Wednesday night viewers of the Speed channel’s “Intersections” show got to see a comparison between Troy Dewald’s winning drive at the Soo I-500 and a truck racer’s efforts at the grueling Baja 500 race. I, in turn, got to enjoy a flashback to my first time seeing the famed Soo I-500 track in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
I was snowmobiling in the U.P. about a dozen years ago as a part of a Parts Unlimited dealer appreciation ride. Our group was guided out to the track, where we got to make a lap on the famed 1-mile oval that has been holding arguably one of the very best snowmobile races in the world.
I was jacked up on the way there – I had covered other enduro races and had spoken to dozens of racers who had competed in the epic Soo I-500 race, but had not yet seen the track for myself. This was, after all, where Dan Planck won the very first Soo in 1969, where names like LeRoy Lindblad and Stan Hayes claimed titles in the 1970s, Brian Musselman and Jeff Kipfmiller were each part of three winning teams in the 1980s, and John Wicht III and the Troy Pierce-Todd Krikke combo were taking over the 1990s. It just had to be the coolest place on earth, in my mind!
We drove our sleds through an industrial park area, got to the edge of town, went through a gate, and suddenly we were there. My first reaction when coming over the hill and seeing the facility?
“Really? This is it?”
With all due respect to the Soo crew that works so hard to put on the race every February, the actual race site is a bit underwhelming, with a couple of old buildings, weeds poking up through the snow along the straightaway and a general run-down feeling about the place when you see it on a non race weekend. The day of the race? The place is a carnival of activity. Visit two weeks later, like we did, and not very impressive. Frankly, the visit to the track was a bit of a visual reminder of exactly how small our sport is. I mean, c’mon, what should one expect – that somebody or some thing is going to stick $1 million into a facility that holds one snowmobile race a year? Yeah, the race is definitely the snowmobiling equivalent to the Daytona 500, but it’s still an event in our little world – it’s never going to BE the Daytona 500.
I had the same feeling when seeing the Haydays track for the first time (before they put up the permanent fences) and several other race sites. And, let’s face it, a lot of our other cool races are either held on sites that disappear in the summer (lake tops), or sites that were first built for and paid by other sorts of activities (horse racing tracks, county fairgrounds, car racing tracks, etc.). The only track I ever remember thinking “WOW!” about what was the first time I saw the Derby track in Eagle River. Folks who pay the high rates to race at, attend or even park at or near the Derby pay a lot for that luxury every year.
So yeah, snowmobiling racing isn’t big time like car racing – there’s breaking news for you, right? But you know what? I’m OK with that. That’s not to say that people who are trying to take snowmobile racing to the elusive “next level” are wrong or that I don’t support their efforts. But one of the things that makes snowmobile racing so fun and interesting for folks like me who are into it is that it is still so accessible. A regular guy can put together an effort and go out and try it, without needing $1 million to get involved. If this sport suddenly had to pay for million tracks and the maintenance and other costs related to them, it could easily squeeze out a lot of the “little guys” who make this all happen.