The saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is probably never truer than with the above picture of 2008 Individual Ice Racing European Champion Frank Zorn. Cranked over at an almost impossible angle, his handlebar just centimetres from the ground and ice spraying up behind him... he somehow makes Marc Marquez’s gravity defying feats in MotoGP look almost tame...
The chances are though that unless you are based in some of the colder regions of Europe or America, you might never have heard of Frank, or Ice Speedway... so just what is this unique sport?
Naturally, as its name dictates it is very similar to regular Speedway, with the ice version typically filling the off-season gap left by the shale based version and running between the months of December and March. With various World, European and National Championships, Ice Racing is held across various countries but is most prevalent in Russia, Sweden, Finland and America alongside major events being held in the Netherlands and Germany.
With their winter months regularly starting as early as October, it is the Russians who are most dominant in the sport, having won all but one of the Ice Racing World Championships since 1996! Following the format of regular Speedway meetings, each race sees four riders line up either representing as individuals or as part of a club. They then go head to head over four laps of the ice oval, which is typically between 260-425 metres in length. The winner of each race receives three points, the runner up two points and the final podium rider receiving one.
Whilst the machines appear very similar to their shale racing counterparts, the 500cc single-cylinder powered motorcycles do have some stark differences.
Alongside a slightly longer wheelbase and a more rigid frame, the biggest difference is in the form of the studded tyres, which comprises of metal spikes, of up to 28mm in length, which are screwed into each tyre. The front tyre can consist of up to 120 individual spikes, while the rear has somewhere between 180 and 200. The addition of these spikes adds yet another dangerous element to the sport and necessitates that each machine has special protective guards, similar to mudguards, placed over the tyres in an attempt to try and reduce the possibility of major injury during a collision or fall.
Thanks to the immense grip provided by these special tyres, it means that Ice Speedway riders have an incredibly different style of riding. Rather than the traditional broadsiding that people are used to from shale-based riders, Ice Speedway sees riders able to throw their machines into the ice at incredible lean angles. The other most important aspect of an Ice Racing motorcycle that differs from traditional is the suspension. With an average race speed of 100kph, it plays a vital role in enabling the rider to smoothly get the power to the ice. Unlike ‘normal’ Speedway, where there is no rear shock, Ice Speedway also requires full front and rear suspension.
Last season, Öhlins featured on ten machines in the World Championship, with each rider using the universal FG324 Road and Track front forks for their motorcycle, as with no brakes they are easy to fit. At the rear of the machine, riders use the S46PR1C1 Shock absorber whilst Öhlins Steering Dampers are also very well appreciated by the riders in rutted conditions.
An enthusiast of the sport, Wim Peters is also Business Development and Export Manager of Öhlins DTC, “Ice Speedway is top-level racing” he says, “Even though it might not have the same level of popularity as regular Speedway. More than anything, suspension plays a vital role in the race and is incredibly important as the circuit gets heavily rutted throughout the event.”
Naturally, with the nature of the sport needing vast quantities of ice, the circuits themselves are very unique. Most events are held on either of two types of course; either on artificial (or refrigerated) circuits such as long-track speed skating arenas or fully natural courses such as frozen lakes. Whilst the lack of available venues in most countries means that there is a limit to where the World Championship can visit, Ice Speedway still enjoys a global appeal thanks to TV channels such as Motors TV broadcasting an extensive highlights package the week after each round.
With the majority of rounds held across Russia, Germany, Sweden and Finland one of the highlights of the year – just as it is in the world of road racing – is Assen in the Netherlands. Held in the iconic speed skating and ice hockey De Bonte Wever Stadium, the race sees a crowd of 8,000 pack the arena each night of the event. Each rider’s pit box is ‘open’, so unlike some series’ the machines and activities are well known to each other and there is good, friendly rivalry.
The action might be held on sub-zero courses, but the action is red hot as Wim explains, “Ice Racing is an incredibly exciting sport. Just like Speedway it sees four guys go head to head for four laps of the course, all of it on the gas and at breath-taking speeds. Because each heat is short, typically only one minute long, the racing is unbelievably intense and can get very aggressive. Each rider knows that just one small mistake will cost them the race and push them out of the points – and with only a maximum of 21 points available per day, they have to have pin point accuracy, which makes it a very exciting sport to watch!”