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.
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.”