500 Times Around: The I-500 Snowmobile Race

The race has always been a volunteer effort, and these days several committees mesh like gears to drive the I-500 toward race day – always the first Saturday in February. Indeed, the track has the informal feel of a backyard affair, with humble, aging signage, rows of hay bales lining the track as a safety cushion, and local boys’ plow trucks to keep the snow cleared. Nothing fancy, but it works, and this year the race will celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Volunteers work year round on the race. Work starts on the race proper after Thanksgiving, with the main thrust coming after Christmas. Two weeks before the race, the track and grounds are usually ready for racing.

It takes three weeks and 1.8 million gallons of water to make the solid ice track. Three 8,000-gallon tankers transport water from a hydrant in the pits and make many trips around the track. Icing usually takes place from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on very cold nights.

Lap counting is done electronically, with each machine having a transponder recorded by an S-shaped wire planted under the track. For 29 years, volunteers manually counted the laps.

Race sleds cost about $30,000 after modifications. It’s estimated that each sled consumes about $1,500 in high performance fuel over the course of the race. Payout for the winning team in 2006 was nearly $20,000, with another $31,000 split between the other top 14 finishing teams.

The legend of the I-500 begins in 1969, when Soo business owners dreamt up a snowmobile version of the famous Indianapolis 500 auto race. Snowmachines were in their infancy, and people weren’t certain even one sled could make it 500 miles, let alone a group of sleds competing for that goal.

The early organizers turned their eyes to a former U.S. Army ammunition dump in a creek bed at the edge of town. After some excavation and demolition of a few concrete bunkers, the one-mile oval was born and the inaugural event scheduled for February 8. Forty-seven sleds qualified, and after 13 hours and 42 minutes, an exhausted Ski-Doo named “Puffer” wheezed across the finish line. Only 26 of the machines finished, and the average speed was 36 mph. The race was so slow fans freely crossed the track between sleds.

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