Motorcycle ice racing arrives.
By Randy Horick
JANUARY 26, 1998: Hell finally froze over last weekend in Nashville, right here in our own back pond, and 99 percent of the citizenry missed it. xxxAt least it sure looked like hell. Sure seemed crazy as hell. It was unquestionably wild as hell, perpetrated and attended by people who appeared intent on raising hell.
Just ask the 10,000 or so folks who lined up at Municipal Auditorium over a two-night period, plunked down $12 for a ticket, and went wild for two hours as revved-up motorcyclists and frenzied four-wheel-ATVers flung themselves around an iced-up hockey rink.
Officially, the show was part of the 16th Annual Speedway ICE Racing National Championships. That's right, motorcycles on ice. Unofficially, it may well have been the loudest, most raucous hullabaloo on a skating rink you've ever seen--an event almost calculated to make insurance carriers swoon and Torville and Dean break out in hives.
Take mountain bikes, equip them with drag-race engines, remove the brakes, put six riders on a starting line, sling them around the ice four times, and you have a rough understanding of the sport. On the slick, frozen surface, ice riders accelerate in short bursts on the straightaways, slide sideways through the turns, and angle for position on the inside.
Often, the racers are so close to each other that the event arguably qualifies as a contact sport. One mistake, one less-than-lightning reflex, can hurtle a rider into the wall. That challenge seems to draw the riders to ice racing like iron filings to a magnet.
"I like the tight, aggressive action," exulted Gary "Hit Man" Hesmer, who trucked his Jawa 898 bike and a complement of plastic body armor down from Ontario. "It's very extreme. Anything can happen at any time."
Viewing it from his when-you're-17-you-think-you're-immortal perspective, James Berkinshaw described the sport even more succinctly: "You're all balls, really. It's all guts."
Nobody who witnessed the spectacle of ice racing last weekend would disagree. "There's nothing like the adrenaline rush you get when you're in a race," declares Berkinshaw, who drew cheers from the crowd with his tight, aggressive passing in the turns. In pursuit of that rush, Berkinshaw jetted over from Sheffield, England, dismantling his bike and cramming the components into suitcases.
Appearances notwithstanding, the participants insist that insanity is not a prerequisite for ice racing (although it perhaps enhances the experience). "I think the streets are more dangerous," says Gary Densford, who orchestrates the six-race national championship tour. "My wife would kill me if I raced on the street."
Running on ice, as any of the riders will staunchly assert, affords more traction than dirt tracks, where the ice racers compete during the rest of the year. It helps, of course, that each tire is studded with hundreds of steel screws that bite into the racing surface. The riders also wear thick leather suits filled with padding.
Still, wrecks and snarls on the ice are common enough that, if a mishap occurs in the first lap, the race is simply restarted. Bonks and bruises are ubiquitous, but the riders say that serious injuries are infrequent. Most of the time, contestants slowly pick themselves up and get ready for another run.
Blood may be the most appropriate symbol for this sport--not because it is ritually spilled but because, for the riders, it's the part of the body that is most affected. The exhilaration gets into your system. It may go into remission for years, but it never seems to go away.
Just ask Pat Goldsmith, a mechanical technician at Saturn, who last raced on ice a decade ago in Michigan. During his family's first winter in Tennessee, four years ago, a pond next to the Goldsmiths' house in Rockvale froze solid. "We got out, studded up the tires, and started riding on the ice. People were stopping on the road and getting out of their cars to watch."
When Goldsmith saw a TV commercial advertising the Nashville race, he logged onto the Internet and discovered that the event was being promoted by Densford (for whom he had once raced in Europe). So he showed up at Municipal Auditorium Friday, hoping for a chance to run.
Though Goldsmith lacked a race-ready bike--the handmade competitive models can cost $6,000 new--his wish nonetheless was granted. Thanks to the largesse of Kim Gregory, an ice racer from Toronto who loaned out his bike and watched the preliminary heat from the sidelines, Goldsmith rode again.
He made it around two corners before hitting the wall, he told a listener. "ONE corner," corrected his son, Weston.
No matter. The heat was restarted. Goldsmith wiped out in the same corner and slammed the wall again. This time, Gregory's bike crumpled into a serpentine mass of metal.
But that was little matter either. Following recommendations from local racing enthusiasts, Gregory found a mechanic--Charlie Southgate of Inglewood Machine--who repaired the bike in time for Saturday night. Goldsmith paid the bill. "[The bike] runs better now than when I started," Gregory enthused.
Gregory's gesture (imagine Dale Earnhardt loaning his ride to Sterling Marlin during qualifying runs) exemplifies a camaraderie that exists within the relatively small fraternity of ice racers. Since the sport's format means that no more than six of the riders are on the small track at once, a racer can usually borrow someone else's bike if his crashes or breaks down. That's what happened when the luggage containing Berkinshaw's disassembled bike failed to arrive in time for a race in Canada. He finished third using a loaner.
The riders say it's mostly their own skill and daring, and not the equipment, that determines who wins on the ice. Besides, says Gregory of his loan to a total stranger that kept him off the ice on Friday, "When I see that kind of enthusiasm, I try to do everything I can to encourage it."
Perhaps more than any other regular on the circuit, Gregory has ice racing in the blood. He developed and maintains a 1,500-page Web site on the sport (http://speedway.incontext.ca) that now boasts 100,000 hits per month. Last year he went to Sweden as part of a North American team.
And he'll ride in all six events on the Speedway ICE National Championship circuit this year, even though he generally earns only enough from racing to cover his travel expenses.
On Saturday night, Gregory fell during his first heat but climbed back aboard and finished third. He did no better in the second heat, then wound up last in the third. ("I was tired," he explained.) To extend his run of bad luck, Gregory lost on a draw for the final spot in a last-chance qualifying run. But he still left the rink with a smile. "You just can't go to another sport and get the same feeling," he says.
Next month, he'll be in San Francisco with Hit Man Hesmer, Biff Waczynski, Robert "Kid" Curry, Mountain Man Grant, and all the other ice racing regulars, getting ready to run again.
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