While Atlantic City's history in indoor auto racing predates almost any other city in the United States, the resort town and nearly every other New Jersey municipality has practically no background at all in a sport with a huge international presence.
Speedway motorcycle racing was once the most popular spectator sport in all of Great Britain, and not just among motorsports. The excitement generated by — and inherent danger within — stripped down, supercharged motorcycles flying around a small oval track brought fans out by the thousands in the U.K., and still does in many parts of Europe.
Replace the cinder, shale or clay surface with ice, add the notation that a methanol-powered speedway motorcycle can go from zero to 60 miles-per-hour in about three seconds while lacking the luxury of brakes, and the inherent-danger element enters the realm of insanity.
Starting 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall will play host to speedway motorcycle ice racing — and three other styles of oval-track ice racing including three- and four-wheelers — when the Xtreme International Ice Racing tour makes its Atlantic City debut.
Fittingly, since the sport can trace its roots to 1920s Great Britain, it is an Englishman who will be bringing all the action to Atlantic City.
XIIR owner and founder Anthony Barlow, 46, began racing professionally in his home town of Merseyside, England, when he was 19. Barlow relocated to the U.S. about 20 years ago, and won the first of his eight World Speedway Riders Association ice-racing championships in his first year on American soil.
“I came to America on Christmas Day 1998 and won my first WSRA ice-racing title (in 1999),” says Barlow. “Now I'm trying to get away from the racing side of things and focus more on promoting. My daughter (Renee Kendall Barlow) co-owns the business with me and helps me set everything up.”
Barlow, who became known as the British Bulldog during the heyday of his racing career, created the XIIR in 2004 as a professional tour designed to enlighten Americans to the excitement of indoor ice racing, many of whom may not have even known it existed. The tour travels as far north as Portland, Maine and as far west as Everett, Washington. Atlantic City is the second stop on the eight-event tour that ends March 23 in Johnstown, Pa.
One of the most successful racers on the XIIR tour in recent years is a New Jersey native. Jay Maloney started racing motorcycles competitively at age 4 and became a professional at 16, the minimum age allowable to turn pro by any major sanctioning body.
Maloney is a 31-year-old Bergen County native and the returning XIIR champion in both the speedway and flat-track classes, the latter of which affords him major corporate sponsorship through Indian Motorcycles. In all classes of racing, several heats of four racers apiece score points for first, second and third place per race, and six racers qualify for a championship race in each class.
“Flat-track bikes are similar to motocross bikes with a modified suspension for ice racing, and about 15 metal spikes and a series of metal screws on each wheel,” Maloney explains. “The traction on ice is a lot better than people might think. There's a little slipping and sliding out there, but basically you get the same kind of traction you get on clay or cinder — ice is just a surface that takes a lot more getting used to. This is the second year I've been fortunate enough to ride bikes provided by (Indian), because these bikes can be quite expensive.”
Two years ago, Maloney became the first XIIR racer ever to win all three professional divisions in the tour's 15-year history — speedway, flat track and quads — and is also the only racer on the tour to have won all three pro classes in a single night. Last September he qualified for the American Flat Track Championships in the Meadowlands after racing on a conventional surface throughout the summer, and his appearance in Atlantic City will be his first indoor ice-racing event in New Jersey since the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton hosted a World Championship Ice Racing Series tour stop in 2013, another event he won.
“It's great to see the sport making more of an East Coast presence,” Maloney says. “Back in the day it was a bit more well known on the East Coast and that kind of faded off. It's really cool to see it return to my home area, because obviously the fans are going to be rooting for the racers who live close by.”
An added element of ice excitement
Boardwalk Hall is no stranger to ice-surfaced special events, but motorcycle and motorized-vehicle racing on ice will mark a first for the venerated venue on Saturday night.
“We have the ice plant, we just don't use it as often as we'd like or as often as we did when we had the hockey teams here,” says Jim Wynkoop, general manager of Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall through Spectra Venue Management. “Last year we did 'Disney On Ice' and this year we decided to give indoor ice racing a shot. It's a new event here — I don't know how much it's going to catch on but I think it's an event that has promise. We have a long history hosting indoor auto racing, and that's always done well.”
The NAPA Auto Parts Indoor Auto Racing series returns to Boardwalk Hall Jan. 26 and 27. The Hall used to be home to two ice hockey teams in the past — the Atlantic City Seagulls of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League from 1933 to 1953, and the Boardwalk Bullies of the East Coast Hockey League from 2001 to 2005.
“Ice racing is an interesting and different kind of event, and that's one of the things we're here to try to do — bring diverse entertainment to the area,” Wynkoop says. “There's certainly a lot of people in the South Jersey area who ride motorcycles and off-road vehicles, whether it's quads or dirt bikes, so I think there's an audience there. It's just a matter of getting them to know about this, getting them to come out, and hopefully being able to build it into an annual event and make it bigger and more exciting.
“I think getting kids out to see it and like it could potentially give you a fan base for years,” he adds. “(XIIR promoter) Anthony (Barlow) is well known among my colleagues for putting on a good show at many of our sister venues.”
Wynkoop says that the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which owns Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center, has backed Spectra Venue Management's efforts to bring new forms of entertainment to A.C.
“The CRDA has been very supportive in our efforts to do this, and to try different things to see if they catch on and have potential to grow,” Wynkoop says. “This is not a super-expensive event that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but still there's never a guarantee in these endeavors will work, and you don't want to lose money at all even if the only other option is keeping the doors closed. But we're here to try to provide diverse entertainment, and thankfully the leadership at the CRDA is very supportive of that.”