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Merrill Ice Drags - Too Cool

The Merrill, Wisconsin, Ice Drags

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We couldn't believe it when we first heard about this, but it's as real as the minus-22-degree-F stunner that cut through to our Californian bones as we stepped out of the airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin, in January on the way to see our first ice drags. Racing on a frozen river makes perfect sense and is completely mind-blowing all at the same time.

We met up with Jesse Bornfelth, president of the Merrill (Wisconsin) Ice Draggers and hit him with all the usual questions. Like, how does something like this get started, anyway? Turns out it's been going on since 1965, and Jesse pointed us to some of the old-timers who said, in essence, that there ain't a lot to do in these parts come wintertime, but there are plenty bars and plenty gearheads to drink plenty barley pops. It was only a matter of time before the three added up to a bench racing scheme that stuck. The idea was to race on an iced-over jetty of the Wisconsin River where it ran through Council Grounds, which was a state forest at the time but is now a state park. The event has been held there nearly every year since.

As it turns out, it's legal in many northern states to drive on frozen bodies of water; in fact, a few years ago, Wisconsin courts ruled that frozen waterways are "premises held out to the public for use of the motor vehicles" and that drink-and-drive offenses could therefore be upheld for guys cutting donuts in wintery fun while buzzed.

If you've seen Ice Road Truckers on the History Channel, you've seen big rigs navigating on frozen seas with ice up to 60 inches thick. At Council Grounds, the river this year was frozen to 15 to 19 inches, which the locals call safe, though the standard line in CYA legal warnings is that "there is no safe driving on frozen water." Naturally, we asked if any drag racer has ever fallen through. No, though a few early-season plow trucks and support vehicles have gotten wet. By race time--which is typically five events from the second week in January through the first weekend in February, weather permitting--the ice is thick enough that even the pits are right there on top of the river. We once heard the ice fracture into a 12-foot crack, but that just says that the ice is hard enough to race on; apparently, softer ice that does not crack is what's more dangerous.

The track itself is a side-by-side eighth-mile with almost a quarter-mile of runoff. The timing lights capture e.t. and mph only, with no progressive times. We expected to see problems with cars slipping and sliding into each other and then not being able to stop after the finish line. Surprisingly, the cars go pretty straight, and if they do get out of shape enough to run into something, there's a bank of 3-foot-deep snow between two drag lanes that prevents car-to-car impact. At the big end, stopping seems to pose no real drama.

But what about traction? The Merrill Ice Draggers offer classes for plain rubber tires, but not too many racers take them up on that. Most run what are called nailies, which are usually radial street tires loaded with as many as 3,000 drywall screws threaded through the tire from the inside out, creating the ultimate ice studs. These things shred. Many locals believe that narrower tires are better for traction since they have greater contact pressure and dig in harder than a wider tire. Knowing that, we wondered how wrecked the starting line would become after a day of racing. Answer is, pretty wrecked. It gets dug out perhaps 5 inches deep, and near the end of the day, there's a bit of a ramp to climb out of as the cars launch. Starting line maintenance consists of just sweeping away the slush during breaks in the action. We didn't see any oildowns, but obviously they don't pose a traction problem. However, they've gotta be cleaned up for environmental reasons, and crews in the pits are required to protect the ice from any fluid leaks.

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