How to: Go ice racing

Photos: Marc Coffin

Ice racing is some of the craziest fun you can have on a motorcycle, with wicked traction available. But it’s all a mystery if you’re not involved in the scene, because it’s kind of ignored by most Canadian motorcyclists.

So for more information, we went to Marc Coffin. He’s held down all sorts of jobs in the Canadian moto-scene. Also, once upon a time, he held the CMA’s 250cc two-stroke intermediate ice racing championship. He was chasing down the leaders in the Expert/Pro class before he retired. Why’d he retire? He had to — he’d promised his mom that he would.

Coffin was a huge help in explaining the ins and outs of ice racing, and we’ve edited his response to our questions to get you the information below.

Where can you ice race in Canada? What’s the biggest series, and what else is out there besides that?

There are organized oval tracks and two-way racing series (with left-hand and right-hand turns, like a roadracing course) in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec. There are  smaller events that run regionally on both a formal and informal basis, especially in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Atlantic Canada hasn’t had a significant ice racing scene in a while.

Quebec’s ice racing scene was big enough to make it to On Any Sunday, and today Valcourt is the biggest event; with 30,000 fans and 350 racers across all the classes (ATV, snowmobiles, snowbikes, etc.), the organizers say it’s the biggest winter motorsports event in the world. In Ontario, the Oshawa Competition Motorcycle Club has been a big driver behind ice racing, with a nine-race series.

Out west, there’s plenty of serious competition. The CMA’s national championship is based in Alberta, and there are other strong races as well, including the infamous Numb Bum 24-hour endurance race. Speaking of which, the Numb Bum is back for 2020, after being cancelled last year due to insurance woes (If you want to read about CMG’s adventures at the Numb Bum, way back in 1998, check out the story here).

British Columbia has good ice racing as well, including the Stake Lake series.

Some of these series will only have offroad bikes fitted with ice tires. Others will have all styles of motorcycles, and some series also include ATVs and other vehicles. And, although the CMA does have an official championship, Coffin points out that “there is no true national championship as Westerners don’t consistently travel to take on the Quebec or Ontario racers and vice versa.”

What are your options for ice tires — as in, do most people make their own, or buy a set? Who makes them?

Professionally-built tires for competition or general ice riding can cost more than $800 per set. While many beginners and recreational riders will build their own, Coffin says they’ll quickly realize they need properly built tires to be competitive in oval track or two-way racing. 

“They are well worth the money and stand up well if you take care of them, and use them, properly,” says Coffin. “Screw angle and placement is crucial and the difference in how they work can be substantial …

Some builders shave the rubber knobs on the tires to create different angles for the studs when you are dragging the foot pegs and handlebars in the corners. There is some voodoo to it. Poorly built tires will leave you low siding at speed and eating snow banks in a hurry.”

However, you can still buy screws and make your own ice tires on the cheap and have fun, says Coffin. Traditionally, ice racing tires have a street bike tire as a liner inside a motocross tires. This design allows the use of longer screws, and more rubber to hold that screw in place. A tire that starts shedding screws at high speed is dangerous not only to the rider, but also to other competitors.

Because improperly-built tires can be so dangerous, race organizers will inspect the tires before events, barring competitors whose tires are unsafe.

When Coffin was racing, he bought tires built by Mark Holliday in Ontario, or Charlie Beattie in Quebec. Marcel Fournier is another well-known ice tire builder in Quebec, as is George Jones at Giver Racing in Ontario and Jim Titmus at Skylark in Calgary.

Ice tires have different stud patterns, depending on use. Tires for oval courses are only studded down the middle and on one side, as they’re only going in one direction. Less studs means less cost and less safety issues in a crash. Two-way tires are studded down the middle, and on both sides. For general recreation and trail riding, Coffin says carbide-studded tires built specially for the purpose are the way to go. He recommends Mitas’s ice tires, with extra-thick carcass for studs. Marcel Fournier also sells general-use studded tires. Pricing for Fournier’s tires is in the $790-$890 range for a set of front and rears.

If you’re going to DIY a set of ice tires, where do you start?

If you don’t have hundreds of dollars for a set of custom ice tires, how do you build your own? Coffin says you’ve got to start with screws; Holliday studs are commonly used, and CMA-approved. Fournier also sells his own screw design, and Kold Kutter is another well-known name.

Unless you’re using a purpose-built ice tire like Mitas makes, you’re also going to want an inner liner, to stop your screws from puncturing your tube. Most riders use a street tire with the bead cut off. This means you’ll need a small inner tube, as there isn’t much room left. Coffin said he used mountain bike tubes in the front for this reason.

You’ll want to put some thought into the angles of your ice studs if you’re serious about going fast, meaning you’ll have to trim the knobs on the tire to get optimal positioning. Study photos of experienced riders’ tires to get this right, and ask around for advice, says Coffin; if you’re just looking to ride casually, it’s not as big a deal.

Finally, you should also get a set of tire covers to keep your tires sharp, which prevent you from accidentally shredding your skin while moving the bike. “You can buy purpose-built ice tire covers that are not cheap but well worth the money,” Coffin says. “An economical solution is to use old heavy duty inner tubes lined with a strip of carpet as tire covers.”

What else does your bike need, besides ice tires? 

Because you’re racing in cold air, proper carburetor jetting is highly important. “Temperatures can shift dramatically in the winter and I’ve adjusted jetting between heat races in Alberta, where there can be big swings in short periods of time,” says Coffin.

Ice racing bikes will run lighter oil to better handle the cold, and often racers will tape 50 per cent of the radiator, or more, to conserve engine heat. Some racers will mess around with the suspension; Coffin lowered his for oval track use, but says it comes down to personal preference. Similar to flat track racing, “The ice ruts can get big fast in an oval track and it can get much rougher and work the suspension, and body, harder than you might think.”

Another important detail: Make sure the studs on your rear tire have sufficient clearance from the exhaust, swingarm, and chain. Some racers will also tape up some of their bike’s airbox, to keep snow out of the intake.

Marc Coffin goes slideways in this vintage race photo. Note the large guard on the front wheel, to protect racers in case of a crash.

The most serious riders will use all sorts of tuning tricks to take their bike to max horsepower, like any other racing discipline.

There are also several specific safety considerations with ice racing, as a crashed motorcycle presents a serious hazard due to the studs on the tires. Regulations differ between series, but most organizers require some sort of wheel guards, wraparound hand guards, and kill switches tethered to the rider. “You want that rear wheel shut down immediately if you get separated from the bike,” says Coffin. “I forced my friends here in Atlantic Canada, under heavy protest, to run them even to play-ride on the ovals I built around here. I’ve seen wrecks with bodies tangled up in bikes and a KX500 with the throttle stuck wide open spinning circles on the ice … Not cool!”

Other than that, different series will have their own regulations about things like tire construction, rider safety gear, motorcycle lights, refuelling safety, and the like.

What kind of riding gear do ice racers wear for protection? What do they wear to stay warm?

Helmets and proper boots are standard requirement, and some series also require chest protectors. You’ll see lots of photos of riders in MX-style gear, although some prefer street-style helmets. Obviously, special attention must be paid to exposed flesh in cold temperatures.

Taping your face, whether wearing a moto or street bike helmet can be an absolute must when its super cold and you’re railing corners at 100+ km/h,” says Coffin.

While bikes set up for oval riding will only have studs on one sidewall, as they’re only turning in one direction, bikes set up for two-way racing or trail riding on ice will have studs on both sides.

Quebecois riders also frequently wear roadracing leathers, says Coffin. When he raced, he wore knee braces under full leathers, with snowboarding pants and a jacket as outside layers. He ran snowmobile gloves, but not heated gloves or grips, because the heats he ran in the CMA series were short and he could warm up afterwards.

The 24-hour Numb Bum endurance race is obviously an outlier, but how long do officially-sanctioned ice races last for?

Coffin says when he raced ovals in Ontario and out West, it was three heats per class, and six laps per heat. These were sprint races that lasted two-to-three minutes, depending on the class.

The number of heats and laps does differ between various series, though. There are also other endurance races, ranging from four to 12 hours long.

Another photo from the vault. Ice racing can make for tight quarters, with vicious, sharp studs spinning fast only inches away from other racers.
Is there a preference between two-strokes or four-strokes for ice racing?

Coffin says he’s biased towards two-strokes, although he loves running his Husaberg 550 on the ice. Generally speaking, ice racers have followed offroad racers in the move to four-stroke engines, though.

What’s the biggest piece of advice someone needs starting out?

“Get your bike jetted properly and make sure you have the right oil in it. 

“Do not skimp on spending a few bucks on a good quality tether kill switch. They are easy to install. I ran quick connectors so I could easily swap it back in the spring.

“Steer clear of brakes on smooth ice. Grabbing a fistful of front brake can kick the front wheel out and put you on your ass fast.  …  Rear brakes on an ice bike at speed can also be trouble. It takes a while to figure it out, but once you get used to ice riding you will pretty much never touch the brakes, and will use engine braking for the most part (in competition). 

Just ride, says Coffin” You’ll figure it out!”

“Learning to trust the studs and traction can be a leap of faith. Play around with low speed, tight ovals, to learn how low you can go, and get a better feel for how the tires work.

“Much of maintaining traction on the ice is staying committed. If you get nervous and chop the throttle at the wrong time, it can unload the suspension and turn tires into ice skates. Steady the throttle to keep the power down through the corners.”

But most importantly — “Just ride. You’ll figure it out!


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