The Low-Down on Motorcycle Ice Racing Tires

How do you find traction on the ice? With nearly 2,000 screws.

ice tires
Spinning nearly 2,000 screws into a set of knobbies.Spenser Robert

For most of us, a motorcycle with normal street tires on ice is a nightmare. For some motorcyclists—a special breed, forged in the frozen northern reaches of the world—riding on ice is a way of life. Bill Rowe is one of the latter and always has been. "I started building ice tires as a kid with a hand drill, a box of screws, and a YZ80 in my parents' basement," he says from his shop in Brimfield, Massachusetts. "After years of trying different things, I eventually figured out what works best."

Well-made ice tires deliver mind-bending amounts of grip that turn a surface too slippery to walk on into corner-carving nirvana. With the 2015 Northeastern Regional 450 Pro and Open Pro ice-racing championships in his pocket and a long list of satisfied customers at his door, Rowe clearly knows ice better than most.

The hardest part of building an ice tire? Being consistent. Keeping the pattern accurate and using the right pitch takes a lot of concentration. A custom-made bench secures the tire and allows the screws to be inserted without bending over. That’s important since it can take 3-1/2 hours to assemble one tire. “There are typically 1,200 screws in a rear and about 700 in a front for left- and right-turning tires,” he says.

Ice tires are built using a regular dirt bike knobby along with an inner liner made from a worn cruiser tire. The purpose of the liner is to strengthen the carcass and prevent the screws from puncturing the inner tube—Rowe sources his liners from a local Harley dealer. The sidewall and bead are cut away with a utility knife and then stuffed inside the knobby. The last few inches usually require coaxing with a dead-blow hammer and then running screws through the center knobs to keep the liner in place.

“A fully studded rear tire weighs about 35 pounds,” Rowe says. “Fronts are about 20 pounds, and that’s not including the weight of the wheel. If the tire is for a smaller, less powerful bike, I might skip a few screws to reduce weight.” Like any other specialized equipment, ice tires need love. Diligent racers always use heavy-duty nylon wraps that keep the screws from coming in contact with anything but hard ice. With proper care, a set of ice tires can last several seasons of recreational riding—less if you have aspirations of keeping guys like Rowe in sight.