By Abby Bell
Renowned as the most grueling and prestigious oval-track snowmobile race in the world, Sault Ste. Marie’s iconic International 500 (I-500) is revved up for its 53 rd annual race. Last year, this beloved Yooper staple was “black-flagged” by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Michigan’s premier winter sporting event is back with all the adrenaline filled action race fans know and love.
“Deciding to postpone the race last year was a tough decision, but we knew with every adversity, there is always a greater benefit,” I-500 board of directors’ chairman, Ric Federau states.
Federau explains safety of racers, fans and volunteers was the priority in postponing the race. One of the benefits of the postponement was the board re-visiting every aspect of race week and invigorating traditions with new events.
“We had time to look for ways to re-invent the race week experience,” Federau explains. “The 53rd race is going to be our biggest event yet.”
Federau has volunteered at the I-500 for the past two decades and is one of nine board members overseeing the race. As chairman of the board, Federau has firsthand experience in the volunteer efforts bringing the I-500 race to life. The entire event is planned and executed by 100 percent volunteer efforts. From ice preparation, parking organization and marketing, every spectrum of the I-500 race is coordinated by volunteers.
“Volunteers are the heartbeat of the race,” Federau states. “The I-500 wouldn’t exist without passionate volunteers making it happen.”
Portraying the spirit of volunteerism, Monday of race week is titled Bud Clarke Day in remembrance of Gordon “Bud” Clarke – a renowned community volunteer at the I-500 since its founding year. A special community event on Bud Clarke Day is the open skate night from 7-9 p.m. where people of all ages enjoy free ice skating around the one-mile-long oval ice track.
Preparations of race week include all 36 professional snowmobile race teams competing in time trial races. The goal of time trials is to claim a prime spot at the start of the I-500 race. While race teams are preparing, community members and race fans alike can enjoy the I-500 cornhole tournament, the Great Lakes Antique Snowmobile Series race, the Gro-UP Old 600 Mods race, the Mini-5 Kids snowmobile race and the renowned downtown Sault Ste. Marie Pub Crawl.
On Saturday morning at 10 a.m. sharp, all volunteer efforts and training work comes to fruition when the green flag drops – signaling an exhilarating start to the 53 annual I-500 race.
Starting the race is one thing, finishing the 500th lap around the oval track is a different story. Race teams bring passion, power and determination to the I-500 but are sometimes met with less-than-ideal weather conditions, challenging terrain and 500 miles of focused racing precision. Speeding to over 100 mph on the straight away and banking sharp left turns, leaves racers’ bodies worn and spirits tired. Teams who make it to the end are true snowmobile champions.
Professional race teams travel from across the United States for the chance to claim the coveted title of I-500 winner. Snowmobile fans know that Sault Ste. Marie is the place to be in February, and many travel from across the nation to experience all that race week has to offer.
The tourism and travel revenue generated from race week brings in over $4.8 million to the local economy. Economic impact of the event centers in the Sault Ste. Marie area yet reaches across the Upper Peninsula and as far south as the Gaylord. Revenue gives a welcome economic boost to the hospitality and restaurant industries during the slower winter months.
As the I-500 board, racers and fans prepare for the 53rd I-500 race, Federau explains that anticipation is high for all involved.
“The I-500 is an event unlike any other in the world,” Federau states. “From the volunteer base to the iconic one-mile-long oval ice track, there is no other snowmobile race like the Soo I-500.”
Cloverland hydro repairman, Aaron Mayer, has a long family history of snowmobile racing in the Sault I-500. In fact, a member of the Mayer family has participated every I-500 race for the last 52 years. Mayer races with Little Ceasers Racing out of Sault, MI.
“We do a lot of training, snowmobile racing is a really competitive sport,” Mayer states.
Mayer plans to participate in the 53rd annual I-500 by racing in the Gro-UP Old 600 Mods event.
Cloverland DeTour Division lineman, Dan Maki has raced in the I-500 since 2012. Mayer races with Kovar Racing out of Engadine, MI.
“I grew up watching my dad race in the I-500 and with my background in dirt bike racing and Snocross I got into snowmobile racing too,” Maki states. “I like the thrill of competition.”
For both Mayer and Maki, racing in the Sault I-500 is a family event. Both men grew up watching their dads race around the historic mile-long oval ice track. Like many yoopers, the I-500 is a beloved tradition for Mayer and Maki.
Maki will be racing in the 53rd annual I-500 on snowmobile 34. Cheer him on, Cloverland race fans!
Miss I-500 Pageant Celebrates 10th Anniversary
A decade ago, local mom and community volunteer, Amanda Kemp saw an opportunity to get young ladies involved in the community focused base of the I-500. She started the Miss I-500 pageant in 2012, with the focus on volunteerism, giving back and serving the community.
“This year’s pageant marks a decade of watching young ladies reach their full potential through promoting this event that helps support the community as well as multiple charities throughout the year." Kemp states. "We seek to harness the I-500’s volunteer spirit and keep that momentum going for the other 51 weeks of the year through our commitment to community service."
This year’s 10th anniversary pageant will take place at Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. inside Dream Makers Theater at Kewadin Casinos.