In the heart of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, nestled amid the snow-covered landscapes of Sault Ste. Marie, a winter spectacle has been captivating spectators for over five decades. The International 500 Snowmobile Race (I-500), a thrilling 500-mile endurance race on a one-mile oval ice track, is a testament to not only the athletic individuals who participate, but also the spirit of the volunteers and residents who come together to share the beauty of the Upper Peninsula and the hospitality of small-town living.
The story of the I-500 began in 1969, when that year’s Indianapolis 500 pace car came to town and a small group wondered if a 500-mile snowmobile race could rival the legendary IndyCar race. Today, after 55 years and only a brief hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the I-500 owes its resilience to the unwavering commitment of its organizers.
A RACE LIKE NO OTHER
Teams from Alaska to Louisiana, as well as several Canadian border towns, converge in Sault Ste. Marie to participate in this remarkable event for a full week, with the final I-500 race held on the first Saturday of February each year.
“It’s the only mile-long oval ice track in North America,” said International 500 Chairman & Director Ric Federau. “It takes weeks for our volunteers to build the track, using 2 million gallons of water. It’s the fastest and toughest race around.”
The I-500 race features 38 sleds (snowmobiles), each with 14 team members, including two to three drivers. Like the Indy 500, pit stops are crucial, with team members refueling the sleds and making any necessary repairs. The drivers cover a grueling 500 miles at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour, making this a true high-speed showdown. The green flag drops at 10 a.m., with the race lasting into the late afternoon.
Though the final race is the main event, the entire week is a celebration of winter sports, starting early with time trials and the track opening up to the public for skating. A highlight is the world’s largest kids’ snowmobile race, where youngsters compete on the same track under the lights, with their proud parents acting as their pit crews.
A BOOST FOR THE COMMUNITY AND THE ECONOMY
The I-500 isn’t just a thrilling event for spectators; it’s a financial boon for the Sault Ste. Marie community. The race attracts 10,000 to 15,000 spectators who spend a day or a week in the area to enjoy the winter fun. The economic impact of the race reaches far and wide, with hotels, restaurants, and local businesses benefiting from the influx of visitors. A study conducted by Lake Superior State University revealed that the economic impact of theI-500 is felt as far south as Gaylord (over 100 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie), highlighting the race’s ability to draw visitors and generate revenue for the entire region, while showcasing Michigan as a hub for winter sports.
POWERED BY VOLUNTEERS & COMMUNITY
The heart and soul of the I-500 is its dedicated team of 200 people who work tirelessly to ensure the race’s success—this is the only professional snowmobile race run entirely by volunteers. These individuals are the backbone of the event, contributing their time and effort to make it a memorable experience for all. It also has built its reputation as a premiere event due to the kindness and hospitality of the businesses and residents of the town who open their doors and hearts to welcome winter sports enthusiasts.
“Without a doubt, it is our volunteers and greater community who make this race a success,” said Federau. “It’s not only their dedication and hard work; it’s how they greet visitors like neighbors. They make sure everyone feels at home.”
The I-500 reminds us how a shared passion can bring people together and create enduring traditions that withstand the test of time.