in the “Big Dogs” class.

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Oh, and don’t let me forget “Doc.” We’re still not sure what course of events led Bernie Kopell of Love Boat fame to the Sears Centre Friday night. At first we suspected he had a nephew or son or grandson in the races, but it turned out he wasn’t the only celebrity there. Branscombe Richard of TV’s Renegade and Bo Hopkins from American Graffiti shared nachos with Bernie in a corner suite, and all three signed autographs during intermission. We’re still not sure why they were there, Richard at least has a history with motorcycles, he’s in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame as a spokesman for Indian Motorcycles (Ryan later joked that Indian Motorcycles overestimated the importance of Renegade, and the Motorcycle Hall of Fame overestimated the importance of Indian Motorcycles). “Doc” drew a fair crowd, and was gracious and accommodating, but seemed a bit embarrassed. Hopkins and Richard were far-less recognized, and actually seemed a bit agitated. We spent most of the night speculating why they were there, and eventually guessed that the event promoters or (more likely) the arena paid them to help promote the show. To Bernie Kopell’s credit, he did pique our interest in the event, but its sad to think that actors depend on somewhat-demeaning gigs like that to survive, and it’s weird to think that they probably took home more money than the top racers. Maybe we got it all wrong, though, maybe they’re all just big ice-racing fans and wanted to help out. Who knows? Hopefully they at least had a good time.

Anyway, it was a fun and appropriate end to the Cold Weather Challenge, and if it comes back next year, we just might do it again. We’ll post CWC winners tomorrow (damn, shoulda had Bernie sign a picture for Bob Hedstrom), and get back to our DealerExpo 2009 coverage (wasn’t that like TWO WEEKS ago? Still, we’re doing better than last year.)

Oh, almost forgot: Ryan’s photos, which are only slightly better than mine, though he got the quads in there, and all the celebrities.

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