PEORIA — Four racers inch up to the starting line on what looks like an average dirt bike, the sound of momentary engine revving accompanying every other second before the race begins.
But it's no ordinary bike — it's a high-octane speedway bike equipped with a four-valve engine and hundreds of razor-sharp steel studs on the tires. And it's no ordinary surface underneath the racers. This mini-chopper races on an ice track.
"It's a four-valve, alcohol-burning rocket ship basically under your seat," said Anthony Barlow, the owner of the Xtreme International Ice Racing circuit.
"And it only has one gear. And it only turns left."
The spectacle of this curious brand of racing will be on full display at Carver Arena on Wednesday Jan. 17, when a field of courageous racers will participate in anywhere from 20 to 25 races during the course of the night. Some of the races will pit drivers against each other on four-wheelers that don't have four-wheel drive. But the main event is always the speedway bike races.
The bikes go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than 3 seconds. And that isn't even the most thrilling aspect: none of the bikes possess brakes. As the racers skid into each turn, the crowd holds its breath to see if the bike stays upright.
"It's a bit like a domino effect," Barlow said. "Normally in ice racing, you're all bunched up together, and if one goes down, we all go down."
Barlow, who is from Southport, England, is known as “The British Bulldog” and approaches the racing in a manner befitting his nickname. He has also grown his circuit to the point that racers join from all around the world to compete on the ice track with the XIIR, including its first full-time female rider this past year.
But one of his favorite parts of each visit to a new city is a little parlor game called "Who wants to be an ice racer?", which will bring out some of the amateurs in the crowd to try out a race. In Peoria on Jan. 17, four women and four men will be selected during the two intermissions to ride on bikes that go 18-20 mph.
The prospective amateurs believe they possess all of the skills necessary to operate an engine-powered bike on two inches of ice. Then the race starts and things go much differently.
"To be honest, it's one of the best races of the night," Barlow said. "It's amazing."
To avoid a crash, Barlow theorized, the best plan involves hitting the gas and not slowing down. Perhaps that's not the best advice for the people in attendance next week who will get a chance to ride, but it makes for great theater for both that race and the professional ones that occur the rest of the night.
"The trick is to get out of the gate and go as fast as you can — ride it like you stole it," the man called "The British Bulldog" said with glee.
Thomas Bruch can be released at 686-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.