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Ice Racing: Student Journalism Part 4

[Occasionally I've been posting stories written by my Georgetown students. This is a fine piece, very polished I thought, by Phil Marcelo. It's about some utterly crazy sport called ice racing. His descriptions are as sharp as the studs on the biker's tires. Because it's a little long for a blog I'm going to only publish excerpts, and hope Phil forgives me.]

The World Championships of Ice Racing

By Phil Marcelo

The setting is familiar. An indoor area with a regulation sized NHL hockey rink. The aluminum reinforced polyethylene plastic dasher boards - minus the Plexiglas - are in place. The Zamboni is on hand. The ice is a smooth, flawless white. Everything seems in order, except for the four dirt bikes, revved and waiting on the ice, where the hockey players should be.

The motorcycle riders, decked out in the familiar Motocross garb of helmet, goggles, boots and gloves, line up side by side. A slim, elastic tape - the starting line - runs in front of the bikes no more than two feet off the ground. Orange fluorescent spray paint and the occasional small orange cone demarcate the inner part of the race track.

In the corner of the rink directly in front of the riders is a horizontal traffic light. The light changes from red to green, and the race is on. The hockey rink turns into a blender of ice set to shred.
The riders lean and skid their bikes around the hockey rink, kicking up shaved ice and leaving it in piles at center ice. Snow drifts build up along the boards. After a minute, the chainsaw noise of the engines dies down, and the race is over.

In a year when the NHL ended the professional hockey season over a labor dispute, nothing, save the Disney on Ice, has gotten ice time at the MCI Center. But when the hockey players are away, the bikes will come and play....

Ice Racing is the bastard child of dirt bike racing and speed skating. It was invented in the summer of 1976 by a group of American dirt bike racers who held an informal race in Kent State University's ice hockey rink. Since then, ice racing has found its niche within extreme sports, and today boasts an enthusiastic group of professional competitors and a steadily growing fan base....

Ice racers don't like to admit it, but what they do doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Their bikes have no brakes and no transmissions. They race around with three other riders in an enclosed space of 170 square feet wearing bulletproof body armor to avoid being shredded by the 750 razor sharp spikes embedded in each bike tire.

They ride dangerously simple machines - essentially steroid fueled chainsaws - and follow a deadly simple logic: hold tight, remember to breathe, and don't fall.

Ice racing motorcycles don't have brakes for the same reasons kids don't like brakes on their Big Wheels: it allows racers to ride full throttle, within inches of each other, without worrying about "brake checking," or when a racer purposely applies the brakes to slow riders behind them.

Not having a transmission cuts down on the time spent shifting gears. There is no acceleration, no slowing down, just the top gear. Ice bikes can go from zero to sixty miles per hour in two and a half seconds.

"The speed alone could rip your shoulders off your sockets," said Ronny Kemp. "The natural instinct is to hold your breath the whole race."

And if the speed doesn't kill you, the tires, sixty pounds of glimmering steel spikes and black rubber spinning at over 150 miles per hour, will.

Unlike the sheet metal screws used by early ice racers, the studs that cover each tire of today's bikes are special made, steel sheet metal screws with six razor sharp edges for greater traction and coated with nickel and chrome to prevent rust. That means these wheels are Ginsu.

To avoid becoming meat for the grinder, ice racers wear a suit of Kevlar - bulletproof body armor - over their clothes. And there is an unwritten law of the ice: if a racer falls down in front, lay down your bike. That means pitching the bike at a sideways angle, a motion similar to a power slide a hockey player would make for quick direction changes.

It means giving up the race, but it's better than the alternative, severing that rider in two, which no one wants. That's unsportsmanlike.

-- Phil Marcelo

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 17, 2005; 7:20 AM ET
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