2018-02-01 / Front Page

I-500 Is This Week

Sault Race Reaches Its 50th Year
By Erich T. Doerr

In the world of motorsports, there are some events that prove iconic enough to stand the test of time. Sault Ste. Marie’s annual International 500 snowmobile race each winter is one of them. This year’s race on the one-mile oval of ice Saturday, February 3, will be the golden anniversary 50th running of one of the Eastern Upper Peninsula’s most well known events.

“I am excited for the I-500, the region, and Michigan,” I-500 race chairman Ric Federau told The St. Ignace News. “The Soo I-500 has put the EUP on the national map. We are getting a lot of national and international exposure.”

The I-500 takes place on a racetrack paved with ice, producing a NASCAR-like battle as the best in the snowmobile racing business compete on one of the longest and fastest tracks in the sport. The race is a true battle of endurance, as the event starts at 10 a.m. and usually takes about six to eight hours to complete as the sleds blast around the track at speeds of about 90 miles per hour. The 500-mile race features a total of 2,000 left turns on the way to the checkered flag.

“It’s no different from the Indianapolis 500,” Mr. Federau said. “We have Mother Nature working for us…We can do anything NASCAR can do, just in the ice and snow.”

Admission for the race is $25 per person and free for children younger than 12. For those who are not able to attend the race in person, Lake Superior State University will again stream a live broadcast of it online at the event’s Web site, i-500.com.

The race will be preceded at 8 a.m. by a parade of vintage snowmobiles, designed to show the vehicle’s evolution throughout the years, conducted in part with Naubinway’s Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum and another parade lap with the race sleds at 9 a.m. Pre-race ceremonies will begin at 9:15 a.m. The pre-race festivities this year will include the swearing in of a new class of United States Air Force recruits and several politicians visiting the track, including one who will present the race with a Congressional recognition. Once the race finishes up, it will be followed by an awards banquet at the Kewadin Casino in the DreamMakers Theater.

The I-500 will be preceded by an undercard race titled the Woody’s Challenge Thursday night, February 1. The format of the exhibition Woody’s Challenge has changed in recent years, and it’s a now a 25-lap trophy dash featuring some of the top racers from the I-500. The green flag drops for that race at about 7:30 p.m. There will be live music at the track following the race.

The I-500 had humble beginnings in the form of a conversation about a car, specifically a white Chevrolet Camaro with racing stripes done up as replica of an Indianapolis 500 pace car. As a group of Sault Ste. Marie local residents were looking over the Chevrolet, the conversation turned to the Indy 500 itself and someone asked if anyone thought a snowmobile could handle a race like that. From that simple question the idea of a 500-mile snowmobile oval race took hold. The organizers asked the city for permission to stage the race and were granted use of a city-owned property near LSSU to build its track. The vacant land was previously used as an ammunition storage site for the military during World War II.

The first I-500 was held February 8, 1969, with many wondering if any of the entered sleds would even be able to complete the 500-mile event. If run overland, the distance would be equivalent to riding straight from Sault Ste. Marie to Ottawa non-stop at top speed. The race had a wild start as two sleds, a Massey Ferguson Ski Whiz and a Skiroule, ended up sidelined in less than half a lap, but the event would go the distance and prove snowmobiles could survive a 500-mile race.

The winners of the inaugural race were Dan Planck, Otis Cowles, and Leonard Cowles, who took victory aboard the “Lucky #13” sled, a yellow and-black 1969 Ski-Doo called the “Puffer.” Mr. Planck still owns the “Puffer” today and the sled will appear at the 2018 edition of the race. The historic sled will be a part of the vintage parade lap before the race and then displayed at the awards ceremony in the evening. Many race teams from prior I-500s, including several from that first race, have been invited back this year to be part of the event’s golden anniversary.

The I-500 operates as an all volunteer run event, a unique approach among major races. Mr. Federau, a Higgins Lake resident, has been involved with the I-500 for the last 16 years and looks back fondly on the group of people he has worked with during that time. He said the I-500 wouldn’t be what it is without its volunteer supporters.

“That’s the lifeline of this event,” Mr. Federau said. “Historically, people have come out and volunteered their time and their efforts…that’s what made the I-500 what it is.”

Construction of the mile-long oval of ice began just before Christmas, with volunteers using several 8,000- to 10,000-gallon tanker trucks to put down layers of water on the track surface to build it up. In recent years, the track builders have added blue dye to the water they put down on the track. The coloring serves two purposes come race day, while a cosmetic improvement is to be expected, it also makes the track easier for competitors to see during the race.

Mr. Federau said the track has been building up well this year, compared with the warm 2016-2017 winter that saw crews rushing to build the track in just the last two weeks before the race. Construction so far this year is on target, and enough ice is already down that recent thaws will do no harm, as the water simply melts, then refreezes. Sault Ste. Marie resident Tim Leigh heads up the track building effort and has overseen the weeks of watering needed to build up the course.

The types of sleds raced in the I- 500 have evolved greatly throughout the years. In the early events most of the entrants were local residents with snowmobiles built up from off-theshelf models bought at regular dealers. Today, the sleds raced in the I-500 are purpose built for racing. All four major manufacturers of snowmobiles, Polaris, Arctic Cat, Ski- Doo, and Yamaha, will have factory entries in this year’s I-500, with many of their sleds specifically built just for this race. The teams entered this year also feature a lot more factory supported efforts, although local EUP entries remain a staple of the event.

The I-500 always attracts a large field of entrants from across the United States and Canada, and this year’s historic race is expected to draw a big field with entrants coming in from as far away as Alaska. There is only room for 38 snowmobiles on the starting grid for Saturday’s race, with the large entry list being whittled down to only the fastest entrants by qualifying sessions earlier in the week. The I-500 has no guaranteed provisional positions, just like the Indy 500, and in the past that has led to some big name racers failing to qualify on occasion if they don’t find the speed they need.

While in the past some I-500 riders chose to go solo, today every team will use multiple riders throughout the race. Periodically throughout the event, each team will come in for pit stops to service their sleds, carrying them out with incredible speed. When each sled comes in, a crew of up to 14 people will then swarm it to make the necessary modifications to keep it race ready. The process of changing the rider, skis, and hood and refueling the sled will only take about 20 seconds to complete.

The condition of the I-500 track will become more challenging as the race progresses and its icy surface wears down, making conditions bumpier. The sleds all have studs on their tracks that will rip into the racing surface and create a dust of snow that can affect visibility. Every 100 laps, the organizers will slow the race and plow the track off using a road grader and apply a compound to the course to cut down on the dust.

The I-500 features a pace sled, similar to the Indy 500’s pace car, to lead the field around the track before the start of the race and during caution periods. The major snowmobile manufacturers alternate this duty among themselves year to year, with Ski-Doo providing the pace sled this year in honor of its victory in the first I-500. The Quebec company and its local dealer, Allstar Marine and Powersports, have a treat in store for the crowd as they are providing a yellow 2019 Ski-Doo MXZ 600R E-TECS for the task. The snowmobile is the first 2019 Ski-Doo to be taken anywhere in the United States.

Coming into this year’s race, the pre-race favorites are again Gabe Bunke, his son Taylor Bunke, and their partner Aaron Christensen, who come into this race looking to win a third-consecutive I-500 aboard their Bunke Racing Polaris entry. This year’s race will be far from a walkover, though, as a full field of top level challengers, local talent, and former I-500 victors is ready to go against them, with Arctic Cat’s factory backed Cadarette Collision Racing team and its two-time I-500 champion Troy DeWald also among the likely frontrunners.

Racer Corey Davidson holds the record for most I-500 victories with eight in his career, but Gabe Bunke could tie that record with a win this year. Both riders are expected to be in competition Saturday.

Throughout the history of the I- 500, Polaris has been one of the brands to beat with its sleds winning 26 of the prior 49 runnings of the race, including Bunke Racing’s victories in five of the last six years. Ski-Doo has also had a great deal of success with the Bombardier sleds claiming 13 victories. Most of its wins came in the race’s early years, but its most recent triumph was in 2009. Yamaha snowmobiles have won six I-500s with its most recent wins being a trio of victories from 2006 to 2008. Arctic Cat has only won the race the twice, but both were in the past decade, as its green sleds took victories in 2010 and 2015. During the race’s first decade, now-defunct snowmobile manufacturers Chapparal and Mercury also each scored one victory. The string of races from 2008 to 2011 saw great parity in the race as each of the four major brands won once.

In addition to all of the anniversary festivities, this year’s I-500 will also see the debut of the new operations center to house the control room and the announcers for both the track’s spectator areas and its radio broadcast. The center will also feature five V.I.P. booths that can be rented out during the race.

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