2017-02-02 / Front Page

I-500 Action Coming Saturday at Sault

Race Is On as This Week’s Schedule Adjusted After Warm Spell
By Erich T. Doerr

Sault Ste. Marie will host the International 500 snowmobile race Saturday, February 4. The 500-mile NASCAR-style race will feature a fleet of the fastest snowmobiles battling on the longest ice oval track in North America, with 38 competing.

“Things are looking real good this year” for the race, I-500 Race Chairman Ric Federau said.

This year’s I-500 was dealt a lastminute wild card when unseasonably warm weather lingered in the Upper Peninsula and melted much of the area’s snow and ice in recent weeks. The recent return of colder temperatures means the race will go ahead as scheduled Saturday, but repairs to the course resulted in almost all Monday, January 30, and Tuesday, January 31, track activities being cancelled, including the annual “skate the track” night. The children’s mini-snowmobile race was run after moving from Monday to Tuesday, but the 40-lap Brad Redman Memorial Great Lakes Antique Snowmobile Series (GLASS) race planned for Wednesday, February 1, has been cancelled.

Time Trials for the I-500 will now take place Wednesday evening and Thursday afternoon, February 2, with Thursday night’s Woody’s Challenge exhibition race, now scheduled for 20 laps, also ready to go. The Challenge, pairing I-500 rookies with more experienced riders, will take to the track Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. The schedule’s adjustments will allow the maximum time to prepare the track and make sure it is safe for all of the remaining races.

“All this allows us the necessary time to drop water on the track at every moment we can,” Mr. Federau said. “I’m extremely impressed with the working relationship between the race com- mittee and the I-500 board of directors… In working together, this puts together the program we need to give our fans the best possible race they can have, and provides the teams and drivers with the safest conditions possible.”

Safety is a top priority at the I- 500, with all riders wearing body armor during the race for protection in the event of an accident. Efforts continue to improve safety in snowmobile racing, but it is never-ending process. Separate accidents at different events on Friday, January 6, saw oval track racer Billy Travis and cross-country competitor Hunter Houle lose their lives, and this year’s I-500 will be dedicated to the memory of both racers. The Hillman-based Mr. Travis finished third in the I- 500 last year.

The track crew had already begun preparing the track before the warm weather moved in. The ice base they had prepared survived the warming and will still be usable, with the new levels of ice built atop it. Mr. Federau said of the race committee and all the volunteers who are working together to help stage this year’s I-500, more than 100 people donate their time to help operate the race.

Admission is $20 a person for adults and free for children aged 12 and younger. The gates open for the day at 7 a.m. Saturday. The green flag to start the race will be waved by a Michigan disabled veteran at 10 a.m. The race is expected to last between six and eight hours. An awards banquet, open to the public, will follow in the DreamMakers Theater at the Sault Ste. Marie Kewadin Casino approximately one hour after the race.

The race will be preceded at 8:45 a.m. by a special lap of the track featuring more than 60 vintage snowmobiles. The classic lap will lead into a snowmobile show at the track hosted by Naubinway’s Top of the Lake Snowmobile Museum. The race will also be preceded by the swearing in of a new class of United States Air Force recruits right on the track and a special ceremony honoring the Michigan State Police for their 100th anniversary this year.

Those who cannot make it to the race will be able to stream it online through its Web site, i- 500.com. A team from Lake Superior State University is heading up the broadcast and will also use its cameras to show activity from the track all week, ranging from qualifying and undercard races down to the track watering efforts needed to maintain the ice.

The field for this year’s I-500 will again be one of the most talent packed in all of snowmobile racing. All four major snowmobile manufacturers will have entries in the race, with many of the sleds purposely built for racing on the unique one-mile Soo track. The race can have a maximum of 38 competitors, with 32 teams already registered as of last week and more entrants likely. Qualifying during the week will narrow the field to only the fastest teams for the main event.

The likely frontrunners in this year’s I-500 include several familiar names such as defending champions Gabe and Taylor Bunke of Minnesota and Aaron Christensen of Alberta. The Bunke Racing team and their #74 Polaris have won the I-500 four of the last five years and enter 2017 as the race’s defending champions. The only people to beat them during that stretch are Brian Dick of Minnesota and Wes Selby of Colorado, who will ride into battle again aboard the Christian Brothers Racing #15 Arctic Cat looking to claim the brand’s third I-500 win.

Another sled to watch out for Saturday is the Cadarette Collision Racing #21 Arctic Cat with its lineup including Au Gres racer Troy DeWald. Mr. DeWald has won the I-500 twice, once on a Ski-Doo in 2009 and once on an Arctic Cat in 2010, when he recorded the brand’s first I-500 win. He’ll be looking for a little redemption in this year’s race after finishing 11th last year, as he was running in a solid fifth during the closing laps before a spin dropped him down the running order.

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