Despite a lack of snow and warm weather, the International 500 Snowmobile Endurance Race in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan is moving ahead.
“Yeah, we need some snow for snow banks,” said Bill Cryderman, the race committee director. “But these tracks are built out of solid ice.”
In this event, thirty-eight teams will compete, with I-500 riders tearing around a one-mile track 500 times.
“About every 60 or 70 laps, they have to pit for fuel,” he said, comparing it to a NASCAR race. “They have a pit crew and they come in and they’ll change skis.”
In preparation, race organizers use an average of 1.8 to 2 million gallons of water each year in order to create a one-mile ice track that’s around 20 inches thick.
“In the Sault right now, I mean, we’ve lost a ton of snow in the last couple of days,” he said. “For the race itself, that’s not a big issue, because we build a race track out of ice. You know, we got three good weeks there towards the start and middle of January that we built a whole ton of ice.”
But with highs now hovering in the mid-30s and lows just a few degrees cooler, temperatures are much warmer than average. According to data from the National Weather Service, average highs this time of year should be in the mid-20s, with lows in the single digits.
An El Niño climate pattern has compounded the effects of climate change on northern Michigan’s winter.
“We’re seeing this really up-and-down pattern,” said Michael Boguth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gaylord. “We had an exceptionally warm start to winter. We cooled off here recently. But now we’re back in the warm phase of that oscillation that we’re seeing.”
Boguth expects the warmer weather to last through early February before it cools down again.
Despite the fact that I-500 race doesn’t require a lot of snow, the region’s trails do. And Cryderman observed that warmer weather is affecting some early activities.
“Most of the fans will come up and they will maybe come on Monday or Tuesday,” he said. “They’ll snowmobile on the trails throughout the week and then show up to our race on Saturday.”
The main race is set for Feb. 3, and offers significant prize money; this year the pot is over $50,000. Also, the race is also a big economic driver for the community.
“It’s got to be near a million dollars or so that comes through our area for this particular race,” said Tony Haller, executive director of the Sault Area Chamber of Commerce. “So that has a substantial impact on our local businesses.”
And in this moment, they are still benefiting from the event.
“In Sault, Michigan, right now it’s very, very hard to find a motel room,” Cryderman said, laughing. “The businesses in the winter rely a lot on the snowmobile race.”
— with files from interlochenpublicradio.org