By Izzy Ross, Interlochen Public Radio
The International 500 Snowmobile Endurance Race in Sault Ste. Marie is moving ahead, despite warm weather and little snow.
“Yeah, we need some snow for snow banks,” said Bill Cryderman, the race committee director. “But these tracks are built out of solid ice.”
Thirty-eight teams will compete. I-500 riders tear around a one-mile track — you guessed it — 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.”
Race organizers use an average of 1.8 to 2 million gallons of water each year to create a one-mile ice track that’s around 20 inches thick, pouring water on the track in the evenings so it will freeze.
Cryderman has lived in Sault Ste. Marie all his life and has been involved with the race for over three decades, since he was a teenager. Now 48, he’s directing it.
In his words, Mother Nature has thrown the area some curveballs this year, although they have plenty of ice for the track.
“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.
Normally, strong trade winds push warm waters to the western Pacific. An El Niño occurs when those winds weaken or reverse, causing sea surface temperatures to warm in the Pacific and sending warm waters east. That can have wide-ranging impacts on weather across the globe. It usually creates warmer, drier conditions in parts of the northern United States and Canada.
“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.
Even if the I-500 race doesn’t need a lot of snow, the region’s trails do. And Cryderman said 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.”
That main race is set for Feb. 3, and comes with significant prize money; Cryderman said this year it’s over $50,000. 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 for now, 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.”
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Featured image: The International 500 Raceway in Sault Ste. Marie. (Photo: Sault Ste. Marie Convention & Visitors Bureau)