500 Times Around: The I-500 Snowmobile Race
Endurance is the operative word for both racers and fans at this frosty, frothy and gas-fumy gathering of sledheads near the frozen shores of Gitcheegumee.
Mar 4, 2008 Aaron Peterson
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esse Leiphart has a problem. The burly 22-year-old is standing with his shoulders hunched and his back into a horizontal snow squall. He's not wearing a jacket, and there's a hose stuffed into the front of his pants. The hose runs from a keg that sits beneath a mound of blankets and Mr. Leiphart's jacket, and a heater chugs in vain to keep the keg's precious contents in its liquid state on this frigid -5°F February day in Sault Ste. Marie.
"The Bud was getting slushy," the Lake Superior State University student says apologetically, but with a touch of pride at his Yooper insulation ingenuity.
Leiphart, his keg-carrying pals, and about 6,000 other racing (and drinking) fans have gathered on this barren hillside along I-75 to witness the 39th running of the International 500 Snowmobile Race. Thirty-three teams are competing for nearly $50,000 in winnings as they take on 500 laps of the one-mile oval track. The I-500 is the pinnacle of the Midwest's indigenous sport of snowmobile racing, and due to a number of accidents the past few years, it has also gained a reputation for danger.
But more on that later - there's a party going on.
Atop the nearby hill, facing north toward the steaming stacks of pulp mills across the St. Mary's River in Canada, sit row upon row of race-fan RVs. The metal, mobile city is like an icy Up North Big Easy, a French Quarter of well-traveled Winnebagos and repurposed school buses where I-500 revelers … er, racegoers, congregate around bonfires and free drink offerings.
To get a front row parking spot, fans must arrive a week in advance. That's what the Taylor boys from the Saginaw area have done for years. They've developed their trackside real estate with a hay-bale bunker, a wood-burning mailbox and their almost-famous invention, the Liquor Luge.The men, all engineers, have hoisted a thick slab of ice onto a slanted wooden framework, carved two raceways into its face to accommodate a variety of high-octane intoxicants and now wait at the bottom, mouths open, as the supercooled schnapps glides toward them.
"You have to be careful or your lips will get stuck to it in the morning," says Doug Taylor, 26. The Taylor family's affiliation with the race goes back to Ken Taylor, who at 75 is still in attendance, nestled into the bales in front of the crackling mailbox. Mr. Taylor has been bringing his boys, who in turn have brought their boys, to the I-500 ever since he worked as part of a pit crew in the early days of the race.