Fast-forward to today, when souped-up sleds can average 87 mph and hit 115 mph in the straights. As riders hurtle into the corners, they swing their bodies down and to the left, clinging to the handlebars while leaning completely off the sleds to keep the center of gravity low and maintain contact with the ice track. The left ski often flutters just off the ice track as man and machine battle centrifugal force. Sometimes centrifugal force wins.
Just minutes into today’s race, an Arctic Cat rolls in Turn 1. The rider goes sprawling as the machine upends; its track, armed with more than 200 steel cleats, paws the air. A tether between the rider and the sled kills the engine, but there’s no way to stop the other sleds. Rag-dolling out of the wreckage, the rider kneels on the ice, facing into the oncoming traffic, his hands raised in front of him. The competition zooms past, and he’s able to beat it for the side of the track. Other riders haven’t been so lucky.
In 2003, an insurance salesman from Munising left behind a wife and young son when he fell from his sled and was struck and killed. Riders are required to wear shin guards and other protection – and, in recent years, take Breathalyzer tests – but those regulations mean little when skidding across the ice in front of other speeding machines. The 2004 race saw a sled jump the track and slam into a group of pit crew members. One woman died and two others were severely injured. The carnage overwhelmed the local hospital. With the emergency room full, officials had to call the race after only 174 laps, the shortest and bloodiest event to date.
“Everybody knows this is a race you can get killed at,” says rider Jeff Rydahl, 41, of Greenville, Michigan. While most tracks on the racing circuit are half-milers, the I-500’s large size allows racers to get up to perilous speeds, Rydahl says. The racers, pit crews, media and volunteers all sign waivers. The helpful volunteer who gave me my form at check-in explained it as, “Basically if you lose an arm or die, you are agreeing that you were in the wrong place.”
Inside the heated beer tent it’s shoulder-to-shoulder, why-are-you-touching-me close, as men in camo, Carhartts and neon leathers jostle toward the amber fountains of inebriation. Around the perimeter of the tent, pretty girls hawk things snowmobile guys need, like stickers and racing oil. A local trapper sells hats and gloves, thick with the fur of beaver and coyote.
Meanwhile, Lake Superior is throwing its signature alternating bands of whiteout snow and blinding sunshine at the crowd and track. No one seems to know what lap it is, and they seem genuinely surprised that I care. The bluebird sky over the race turns ominously gray, and a wall of wind-driven snow obliterates the track. The sleds are still screaming through all of it, rapidly draining tanks of rich oil and 110-octane racing fuel. A heady, slightly sweet smell of high-performance exhaust drifts above the track.