If you are looking for an exciting winter destination, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan is the place to be the week of January 30 through February 4, when the premier winter endurance snowmobile racing event – the world famous I-500 – takes place.
The week is made possible by local volunteers, who begin work in December dumping and spraying water onto the track from a big tanker truck, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, right up to race day – over one million gallons of it!
For the past three years race spectators have enjoyed a full field of 38 snowmobiles, with over 50 teams doing their best to qualify. “We are still looking for that Jamaican bobsled team to get up here and run,” said chairman and official I-500 race spokesperson, Ric Federau, tongue-in-cheek. Teams from as far away as California, Alaska, South Carolina, and throughout the Midwest and Canada.
A huge winter sports enthusiast’s vacation destination, the I-500 has a lot to offer spectators and snowmobile racing teams alike. There is a vendor arena, which houses companies selling accessories and aftermarket products, and a heated hospitality area with a number of food vendors offering tasty treats from pizza to hot dogs and elephant ears to Chinese food. There is also a hospitality tent that serves beer. If you aren’t a fan of the cold, you can purchase a VIP seat in your own booth featuring north woods décor, that comes with your own personal staff member, homemade food, and drink service, and is located within one of the heated buildings near the track. Federau can sell you one beginning Tuesday night of race week at 6 p.m.
The smell of race fuel hanging in the air competes with BBQs from the RVs parked at the top of the track and tailgating parties. There is a parking area for motorhomes with electricity supplied – with 43 front row spots at $100 for the week, and 85 spots in the back row for $50 for the week. There were over 200 requests for camping spots last winter, with winners determined by a lottery drawing.
And the noise! “These sleds are piped so they are extremely loud,” Federau said. “Those race sleds coming down in a large pack can be felt and heard.”
This winter’s race is going to have a few special moments. A young man who has been attending the race since he was an infant is proposing to his girlfriend over the track; Michigan State Police are celebrating 100 years of service and will be represented by a number of uniformed officers who will participate in the race’s opening ceremonies and a Michigan Disabled American Veteran (DAV) will once again be the official starter for the race.
Anthony Mayer of Rudyard, Michigan, and his brother Aaron are members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and come from a family of I-500 racers that have been involved in the race every year of its existence.
Mayer’s father was in the first I-500 race and every race after that for 25 years. His cousin Kenny then took over to fill the gap for the Mayer Racing team until Anthony began snowmobile racing in high school 20 years ago. Mayer said the Sault Tribe’s Kewadin Casinos is a sponsor of the I-500 and is also where the awards banquet is held after the race winner is announced. Competing against 38 specialty sleds made by the top four snowmobile manufacturers (Ski Doo, Arctic Cat, Yamaha and Polaris) is an adrenaline rush, according to Mayer, who has placed fifth numerous times. “With everybody going over 100 mph, and the faster sleds getting up around 115 mph, going into a corner beside a guy at that speed is pretty crazy,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s also dangerous, but that leaves your head once you are on the track.”
Next year in 2018 the I-500 will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. “There is nothing like the Sault Ste. Marie I-500. It’s an event that gives you the thrill of NASCAR on snowmobiles. This thing is extremely awesome and people need to see it,” Federau said.
The I-500s economic impact on the local area is huge – and according to Federau generates about $3.8 million during race week in just hotel and restaurant revenue alone. “Our spectator base runs between 11,000 and 15,000 people every year. This is a huge family involvement event. For example, Monday night during race week we have the world’s largest kid’s race. We set up a track just for kids [snowmobile racing]. They are under their own lights and have their own track made, their families become their pit crews. We get between 50 and 60 mini snowmobiles out there for these kids alone. Also on Monday night … we open our track up to free public skating,” Federau said.
This is an all week, all day event with racers reaching an average speed of about 123 mph on race day, which starts promptly at 10 a.m. on Saturday and is generally over by 5 p.m.
Federau has a question for the lady sports enthusiasts, “Where is our Danica Patrick? Where is our female racer? You have to be strong enough to handle it, because it’s an endurance race and it’s tough, but I know there is one out there.”
After working for years to get national media coverage, Federau says that CNN and ESPN have shown an interest in the race, and he is hoping will be providing some type of coverage for next winter’s 50th anniversary event. The race is live streamed worldwide by Lake Superior State University, and last year Snapchat covered it for two days on their webpage.
For a list of race week events, local attractions, places to stay, the race history, or for I-500 contact information, visit the I-500 webpage at: I-500.com.