Turns Out, There's A Snowmobile Race With Better Hats Than The Kentucky Derby

Every year, thousands flock from around the world to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, for the I-500 — the international 500-mile snowmobile endurance race.

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Abe Olson of Thief River Falls, Minnesota, observes the national anthem during the I-500 Snowmobile Race in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, on Feb. 5, 2022.

SAULT STE. MARIE, Michigan – The morning began at subzero temperatures, but that didn’t stop snowmobile enthusiasts from bringing couches and folding chairs, and carving seats into the snow along the hill surrounding the race track. They were all there to witness the world’s longest, toughest, fastest, and most exciting snowmobile endurance race: the 53rd annual International 500 Snowmobile Race.

Professional athletes from all over the US and Canada meet in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to compete in the I-500. The competitors race their snowmobiles for 500 laps around the only mile-long oval ice track in North America. Snowmobile teams have between two and five drivers that switch out throughout the race, competing for prestige, glory, and a grand prize of $17,000.

The I-500 race began in 1969 when — inspired by the Indianapolis 500 — several Sault Ste. Marie entrepreneurs dared to ask the question, “Could a snowmobile run 500 miles?” In its first year, 47 teams competed. This year, 35 teams started the race and only 17 were able to push through until the end. Races typically last around eight hours and racers reach speeds upwards of 123 mph.

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Snowmobilers race during the I-500 Snowmobile Race in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, on Feb. 5, 2022.

It’s no Winter Olympics, but the I-500 has its fair share of enthusiastic spectators. This year, over 5,000 winter enthusiasts parked their RVs, trailers, and school-buses-turned-party-buses on top of the bluffs surrounding the track.

While in town for the big event, people are also invited to join the winter pub crawl in downtown Sault Ste. Marie or attend the Miss I-500, Junior Miss I-500, and Princess I-500 beauty pageants. There are also smaller races for everyone from children to professionals leading up to the main day.

For Michiganders, it’s more than embracing the sport itself. The I-500 is best described as the Kentucky Derby, but with furrier hats. For Bill Mourufas, a local to Sault Ste. Marie, it’s the city’s culture.

“A lot of people there don’t watch every lap,” Mourufas said. He had spent his day so far tailgating with his wife and friends in the parking lot, with 12 Bud Lights strapped to his chest. “But you also have people who go down by the fence to watch every single lap. So it brings everyone together, especially [since] COVID. It’s been nice for people to have a chance to get out and have an event that’s still fairly safe because it’s outdoors.”

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From center left: Drew Hamilton of Vicksburg, Missouri; Nick Hoosterhof of Cobourg, Ontario; Cam Pinkcumbe of Schoolcraft, Michigan; and Jed Wolthuis of Mattawan, Michigan, hang out around a bonfire.

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Driver Scott Harris of Morley, Michigan, and Jennifer Franc of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, who poses for a portrait while wearing a coyote fur hat during the I-500 Snowmobile Race.

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From left: Ironman Racing driver James Kay, and crew members John Wisner of Blanchard, Michigan, and Tylor Kay of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, look at their snowmobile the day before the I-500 Snowmobile Race.

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Terry Moran (left) and Joe Lowther, both of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, pose for a portrait in their party bus.

A list of things with everything crossed off except for beer, and a vest with beer in it
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A detail of a to-do list for a snowmobile team is pictured the day before the I-500 Snowmobile Race, and a detail is pictured of Bill Mourufas. “I’m a Marine veteran, so this is a part of the standard issue,” Mourufas said.


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Spectators watch the I-500 Snowmobile Race in Sault Ste. Marie.

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Spectators watch from snowbanks during the I-500 Snowmobile Race.

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Sheri Koelsch of West Branch, Michigan, and Michelle Agawa-Collins, 13, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who poses for a portrait while wearing a silver fox fur hat during the I-500.

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A flag is waived to conclude I-500 Snowmobile Race.

Two men hold up a trophy in the dark
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Nelson Racing drivers Andy Wenzlaff (left) of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and Justin Tate of Scandia, Minnesota, celebrate their trophy win in the I-500 Snowmobile Race.

Nic Antaya is a photographer based in Michigan. More of his work is here.

  • Nic Antaya

    Nic Antaya is a freelance photographer based in Detroit, Michigan.

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