In a storybook and somewhat controversial finish, the annual Soo I-500 enduro race in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, was won this year by a team making its 52nd run at history.
The Tommie Bauer Racing team has entered all but two of Soo I-500 race since 1969, when Tommie himself was the lead driver. He has passed on to the oval tracks in the skies, but the team he started has continued to chase this victory, year after year.
It finally happened in 2023 by the narrowest of margins. After a rough and tumble last lap that included much ski clacking and paint scraping, it looked like a virtual tie at the finish line between the Tommy Bauer Racing Polaris No. 19 then piloted by Joey Burch and the DL Racing Polaris No. 29 then piloted by Ross Erdman.
But when the timing was reviewed, it was determined that the Bauer group had won the 500-ap, 500-mile, 9-hour race by .0001 seconds. A massive celebration then broke out, as this team had chased down a victory that had eluded them for literally three generations.
Beyond that, the driver behind the handlebars at the finish line – young Joey Burch – had a second reason for pause. His father, Joe Sr., had died at this same track racing for this same team 17 years earlier, to the day. In 2006, Joe Burch came off the sled on lap 241 after suffering heart failure, and he died at the track.
Other drivers who spent time behind the handlebar of this year’s winning Tommie Bauer Racing Polaris were Tyler Nickels, Cody Bauer and Nick Wickerham. It was a first-ever Soo victory for each of them.
Let’s get to the action. We’ll have quotes from the winning team, as interviewed on the FloRacing broadcast, at the end if you want to skip ahead.
Soo I-500 Is True Endurance
The Soo I-500 is perhaps the biggest one-day challenge of man and machine in the sport of snowmobile racing. Teams complete 500 laps around a high-speed 1-mile oval track that gets rougher as the day goes along. This year, by the end of the race, some of the course looked like a snocross course, with competitors catching huge air coming out of turns with the throttle taped to the handlebar. Pit stops, driver switches and strategy all play a big part in the event.
The Cadarette Collision No. 21 Arctic Cat sled piloted at various times by Troy Dewald, Ryan Spencer and Gunnar Arlaud set the fast speed in qualifying and would start on the pole position, with the Town Brothers Racing No. 2 Ski-Doo, Bunke Racing No. 74 Polaris, Nelson Racing No. 28 Polaris and No. 34 Kovar-Pike Racing Polaris rounding out the top five.
A total of 36 sleds took the green flag, including 25 Polaris, 9 Arctic Cat and 2 Ski-Doos.
At the first 100-mile benchmark, nearly two hours into the race, the Langaas Racing No. 29 Arctic Cat that started 14th was showing the way, with the No. 19 Tommie Bauer Racing Polaris running 1.7 second back in second place. The No. 22 Yovich Racing Polaris was third, 4.9 seconds back, with DL Racing fourth, 6.1 seconds behind. Then came the Bunke Racing entry.
At the 200-mile benchmark, a different Arctic Cat – this one from KMW Racing – was showing the way. They had a 3.2 second lead over that pesky Tommie Bauer 19 entry that was in second, followed by the Bunke sled. Then came the defending champion Nelson Racing No. 28 and the Langaas’ Cat, with only 8 sleds on the lead lap at that point, 3 hours and 39 minutes into the run.
At the 300-mile mark, the Bauer sled was running at the front, but the Cadarette No. 21 was suddenly on the charge after being a lap down earlier. It was now in second, 2.7 seconds behind, followed by the Bunke, Nelson, Yovich and DL Polaris teams. They were the only six now on the lead lap.
The next 100, though, would be a tough run on many previous front runners. Mechanical problems and other issues would end the day short for Langaas Racing at lap 337, Yovich Racing at lap 364 and Bunke Racing at lap 381. At lap 400, there were just three sleds on the lead lap – the Cadarette Collision Cat, the DL Racing Polaris and the Tommy Bauer Polaris. Nelson Racing 28 and Mickey’s Sleds No. 57 were fourth and fifth, the only sleds one lap down.
Running It Down
The last 100 laps is when things typically transition from light to dark and fatigue really starts to set in for both the riders and the machines.
One victim of this was the Nelson Racing Polaris, which hit the haybales hard on the outside of the track with 85 laps left when trying to get a lap back. Unphased, the team re-entered the race, but the sled was never the same.
Meanwhile, the Mickey’s Sleds 57 made up its lap, meaning there were four sleds on the lead lap chasing history going toward the end of the race.
With 50 to go, the Bauer sled with Joey Burch behind the handlebars was again in front by 1.6 seconds over the Cadarette sled, then piloted by Gunner Arlaud. DL Racing with Ross Erdman driving and Mickey’s with Zach Dewald (Troy’s 21-year-old son) driving ran third and fourth. A yellow flag with 40 laps left regrouped the racers.
When the race went green again, Arlaud moved to the front with Burch on his snowflap, both running a high line around the track. Another yellow came out with 31 laps left when the Piche Racing No. 13 Polaris that was running sixth at the time hit the bales hard, but re-entered the race.
When it went green again with 28 laps left, Burch reclaimed the top spot, but things were getting wild. The challenge between the top four became fierce, with racers trying different lines, passing each other by going hard into a turn but then getting re-passed on corner exit. Erdman moved to the front on the DL sled with 24 left with Arlaud and Zach Dewald battling tooth and nail for second and Burch fading all the way back to fourth on the Tommie Bauer sled and starting to lose the taillight of the other three.
Bizarre Soo I-500 Finish
With 15 laps left, Erdman was building a lead from 2.5 to 3 seconds – barring any late race yellow flags, the race appeared to be going the direction of his DL Racing team. But with 13 laps left the No. 10 Let’s Go Racing sled broke in turn three and brought out the yellow flag.
When it went back to green a couple of laps later, Erdman again opened a gap but Dewald moved to second with a gap to Burch, who was trying different lines on the rugged track. With 9 left, though, Dewald went up and scraped up against the haybales in a turn. He lost second to Arlaud but kept the sled moving. However, all of the haybales he knocked onto the trackbrought out yet another yellow flag.
On this yellow, Burch brought the Tommie Bauer Racing sled into the pit area for new skis and carbides. That meant he’d have to start at the back of the longest line, but the handling of his sled was so poor with the old runners that he was running an increasingly distant fourth anyway so they had nothing to lose.
The race went green again and Erdman again appeared to be pulling away with six laps left, with Cadarette and Mickey’s in tow and Burch on the Tommy Bauer sled coming fast through traffic. Unfortunately for the Cadarette sled, there was one yellow flag left, and it was brought out by Zach Dewald again. This time his Mickey’s Sled ride shut down with four laps left and had to be towed off the track.
This would lead to a final sprint to the checkered.
On green with two laps left, the sleds went three wide doing into turn one. Burch immediately grabbed second away from Arlaud for second and then momentarily passed Erdman for the lead by driving very deep into turn four, but Erdman grabbed a better line down the front stretch and re-grabbed the front spot as the sleds sprinted toward the waving white flag.
Undeterred, Burch stalked Erdman again on the final lap, pulling right up on his snow flap at the end of the back stretch and then undercutting Erdman and grabbing the lead again between three and four before washing up into the loose snow. Erdman looked for a line around him but was blocked.
Firing down the front stretch for the last time, this time Burch took a very rough lower line and caught huge air leaving turn four. Erdman ran a higher line and the two ride side by side. Burch’s sled moved up the track and bumped up against Erdman, but then Erdman moved down the track as the two neared the waving checkered flag. The two traded paint right to the finish line and went through the timing light separated by millimeters. Timing and scoring said the margin of victory was .0001 seconds and gave the win to Burch and Tommy Bauer Racing, with Erdman and DL Racing second and Cadarette Collision third. Kolbus Racing finished fourth, four laps down, with the Mickey’s No. 57 scored fifth in the infield.
Words With Soo I-500 Champs
Drive, determination and a couple of late race cautions were all keys to victory for the Bauer group. And maybe a little fate.
“The caution before we were debating on if we were going to come in and put new skis on or not, and it was a short [yellow flag period] so we couldn’t do that, but luckily we got one more caution to come in,” Joey Burch said when interviewed by a track announced on FloRacing after the event. “I was like, ‘We got nothing to lose beside putting new skis on’ and it paid off.
“But, I still can’t believe this is happening,” an emotional Burch said. “Seventeen years ago today my dad passed away on this date, so it means a lot to me.”
He then described the last couple of laps.
“I got Gunner coming out of [turn] two, he couldn’t turn and I got around him,” Burch said. “Then we came around to the white flag and I got Ross the lap before coming out of [turn] four but he had a better line through the bumps. But then I just kind of said there was nothing to lose so I just went for it and luckily made it work.
“Ross and I kind of bumped a little bit down the front stretch but thankfully we came out No. 1.” Bursch said.
Tyler Nickels started the race on driving the sled and said, “It has been so many years for this team,” Nickels said. “Tommie was here in 1969 and I think he missed one race. We have been here, these guys gave me a call over a decade ago. The fight in these guys, we don’t give up, there isn’t a weak link out here, today the stars lined up.”
Chad Bauer, son of team founder Tommie Bauer, dedicated the victory to the memory of his father and of Joe Burch Sr.
“It’s just unreal,” Chad Bauer said. “I just look up at the sky, it’s a special day – it’s always special here because of my dad but also Joe B. passed away here on this day 17 years ago… we’ve been wanting to get this done and it just worked out on the best day it possibly could.”
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