Endurance Ice Racing | Ice Capades | Track Time

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Cory Peterson

Markel, Springsteen, Parker, Smith, Wiles... The “Michigan Mafia” has more or less dominated flat-track racing since the 1960s. “Must be something in the water,” people always said. “Yeah, it’s all that hard water,” Jay Springsteen once famously answered, referring to the fiercely competitive ice-racing circuit that keeps Wolverine State racers fast and fit during the off-season.

Bill Werner, the legendary wrench who tuned Springer, Scotty Parker and Bryan Smith to a collective 13 AMA Grand National Championships, agrees: “There are almost no consequences on the ice. You fall off and slide into a snow bank, not a concrete wall. You learn to be really aggressive on a frozen lake.”

A lifelong Wisconsin resident, I’ve always wanted to try ice racing. A casual conversation with Kawasaki Press Manager Jeff Herzog, a Michigan native, got this snowball rolling, though my modest plans melted once Werner and Springsteen got involved. The famous tuner prepped a Kawasaki KX450F for Herzog and me to race in the Steel Shoe Fund 3-hour Endurance ice race, an annual charity event held in Campbellsport, Wisconsin, to benefit injured dirt-trackers. Springer would provide coaching and “moral support,” and 2009 AMA Pro Singles National Champ Brad “The Bullet” Baker would be our third rider. Never mind that Washington-based Baker had even less ice-riding experience than me, and that Herzog, now a SoCal resident, hadn’t seen more ice than fills a soda cup for 25 years. What could possibly go wrong?

Step one was ordering hand-built ice-race tires from Cliff’s Cycles in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Cliff Eckes, one of the small handful of expert ice tire-builders in the Midwest, starts by sun-baking Kenda K335 rear and Dunlop K490 front tires on his shop roof for up to a year, until they’re nice and hard. Then he sinks 1000 Pro-Gold V-head ice screws into the rear and another 500 into the front, precisely angling each to provide driving, braking or side grip. The result weighs 50 lbs. per pair, costs $560, and hooks up better than a hot slick on 100-degree asphalt.

Otherwise, the bike remains mostly stock. Werner lowers it an inch, but retains full suspension travel to combat deep ruts. Endurance racing favors reliability, so the engine is unchanged save for a Ninja 250 thermostat added to maintain the correct operating temperature in the sub-freezing conditions and a Pro Circuit pipe “to remind you guys you’re on a racebike.”

Despite having never ridden on ice until the day before the race, Baker is immediately fast. Because of how the driving screws are oriented, the harder you accelerate, the better an ice-tire grips. This favors the wide-open riding style of a fearless, 18-year-old Pro like Baker. Older riders with zero flat-track experience, however, suffer a steeper learning curve. Everything—where you sit, how you steer, where you get on and off the gas—is almost the exact opposite of roadracing. I spin out at least a dozen times during practice, when I reflexively throw my weight to the inside entering corners, or soft-throttle across the apex instead of pinning it.

Once I stop worrying and trust the studs, however, everything makes sense. Soon I’m backing it in, which is easy with the super-heavy rear tire and excellent Hinson slipper clutch. Once or twice I even experience the “controlled crash” that is a perfect ice-racing turn. It’s actually possible to crash the bike and have it sliding on the inside footpeg, then gas it hard enough that the enormous gyroscopic effect of the heavy, studded tires somehow finds traction and picks the bike back up again. It’s huge fun, and gives you a totally new respect for the physics of riding motorcycles.

More than 50 teams entered the race, and the grid was stacked with scads of Expert and Pro flat-track racers and other off-road racing legends like Jeff Fredette, who also designed the race course. Speaking of which, this year’s course was a 6.5-mile ribbon of plowed ice that looped, twisted and turned back on itself roughly 100 times, covering all 209 acres of Kettle Moraine Lake. It was like riding a crumpled-up Nurburgring. On ice.

Race day was a balmy 34 degrees, creating a heavy fog that soon turned to freezing rain. We let The Bullet start, and he was in the top five before the first turn. Except for problems with rain and snow roost causing everyone’s goggles to ice over, our race was remarkably boring—which, in endurance racing, is the best possible outcome. While other teams repaired broken fenders, crashed and ran out of gas, our team cruised along problem-free. No one fell down, nothing broke and our pit crew—Kenny Tolbert and Rusty Studer—would make a NASCAR team envious. Baker’s stellar first stint put us as high as third overall and we eventually finished sixth in the Heavyweight (450cc-plus) class. If only we’d had three Pro riders instead of one!

Meanwhile, hometown hero J.R. Schnabel—riding solo for 3 hours!—won the race. It’s no coincidence that Schnabel, a regular top-10 AMA GNC finisher, lives in Campbellsport and grew up racing on this lake. It’s in the hard water, just like Springsteen says. MC

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