Numb Bum: Motorcycle Ice Racing

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Numb Bum 24-Hour Ice Race

12 Local Riders Encouraged by First-Time Results

Tyler Sandell turns onto the main straightA gray-green track cut through the snow in front of me. The glossy, scored and snow-dusted surface it revealed was ice, 26 inches of it, a deep green like thick glass. Ice; and I was riding a motorcycle on it, and the temperature was around 10F.

That's not all. It was about 9 in the morning, and my Honda XR400R was one of 34 bikes and quads that had started 21 hours earlier, at noon on Saturday, Feb. 10. I was putting in my shift for my teammates, The Ice Holes , 12 riders from Puget Sound area who had traveled to the tiny summer village of Sandy Beach, Alberta to campaign two bikes — my XR and a Honda CR250R belonging to Everett-based roadracer Patrick Dowd — in the hilarious and demanding Numb Bum 24.

The curve of the narrow, gray-green track tightened into a right-hand turn. I rolled the throttle shut as I pushed the bike down under me. As soon as I was off the gas, the rear end of the bike stepped out much faster and farther than I had ever felt a bike do on the dirt. But I was used to that by now: it was the start of my fourth shift, which means I had already put in nine laps on the 16-kilometer, 163-turn track and had turned the bike more than 1,400 times.

"Engine braking rules!", I thought for the thousandth time, as I set up for the turn. Soon as I got back on the gas, the bike hooked up — again, much faster and harder than I was used to from dirt riding — as the tires' sharp studs bit into the ice. The XR's motor blared its sweet four-stroke-single song as I powered through the turn and out of it, skimming my right bootsole over the ice. The sun was a bright spot in the low overcast, filtering a flat light over everything and inspiring lots of faux-Hemingway prose like this.

Signing Up

The Numb Bum 24 has never been well publicized, at least not south of the Border. When we Ice Holes-to-be first heard of it, early in 1999, the story arrived wrapped in scary rumors of temperatures around -20F and of frozen eyeballs. We idly discussed entering the race, then we were secretly relieved (at least I was) when we heard that the 1999 Numb Bum 24 had been cancelled. The next year nobody heard about it until after the fact - must've been one of those Y2K malfunctions.

Tyler Sandell on the Ice Holes XR400But the year after that, Tyler Sandell decided it was time to make the thing happen. Tyler is a Seattle-based member of Washington Motorcycle Road Racing Association; his most recent distinction is a first place for the 2000 season in the club's 450 Superbike class. The race sounded like a worthy challenge, so early in December he put out the word about the Numb Bum on a local dirt-riding e-mail list. Soon he had a full crew signed up.

Fast forward to mid-January. I had thus far managed to avoid being recruited, despite the queasy fascination the race held for me (frozen eyeballs?! ) and despite friends' broad hints about what a great ice-racing bike my XR400 would make. But strong drink and the blandishments of subtle people proved to be my downfall. One night at The Five Points, a notorious Seattle watering hole — it's the one with the periscope over the urinal — I was chatting with Bill ("Sparky") Sparks, parts pundit at Motorcycle Works of Renton and a good friend to have nearby when you're out on a racetrack.

Making small talk I asked, "So, who's signed up for Numb Bum?"

Sparky recited a roster heavy with WMRRA racing talent: Tyler Sandell, Chris Denzler, Kev ("Goatboy") Burgess, Sparky himself, Tony Callen, Rob Fulwell, Simon-Pierre Smith, Pat Dowd.

"Wow," I said. "All the cool people."

With a smile that any pimp or carny grifter would envy, Sparky said, "All the cool people, that is, except you."

The next morning I wondered what I had gotten myself into, and I halfway hoped that Sparky would think it had been the beer talking when I said I would ride the Numb Bum. But when I got out of the shower there was a message from Tyler on the answering machine, welcoming me to the team and informing me of a meeting to be held two nights hence.

Prepping the Bike

Before we Ice Holes began transforming it into fiercely studded ice-racing beast, the XR400 was nearly stock. I had purchased it used a couple of years before; the previous owner, a fellow even more inseam-challenged than myself, had lowered the machine three inches and installed a Baja Designs dual-sport kit.

My late decision to enter that bike in the Numb Bum gave me only three and a half weeks to get the bike ready. I would have to work fast even though the goals were modest:

  • install something brighter than the XR's measly 35-watt headlight
  • provide extra electrical power for brighter headlights and electrically-heated grips and clothing
  • install grip heaters and an electric-vest connector
  • free up the breathing of the bone-stock motor
  • fit studded tires

Studs with sharp hexagonal headsTyler had found a Canadian source for studded tires, and we decided to purchase them (at about US$500 per set) rather than try to make them ourselves. A set for the XR was ordered soon after I signed up.

My first job was to remove the XR's stator and send it off to Baja Designs for rewinding. A rewound stator would boost the alternator's output from 80 watts to 250 watts, providing power to spare.

Folks at Baja Designs were enthusiastic when I told them about the Ice Holes' expedition to the frozen North. They expedited the stator-rewinding job and provided tons of useful advice on bike preparation. Along with dual-sport kits, the company stocks a fair number of OEM and third-party parts for Honda XRs and other offroad bikes, so I was able to order most of the parts I needed from one source.

A free-flowing 1997-spec stock Honda spark arrestor replaced the more restrictive part on my '98 XR. A UNI Air Filter freed things up on the intake side. Those mods (plus adjustments to carburetor jetting) were all I had in mind for the engine.

Rewound stator is good for 250 wattsFor the headlight I took the cheap, easy, and convenient route, and ordered Baja Designs' replacement for the stock Honda lens and reflector assembly. The Baja Designs unit is not DOT approved, which means its light pattern is optimized for illumination, not compromised for oncoming traffic. It uses a readily available H3 bulb and, best of all, it takes five minutes to install in the Honda's headlight/number plate assembly.

The rewound stator arrived well ahead of schedule. In it's new configuration it had two outputs, each delivering about 125 watts. Baja Designs sent along detailed instructions for hooking up the newborn stator with the bike's electrics. It was all simple enough, and I only had to study three wiring diagrams — in the XR400R shop manual, the dual-sport kit installation guide, and the stator instructions — to learn what I needed to know to wire up the grips and the accessory outlet.

Fitting the Studly Tires

The XR's studded tires finally arrived on Feb. 6, just a couple of days before we were scheduled to leave for the race. Tires for Pat Dowd's CR had arrived a week or so previous to that, and we had been amazed to learn that the set weighed 51 pounds (versus about 22 pounds for a set of normal knobbies). Each studded tire contained sections of two other, smaller-diameter tires that had been cut down for use as liners.

With their triple-thick carcasses, the tires for Pat's bike were pure hell to mount. A couple of teammates brutalized them onto the rims with long tire irons, many grunts and curses, and repeated hammer blows. So when I dropped my wheels off at Motorcycle Works of Renton to have the studded tires installed, Sparky said, "You know, your rims might not be so pretty by the time we get these things on."

I gulped and said "Yeah, I know." Then I set my wheels down and got out of there. I didn't want to see or hear what was going to happen next.

Dressing for the Weather

The stories of intense cold were more than a little daunting. I had never been to Alberta before the Numb Bum, but I knew the part of the province where we'd be racing was just north of Edmonton — in the prairie, east of the Canadian Rockies, where the Arctic winds built force over a thousand miles of flat country as they bore down on you.

I didn't want to freeze my eyeballs or any other vital spheroids, so I gave careful thought to the matter of warmth. I decided the best solution would be a snowmobile suit sized to fit over my roadracing leathers. I also got a heated vest that would fit over the leathers and under the snowmobile suit.

Sledding gear offered a solution to another concern: visibility. How could I keep my helmet visor from freezing solid as soon as I started breathing hard out on the race course? A snowmobile helmet with electrically heated visor promised to help me maintain a clear perspective. All I had to do was splice on a standard two-prong SAE connector in place of the weird phono plug (like you'd find on the back of your stereo) that was supplied to connect the visor to the snowmobile's electrical system. Oh, great: another job for my ever-burgeoning list.

But all this gear was unproven. I did put on my expedition-weight long underwear, and my back protector, and my roadrace leathers, and the electric vest over my leathers and then the bib pants and jacket of the snowmobile suit on top of the whole ensemble. Thus bundled up I went for a ride on my road bike, mainly to make sure I could still move. I started sweating before I got out the front door, and rivulets ran down my face as I locked the door behind me.

My gear was uncomfortably warm throughout my ride on a day in the mid-40s, and I didn't even bother plugging in the electric vest. Of course, forecasts for the Edmonton area called for low temps about 40F colder than that, and as race day approached the predicted lows crept lower. A lot can happen in the interval of 40 or 50 degrees, but there would be no chance to shake down the gear in earnest till I was on the Albertan ice.

Racing the Clock

A flurry of details consumed the last days before our departure on February 8 — the Thursday before the race. The Van of Steel, my 1989 Ford E-350 bikehauler, got studded snow tires and new fluids from radiator to differential. Tyler found a great deal on a 4-gallon tank for the XR, but it didn't arrive till the Tuesday before we were leaving, and I couldn't pick it up till the following day.

On the same stop at Moto Works I also picked up my wheels, newly wrapped in their gnarly studded tires. Dave Taylor, the Zen master of tire changes, had been able to finesse them onto the rims with no unseemly struggle or bad karma.

"It was pretty easy," he said, grinning.

"Dude, you've got the genius touch," I said, and he grinned even bigger, not bothering to argue with me.

At 8 p.m. I had mounted the wheels on the XR. That had been a job in itself, as each wheel now weighed a good 15 pounds more than normal. To get them in place I had to remove the cardboard that the kind folks at Motorcycle Works had wrapped around the mounted tires to protect the studs from wear — and, not incidentally, to protect flesh and property from the studs, whose edges were sharp enough to draw blood. The rear wheel was hard to nudge into position because the tire was wider than stock; it wouldn't fit unless I removed the disk shroud from its mounts on the swingarm and carefully angled the wheel into place, wearing mulehide gloves and trying not to slash my wrists on the sharp hexagonal heads of the tire studs.

I still needed to finish wiring the grip heaters and the accessory connector, and fit the new gas tank. And make sure the accessory connector wouldn't yank the whole wiring harness out of the bike if someone biffed while connected. And make sure the grip-heater wiring didn't get in harm's way when the handlebars moved from lock to lock. And try to confirm that the wide rear tire wouldn't chew up anything on full compression. And... and...

It was about 3 a.m. by the time I finished. I was supposed to pick up Sparky at 10:00, and I still hadn't loaded the van. I realized I didn't even know whether the new gas tank would hold gasoline, and the only gas I had at hand was some nasty stuff I had bought last summer for the lawn mower.

It seemed smart to bring along the original gas tank in case the new one leaked, so I picked it up and set it with the pile of stuff I was going to load into the van after I got a little sleep. It was one of those Dark Night of the Soul moments I have sometimes when I'm trying to do something major and everything takes longer than I plan for and suddenly it's 3 a.m. and I'm too tired to remember where I left the list I made of things that I was going to try to remember. Everything was at risk: I didn't know whether my cold-weather gear was going to keep me warm enough. There was no guarantee that my fancy heated visor was going to work as advertised. What if the XR failed during the race because of something stupid I overlooked? I knew most of the guys who were going to Alberta, but I had no idea how well we were going to function as a team, especially when it was 3 a.m. and everybody was tired and cold and bruised and nothing was working as it should.

I went upstairs and crawled into bed. Anne, my wife, kissed me and then fell back asleep. I snuggled against her under the warm blankets. Nights in Alberta were going to be cold indeed.

End of Part 1. Come back next month and join the Ice Holes as they take 4th and 6th places in their 24 hours on the ice. See what fatigue and adrenaline do to team spirit. Learn whether one headlight is really enough.

Bill Nolan/Winter 01

Bill Nolan is a local rider, a member of WMRRA and a regular contributor to Sound RIDER!

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