- Jammin Cameron Brooks is in heaven.
My earliest memory of watching motorcycles racing on ice comes from way back in the pre-ESPN era. Ice racing was one of those events you'd sometimes see aired on Wide World of Sports some snowy Sunday afternoon. The race was usually broadcast from a far-away land like Poland or Bulgaria. The best riders were always Europeans, usually from Scandinavia or the Warsaw Pact countries.
To a little kid viewing ice racing, it seemed like the main goal of the contestants was unseating unfortunate ski-jumpers from the opening credits and providing a new image of "The Agony of Defeat." It was the first time I recognized the morbid voyeurism that many sports fans often don't admit dwells within the dark recesses of their psyche. In short, I was waiting for somebody to crash. I didn't have to wait long.
Ice racing as a sport hasn't changed much since then. But its popularity has been steadily growing in the United States since the late 1970s. The International Championship Events (I.C.E.), the sanctioning body for indoor ice racing, is now in its 25th season of racing. Along with their quad-riding cousins, I.C.E. is coming to the World Arena tonight.
These nitromethane-burning bikes are brightly colored with angular, raw-boned looks, like unruly metal dragons. Weighing in at around 175 pounds, and pushing out close to 100 horsepower, these 500cc bikes -- mostly Italian and British makes -- have a power-to-weight ratio that rivals an Indy car. Riders guide these bikes over a 3-inch layer of ice with metal screws in their tires to help gain purchase. They are capable of going 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds, but the top speed during events is usually no more than 45 mph. Oh, and, get this -- the bikes have no brakes!
"You control it with the throttle, let the throttle work the bike," said veteran ice racer Cameron Brooks of Colorado Springs. "It's like high-speed ballet. It's fast but you have to have perfect balance. You always try to pass on the inside, but if you're really good, if you're really thumpin' it hard, you can go and drift a little late, and go to the outside and try and pass on the outside. But it's hard. It's so small, there's little room for error."
The way some owners bear a resemblance to their pets, Brooks somehow resembles the bikes he rides. Lean and brightly colored with tattoos along both arms, Brooks is a young-looking 38-year-old with shoulder-length, dirty-blonde hair and a wistful smile. Brooks has been racing motorcycles since he was 12 years old. After 11 years as an occasional rider on the ice racing circuit, Brooks is making his debut this year as a full-time ice racer.
"I saw it and it was just so cool, I said, 'I want to go be one of those guys,'" said Brooks, who has also raced motocross, enduro and dirt track motorcycles since he was 12. "Think about it this way: There's a zillion motocross riders out there, there's a zillion enduro riders, there's a handful of people who are professional (ice) speedway riders. So instead of being a small fish in the ocean, you're a big fish in a small lake."
For Brooks, the concept of little margin for error is a natural one, one he seeks in his art as well as sport. To supplement his racing endeavors, Brooks works as a tattoo artist at Snake's tattoo studio on Platte Avenue.
"When you're doing a tattoo, you only get one chance," Brooks said. "There are no erasers in this medium."
While on the road ice racing, Brooks sometimes works as a guest artist at tattoo shops in towns where the tour stops. That is, if he's not too sore from racing. Although elaborate safety precautions are taken to protect riders, ice racing is still a dangerous business -- at least as dangerous as misspelling a boyfriend's name on biker-babe's butt.
"I had a concussion and raced. Broke my wrist, taped it up and raced. Sliced my hand open real good here one time," said Brooks, tracing a long scar along the bottom of his right hand. "You could see the bones poppin' out and there was blood all over my leathers, and I went out and won every heat and won the main that night. You get injured; it's just like, tape it up and say, 'Let's go run it.' "
When an accident seems imminent, the rider tries to avoid one thing at all costs -- the wall.
"You don't want to hit the wall," Brooks said. "I've seen people break things. You try to lay it down and get as far away from the motorcycle as you can. Because, generally, if you're going into the wall, for some reason, [the bike] will spin around and you'll hit the wall first, then the bike will hit you."
Though the risks are high, relative to other kinds of racing, though, the purse money is small. No one blows into town via private jet, the way some race car drivers do. For winning the main event, a rider typically receives up to about $650. This is in addition to the modest basesalary that riders receive when they race the complete January to March tour schedule of 20 race events, which are held across the country in arenas from California to North Carolina.
"It's great to get paid to do the thing you love to do most," Brooks said.
Like many who share a common danger, an elite kinship forms between the riders as they pass the time on the way to the next venue, driving through the night, listening to the radio, drinking coffee and taping up each other's racing wounds. For part of the season, Brooks travels on the tour bus with the rest of the contract (full-time) riders, including many Europeans who come to the United States to compete. An Englishman, Anthony "The British Bulldog" Barlow is the defending I.C.E. champion.
Often, though, Brooks rides to races in his van with fellow ice racers Bobby Richards of Colorado Springs and Shawn Hurley of Westminister for company.
While racing, "It's like, let the devil take tomorrow, mother fucker. Get out of my way." But between races Brooks says, "Everyone's real helpful. If you need a part, something can be found."
Brooks' eyes light up and he lapses into a story about a time when Hurley broke his leg -- and the front end of the motorcycle -- during one of the heat races. Richards and Brooks fixed Hurley's front end, and he went on to win the main event, broken leg and all. Later Brooks and Richards drove Hurley to the hospital, where they discovered the leg was broken.
Despite the potential dangers, and the constant exposure to the consequences of exceeding the sport's thin margin for error, Brooks says he'd like to keep ice racing for at least another 12 years. Or forever. ...
"You ever watch the movie Field of Dreams where all the guys play baseball and it's just like heaven?" Brooks asked. "Well, that would be heaven for me: To be able to ice race all the time. That, to me, is heaven."
World Cup Ice Speedway Championship Series
Colorado Springs World Arena, 3185 Venetucci Blvd.
Thurs., Jan. 25, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $18, reserved. $14, general admission
For more info, call 719/576-2626.