Four skaters, all wearing hockey gear, brace themselves in their starting gates on the lip of a 22-meter drop atop a long course covered entirely in a layer of ice about 20 cm thick.
The race announcer gives them a five-second warning, enough time to contemplate hurling themselves forward and downward but not enough time to rethink that decision.
At the horn, they rush down the ramp in a race where speeds can reach up to 80 kph and everyone will go airborne at some point.
The soundtrack to this mad dash is a mixture of rock and hip-hop blaring through the speakers and the drumbeat of fans on both sides of the track leaning over and pounding the boards.
This was the scene over the weekend at Red Bull Crashed Ice Yokohama, as the downhill ice cross event opened its 17th season with its first trip to Asia.
“My first impression was that it looked really crazy,” Tsubasa Sato, who competed in the women’s races, told The Japan Times. “It’s really dynamic and fast. It’s really worth watching. I never thought I’d be doing it.
“But when I’m actually doing it, it doesn’t feel as fast as it looks.”
Downhill ice cross is an extreme sport that is essentially motorcross on skates. Competitors race in four-person heats over multiple rounds with the champion crowned in the final. The ice-covered tracks they skate on, which take around two weeks to build, feature hills, vertical drops and sharp turns.
The sport is governed internationally by the All Terrain Skate Cross Federation and Crashed Ice is a series on the Ice Cross Downhill World Championship circuit.
Crashed Ice events generally take place in urban areas. In Yokohama, the setting was Rinko Park in the Minato Mirai district. In February, it’ll be at Fenway Park in Boston, home of MLB’s Red Sox.
The first-ever Asian stop drew a crowd of curious onlookers, including Yokohama BayStars outfielder Tomo Otosaka, many of whom were seeing the sport for the first time.
“This event in Yokohama is the first time Crashed Ice has come to Japan,” said competitor Takeshi Yasutoko. “There were really a lot of people cheering and I think we fed off that.”
Cameron Naaz was enthused by the turnout.
“It’s a little wild here,” the American said.
“They’re really taking to the sport. “It’s exciting. It’s really good for our sport.”
The fans in attendance got the full Crashed Ice experience. Riders went airborne on portions of the track, with some crashing to the ice when they came back down. Others went down while jostling for position in the turns, or after contact with another skater.
There were close finishes, some so tight they required replay reviews to determine the final positioning, including one where two skaters fell near the finish and slid across the line.
While it might look like a frantic demolition derby at times, that’s not necessarily the case.
“The first time I saw it, it looked crazy,” said Yasutoko, a vert skating legend with multiple X Games gold medals to his name. His similarly-decorated brother Eito also competed.
“I felt like it was really intense and physical, because of the speed. But once I got involved, I saw there were a lot of intricate details. It was totally different than my initial impression. The top athletes are so calm during races. They’re always thinking about how to move up to the next position. It’s like the calculation you’d see in a F1 race.”
While many skaters have hockey backgrounds, experience with in-line skating and in skate parks is also an important tool.
“Either one alone is no good,” said Reed Whiting, a former racer who played collegiate hockey at Ohio State. “You have to have the mix of both. For him (referring to Eito Yasutoko) he needs to work on his skating a lot. But for the hockey guys, they need to go to the skate park and rollerblade.
“So it’s a cool sport because nobody is ready for it until you really work hard and train and get all the disciplines.”
It also takes quite a bit of bravery.
“I was so, so scared the first time,” Sato said of taking on the Yokohama course and its 22-meter vertical drop at the start. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to go down from here?’
“I’m still kind of fighting my fear. But I think if I lose to that fear, then I’m finished. It’s just about the mental aspect. Of course technique is important, but if my mind is weak, that affects my feet and that’s when I make mistakes. When I let my fear impact me, I fall down. So I can’t let it get to me.”
Sato, a rookie, was one several Japanese competing, including the Yasutoko brothers and Junko Yamamoto, a women’s hockey player with past Crashed Ice experience.
“One really positive thing this is doing, is for the Olympics,” said Whiting, a former racer who is now a commentator and also helps train new athletes. “The Olympics has been in contact with the sport. They need to have a more worldwide appeal, so having Asian athletes will really help us grow the sport.”
Naasz took home the men’s title over the weekend, with Amanda Trunzo winning on the women’s side.
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