MXA GOES ICE RACING: MOTHER NATURE, ANGRY FISHERMEN & THE DESIRE TO BE WARM

It takes technique and fearlessness to get the rear end pitched out on the ice. When done properly it can be exhilarating. However, when pushed too far, you’ll quickly find yourself in a snow bank.

By John Basher

If you’re like me, you daydream whenever you walk by the travel posters at the airport and think about how much fun it would be to hop a flight to Maui or Miami. The temperate climate and abundant sunshine are major draws when your real destination is Minneapolis or Minot—or, in my case, Milwaukee. Best known for breweries, Milwaukee is planted on the edge of Lake Michigan. For all I know, Milwaukee may be majestic in the summer, but a few months ago I was there when the thermometer barely showed any mercury. Biting winds may not dampen the 5.7 million Wisconsin residents who hope and pray for another Ice Bowl for the Packers to play in, but it got to me quick.

LOS ANGELENOS CAN’T UNDERSTAND THE HARDSHIPS THAT THOSE FROM CANADA-BORDERING STATES MUST ENDURE—WE SHIVER
WHEN IT’S 65 DEGREES OUTSIDE.

Although I have been softened up by 10 years of living in SoCal, I can relate to folks from Wisconsin. I grew up 45 minutes south of Buffalo. For those familiar with the weather patterns in upstate New York, I lived smack dab in the center of the “southern-tier snow belt.” Frigid air from Canada would whip across Lake Erie, pick up moisture, crystallize it and dump snow at my doorstep. It was perfect for skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling, but for the most part, it made life difficult. Los Angelenos can’t understand the hardships that those from Canada-bordering states must endure—we shiver when it’s 65 degrees outside.

Living in SoCal is a double-edged sword. Forget stressing over your wardrobe—jeans and a sweatshirt in winter suffice; and shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops work the other 10 months. And, as the song goes, “It never rains in Southern California.” Yet, with these weather blessings come the curse. I’ve been transformed. My body has morphed into expecting great weather all year around. I have become a traitor to my Buffalo roots. Now, cold weather shocks my extremities to the point that my jaw trembles on a cloudy day.

This is the point in my story where I should conveniently remind you that MXA takes an active approach to expanding our horizons. Simply put, we try anything with two wheels and an engine. Of course, you probably already knew that. In the past we’ve raced Supermoto, GNCC, WORCS, Dutch beach races, European Supercross and Endurocross. We’ve also ridden Speedway, flat track, snowmobiles and rally bikes. Although our hearts are in motocross, we enjoy taking a head-first dive into unfamiliar waters every now and then. Sometimes we come away scraped up and bloodied, but we’re always enchanted by how other two-wheel enthusiasts find enjoyment in their chosen passion.

The thrill of sliding on ice was heightened when we had to navigate around snow plows.

MXA WANTED TO GO ICE RACING­—AND PERHAPS AT THE TIME WE CAME UP WITH THIS IDEA WE DIDN’T CONNECT THE DOTS ENOUGH TO
REALIZE THAT ICE ALSO MEANT COLD.

That explains why Daryl Ecklund and I found ouselves in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the dead of winter. MXA wanted to go ice racing—and perhaps at the time that we came up with this idea we didn’t connect the dots enough to realize that ice also meant cold. However, five minutes in Milwaukee brought the two concepts of “ice” and “racing” into sharp focus. It was cold, and knowing that it was 85 degrees at Glen Helen didn’t warm the cockles of my heart.

Fortunately, I had several things going for me. I was bringing MXA assistant editor Daryl Ecklund along for the ride. Daryl is a SoCal native with limited experience in subfreezing weather. He has never been truly, profoundly and achingly cold. Conversely, my fingers and toes had been numbed countless times by New York winters. And even though I hadn’t undergone the freezing process in a decade, at least I knew how to curb discomfort caused by the elements from years of cold-weather skiing and trail riding. Ecklund, on the other hand, was a clueless Californian who would put a coat on if the refrigerator door was held open for too long.

The best way to tell this tale is by rewinding to the beginning, skip to the end, and then fill in all the remaining holes with a vivid description of our adventure. For starters, the idea wouldn’t have surfaced without a shove from Yamaha’s  Midwest district manager, Jim Drummond. Jim lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He, along with his two boys, Mike and Jake, are active motocross enthusiasts. They are also experienced ice racers. Once the snow starts flying every winter, the Drummond men trade their knobbies for studded tires.

Jim Drummond had entered the Annual Steel Shoe Fund three-hour endurance ice race on Kettle Moraine Lake in Campbellsport, Wisconsin, a couple years ago and had a great time. So, he thought it would be a great idea to take the MXA wrecking crew ice racing.

Daryl Ecklund slices his way past the competition en route to 15th place in a three-hour endurance race in Wisconsin.

TO OUR WAY OF THINKING, WE KICKED SERIOUS TAIL—ESPECIALLY GIVEN THAT ONE OF OUR RIDERS HAD NEVER SEEN ICE OUTSIDE
OF A GLASS BEFORE.

Tim Olson, Daryl Ecklund and I have modest racing credentials; Ecklund raced the AMA Nationals, Olson won the MX de Reygades race in France, and I’m a solid Vet Intermediate in my own right. As for being ice racers? Well, finished 7th out of 31 in our class and 15th overall out of 72 teams. In three hours we hammered out 18 laps, which was one lap less than the overall winner. To our way of thinking, we kicked serious tail—especially given that one of our riders had never seen ice outside of a glass before. We beat teams that were manned with seasoned ice racers and experienced dirt trackers.

A well-studded tire is a vital necessity for riding on ice. Our rear tire alone cost around $350.

HE HIT THE GROUND LIKE A SACK OF POTATOES AND CAREENED INTO A SNOW BANK. AND, THANKS TO THE FLUFFY SNOW, HE GOT UP LAUGHING.

The most pertinent question centers around the difficulty of racing a motocross bike on ice. To fully answer that requires background knowledge on your skill level, willingness to crash, love of cold weather and desire to spend money on ice-racing-specific tires. Here’s a breakdown of what it takes to go ice racing.

(1) Skill: You can be any skill level. Beginner to Expert, it doesn’t matter (although experience helps).

(2) Crashing: You’re going to crash, but you should have realized that before you got this far. Crashing is the catalyst that releases adrenaline into the bloodstream.

(3) Chill factor: Ice racing is cold. It had better be! Remember that you’re piloting a 240-pound motorcycle on frozen water. Thankfully, our fears of falling into the water were put to rest when we saw trucks driving around the lake. If it’s thick enough for Bubba’s Chevy, then it’s sturdy enough for us.

(4) Studs: Ice racing is cheap…once you invest in studded tires. We were fortunate enough to ride Jim Drummond’s personal Yamaha YZ450F, which was equipped with handmade studded tires done by AMA Hall of Fame enduro racer Jeff Fredette. Studding tires is an art that requires skill and forethought. Every stud is set to a specific angle for maximum traction when the rider is pitching the bike sideways. Our rear tire had around 680 one-inch-long ice screws, while the front held several hundred studs. As for expense, Fredette charges $340 for a rear and $230 for a front. The saving grace is that the tires last several seasons.

Daryl and I were total neophytes when we arrived at Lake Kettle Moraine, so we decided to cut our teeth the day before the endurance race by practicing around an ice oval on Saturday. We have a habit of jumping into things head first, and Ecklund was trying to pitch the YZ450F out the second the studs met the ice. Fearless and fast, he kept raising the intensity level until he would either slide the rear tire all the way around the 100-foot-long corners or end up in a snow bank.

Daryl Ecklund is many things—smart, talented, experienced, honest—but he has one weakness: He pushes the limit, then he keeps on pushing until disaster strikes. Given that Daryl had never ridden a motocross bike on ice, he began to dance with disaster until he found his comfort zone. Even the Drummond clan, impeccable ice racers themselves, were surprised by Ecklund’s skills. But at the exact moment that we expressed our wonderment at his quick transition, we saw a snowy white poof off in the distance and realized that Daryl had pushed the limit just a hair too far. He hit the ground like a sack of potatoes and careened into a snow bank. And, thanks to the fluffy white stuff, he got up laughing.

The thermometer doesn’t lie. It was bone-chilling cold in Wisconsin. The dynamo team of, from left, John Basher, Daryl Ecklund and Tim Olson.

WE WERE SMOOTH ON THE THROTTLE, TRIED TO AVOID BLOWING THROUGH TURNS, NEVER TOUCHED THE CLUTCH, AND SET PEOPLE UP INSTEAD
OF GIVING THEM THE SLIDE JOB.

As for my assault on the icy oval, I was hesitant to be riding on ice that even my boots slipped on with every step, but I quickly realized that the traction was plentiful. The sensation was comparable to riding Supermoto, with a lot less fear of high-siding. Lugging the YZ450F engine proved effective; otherwise, the rear end would snap around and become uncontrollably loose. The tall gearing and broad powerband encouraged metered throttle control. Smooth and consistent were the best ways to ride on ice; otherwise, the back end would light up like a jack-o’-lantern. Although I was far less graceful than Daryl, I felt that I could hold my own on race day.

Our biggest obstacle throughout the whole trip was battling Mother Nature. Although we had avoided the Polar Vortex, which swept across the greater part of the country this past winter, Wisconsin was still an icebox when we were there. The mercury dipped to 10 degrees at the lake. We went to desperate measures to keep warm, which meant dressing in layers. Function trumped form, but Daryl and I didn’t care. The snow didn’t care what we looked like, nor did the angry ice fishermen who shook their heads every time our YZ450F hit the rev limiter. We quickly realized that staying warm was all that mattered when you’re riding on a frozen lake in the middle of Wisconsin.

As for the three-hour endurance race itself, there were 72 teams made up of multiple riders. There were also several lunatics who decided to iron man the three-hour event, including famed flat tracker J.R. Schnabel. There was also a woman by the name of Kristina Zmuda who showed up the day of the race without any pit support, signed up and did it solo. How apropos that her team name was Miss America. The course spanned 6.5 miles and contained over 100 turns of varying degrees and speeds, a far cry from what we had practiced on a day before.

Daryl was the obvious choice to start for Team MXA. He was easily the fastest in our group and begged to lead by example. Racing the heavyweight class, we were going toe to toe with professional dirt trackers and qualified ice racers. We didn’t care. Perhaps it was our motocross mentality or that we were oblivious to the challenges that lay ahead that made us so cocky. In hindsight, we rode the perfect race for riders who had never raced on ice before.

Daryl got a mid-pack start and began cutting through the pack. Daryl was a wrecking ball—ruthless on the ice and devoid of fear. Tim Olson and I took a different approach. We were smooth on the throttle, tried to avoid blowing through turns, never touched the clutch, and set people up instead of giving them the slide job.

I’LL TAKE SUNNY SOCAL OVER HYPOTHERMIA AND MALEVOLENT FISHERMEN ANY DAY. BUT, I HAVE NOTHING BUT ADMIRATION FOR MOTORCYCLE RACERS WHO DON’T PACK IT IN WHEN MOTHER NATURE REARS HER UGLY HEAD.

However, Tim and I also wanted to win, which is why we only logged four laps each. Ecklund’s contribution to the team was to put in 10 blistering laps, including the final sprint to the finish. That strategy, along with well-executed pit stops, led to a respectable result for us. Naturally, we were disappointed that we didn’t win, but we were abecedarians on a lake of scholars. Landing in seventh place out of 31 teams in our class was a grand slam for three guys from the land of fruits and nuts. Besides, it was a charity event for the Steel Shoe Fund. The racing was meant to be fun, not cutthroat.

There are berms in ice racing, but underneath the fluffy stuff is rock hard and slippery ice.

Our ice-racing adventure was unforgettable. There were several particular memories that we’ll cherish forever. The racetrack took up most of Lake Kettle Moraine. That didn’t sit well with the ice fishermen who had set up camp near the course. In practice, we noticed several fishermen giving us the one-finger salute as we rode by. Welcome to Wisconsin! Also, there were snowplows cleaning up the track while we were racing. That’s like a bulldozer working on a motocross track amidst a moto. It was sketchy. A front-end washout at high speed would have sent us under the plow’s wheels. We won’t soon forget what it was like weaving through a series of plows while trying to pass other racers.

We made a lot of friends in Wisconsin and one enemy. His name was J.R. Schnabel. Ecklund had irritated the dirt-track champion by racing with him. J.R. was not impressed by Daryl’s motocross tactics and employed a couple of take-out moves learned in dirt-track racing. They didn’t worked on a savvy motocross racer, but Schnabel was the fastest guy on ice and deserved respect for his skill on ice. We don’t expect a Christmas card from J.R. Schnabel this coming year.

There’s tons of traction on the ice, given the proper setup. Race winner and dirt track sensation J.R. Schnabel demonstrates.


Daryl Ecklund demonstrates what happens when you make a mistake.

Do I intend on departing from sunny day at a local motocross track to pursue an ice-racing career? Absolutely not. I’ll take sunny weather and girls in bikinis over hypothermia and malevolent fishermen any day. But, as a reformed cold-weather athlete, I have nothing but admiration for motorcycle racers who don’t pack it in when Mother Nature rears her ugly head. And, I would love to bundle up again for the opportunity to slide a Yamaha YZ450F around Lake Kettle Moraine one more time—but I’d like it to be a little warmer the next time, say 20 degrees.

ICE RACING IN FINLAND WITH MIKA KALLIO

 

DARYL ECKLUNDice racingJim DrummondJOHN BASHERKettle Moraine Lakemotocrossmxamxa wrecking crewSteel Shoe Fundtim olson.yamaha yz450f