The Numb Bum: Motorcycle Ice Racing

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Yamaha Motorcycles Street Event - Skagit


The Reoccurrence of the Numb Bum

By Simon-Pierre Smith

The Numb-Bum 24 hour endurance ice race has become an institution with the Northwest race team " The Ice Holes ". The group is driven on by the camaraderie of the road trip, the respect of the frost-fearing that we leave behind, and that look our mothers give us, a look of disbelief that anything so foolish could come from her womb. Ice racers love that look.

Too much money is spent on equipment. Too much time is spent on bike preparation. Too much beer is drunk as chests are thumped and lies are told.

Steel studs mean ice bikes have more traction than dirt bikes, as long as they stay in the lugs.

At first glance, motorcycle endurance ice racing seems like a simple endeavor. Just ride a bike with studded tires around a frozen lake for 24 hours. But the obstacles are insidious, tough to plan for, and all circle around fatigue or the weather. All the systems for comfort and reliability start to fall apart at –51° Fahrenheit.

Propane, the life's blood of an ice racing team, decides to stay liquid and rest in the tanks. Oil for mixing with 2-stroke fuel is persuaded from the jug in viscous clumps. Even vigorous shaking doesn't seem effective in mixing it with gasoline. To help team leader Tyler Sandell with a 3 AM clutch change, I grab a mag light with my bare hands. It isn't cool. It isn't cold. It isn't even damn cold. It is an ice ferret gnawing at my hand. Ice ferrets, like real ferrets, are best handled with gloves.

At 51° below zero, zip ties snap for no reason. Plastic fenders break. Stainless steel wire loses strength. At 51° below zero, the rubber lugs of the tire stop bending. The resulting shock load on the studs snaps them off just below the surface. The air pressure can be lowered to add flex and save the studs, but the added flex causes the frozen sidewalls to crack, then shred.

In endurance racing, a competitive machine can turn into a caribou carcass in the time it takes to shoot first gear out the bottom of the cases.

The locals say that, at 51° below zero, it only takes 1 minute on the bike to freeze any exposed flesh. With 12-minute lap times, no one can verify the exact timing. Riders preparing to do battle are dressed like raccoons; duct tape stuck to their faces, around their eyes, anywhere the facemask leaves them exposed. Even with these measures, hardly anyone escapes having some part of their face turn bright red, then dark brown, then black, before eventually sloughing off to show a healthy pink again.

Motorcycles and quads learn to live together in harmony, but they're still tough to pass.

Out on the track the bikes and quads throw up a fine mist of shimmering ice particles, a million pretty knives. They stay suspended in the air, forming an "ice fog" for the headlamps to aim through. The machinery grooming the course, with a plow in front and a broom in back, leaves a long lingering trail of blinding frost, and a passing lane deep with traction robbing snow. Even with the low air temperature, the ice will occasionally crack. The lake water, a balmy 32° Fahrenheit, sends up tendrils of steam when it hits the ultra dry air at 51° below zero. Riding through the puddle and hearing the water splash on the motor and your boots make you wonder what mechanism will fail when the water freezes.

At these temperatures, the experience of the local racers shines through. Their cold weather gear, refined from years of riding along frozen rivers, allows them to stay out for hours in comfort and with full vision. Ice Holes might come in every lap or two for fresh warm goggles, or to scrape ice off their glasses. Replacing a blown tube is an hour-long ordeal with a tire machine for Ice Holes. Local riders take 20 minutes with a couple of tire "spoons."

At ten feet wide, throwing frost, and always on the good line because he's making it, snowplows are a formidable road hazard to deal with.

Experienced or not, for each racer the task is determination. Gear problems are there to be worked around, pain to be ignored. Bikes are brought in for a variety of repairs; chains, clutches, frozen carb breathers, crash damaged controls. In the end, when each item is repaired and sent back into battle, driven hard to a mid pack finish, each rider receives a small plastic finisher's trophy. It is physical proof that just finishing is truly victory. SR!

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