Ice Racing: An Inside Look at Racing your Dirt Bike on the Ice

December 21, 2017 / by Chris Cooksey

Flat track racer JR Schnabel gives us an inside look at what it's like to race dirt bikes on a frozen lake.

What do you do if you live in Wisconsin, Michigan or any cold weather state and want to ride your motorcycle all year?  Ice racing!  Recently, I had the chance to speak with flat track legend and 2003 Peoria TT winner, JR Schnabel.  JR is a bad dude on two wheels. Let’s not forget the year before he won the famed Peoria TT, JR finished second to the one and only Nicky Hayden in 2002.  Yes, that Nicky Hayden!  He currently resides in Wisconsin, and while he no longer races for a living, he’s employed through the well-known motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson.  JR stole some time away from his position as the manager of Order Management to explain the fascinating ins and outs of ice racing. 


So, what is ice racing?  To preserve his skill set in the winter, JR races his motorcycle around a frozen lake for hours.  He explained that dirt track racers rarely have the opportunity to practice on a perfectly prepped dirt flat track, but ice racing provides this ideal practice surface all winter.  He also believes this is why so many top AMA flat track racers are produced from the Michigan and Wisconsin area.  From a western perspective, this entire concept can seem unimaginable, and left me with quite a few questions.  What bike does he ride, and how does he keep his hands warm?  Or more specifically, using screw studs in his tires, how does he prevent his bike from turning into a moving chainsaw?  

JR ripping his RMZ450 on his local frozen lake.

Ice racing begins with modifications to the bike.  Starting with a modern four-stroke dirt bike dialed in for motocross, let’s look at what would be needed for racing on ice.  In order to race competitively, the motor would require head work and a high compression piston.  He did warn about using a fresh bottom end, as adding modifications puts more strain on the crankshaft and bottom end bearings. With fuel injection, jetting is no longer a worry. The cold temperatures can change air conditions in a hurry, so if you’re using a carbureted motorcycle, you’ll most likely become a professional at changing jets to keep the motorcycle running at peak performance.

Many ice racers trust Wiseco to cover what they need for their builds, whether it be a forged piston, clutch basket, or crankshaft.

Wiseco pistons and bottom end parts are a common choice among ice racers. The choice of different compression ratios and features, all forged from their own dedicated forgings, provide the increased power and reliability needed. Crankshaft kits, bottom end rebuild kits, clutch kits, and complete engine rebuild kits also make it easy to make the necessary performance upgrades needed.

Find Wiseco products for your application here.

The tires use screws with studs for grip, which JR mentioned are the most expensive part of the build.  He also advised to buy tires with screws already installed instead of a DIY project, as installing screws yourself is time consuming and not nearly as effective. There are two types of tires, AMA legal and Canadian “cheaters.”  The Canadian tires have much longer studs than their AMA counterparts.  These tires fit the traditional 21-inch front and 19-inch rear, so no additional wheel sets are needed.

After getting tires, it’s important to take precaution and cover them, as they are now deadly weapons. 

Using full fenders as guards is common, and reduces the chance of tires chewing into someone.  JR informed us that it is not uncommon to have a fender failure, usually resulting in an instant black flag. JR actually makes his own fenders, but there are local Wisconsin machine shops that make high quality fenders that mount directly to the forks and swing arm.  This allows the fender to be in a fixed location, which is purely for safety.  With the fenders constantly being an inch or so above the wheel, the chances of a body part being sucked into the wheel are greatly reduced. 

An up-close look at the studded tires used for ice racing. Full-coverage fenders are required in ice racing so these studs don't end up stuck in someone, or someone doesn't end up stuck in them.

The suspension adjustments were discussed next. Could my motocross suspension work on a flat ice track?  According to JR, there are two types of ice racing, Oval and TT.  He mostly races and rides TT.  TT tracks are about 5 to 7 miles in length with left and right hand turns. Typically, TT tracks are low speed, and a normal 450 would never use a higher gear than 4th.  On TT tracks, my motocross suspension would work fine. I might choose to slow the rebound a little, but would not want to run a typical flat track setup on the choppy breaking and acceleration bumps. Now, if I chose to race an Oval track, I might consider the traditional flat track setup. In an Oval race, a lowered motorcycle with a stiff suspension and slow rebound is better suited.

The racer on the left has a flat track style set up, with squatted, stiffer suspension. The racer on the right has a more traditional style suspension set up, better for TT.

Because the 5 to 7-mile course becomes choppy, JR referenced his days riding Supermoto.  One of the biggest advantages in Supermoto is a “slipper” clutch.  With a slipper clutch, you do not get the normal engine braking a four-stroke motorcycle delivers.  When a slipper clutch is installed, the engine braking feels similar to that of a two-stroke motorcycle, which is very little. JR says this serves two purposes: First, this allows the rider to control braking almost completely manually, and second, controlling the braking manually creates less unwanted drag, and allows the tires to last much longer.  The biggest enemy to tire wear is under deceleration, and ice screws are more likely to be torn from the tire under braking than acceleration.

Slipper clutches allow for more manual braking, which is better for cornerning control. Take a moment to appreciate how far JR is laying it over in this corner.

Considering racing is done in freezing cold temperatures, I asked JR how he keeps his hands warm.  JR uses snowmobile mitts to cover his hands, which allows him to wear regular motocross gloves underneath.  He prefers this over wearing thick winter gloves because those tend to give him arm pump. With most races being in endurance format, arm pump could be a serious problem.  Endurance races are usually between two and four hours long.

JR has most of his summer friends addicted to ice racing, and after chatting with him, he has me ready to head out to subzero conditions and fire up my dirt bike to rip around a frozen lake.  His passion for this racing is undeniable, and with minimal changes to a motorcycle, it’s fascinating!  It’s no wonder so many good riders come from the frozen tundra.  Instead of staying indoors and watching football during the winter, get out there like JR and his group of cold weather enthusiasts and carve up the ice on your motocross bikes.

Dirt bikes aren't they only machines that make it to the ice track, either. There are many ATV riders who modify their machines and head out to race in the freezing cold, as well.


Racing photos courtesy of the AMA and their Ice Race Grand Championship.

Topics: featured, Powersports

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Written by Chris Cooksey