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I-500

History of the BIG I-500: #1 on the Michigan Circuit

What does it take to turn an idea into an epic?  Well, for one thing it usually takes a little time, in addition to some effort, some publicity, some luck and a whole lot of determination.  There are so many “unique” events in our lives today that it requires something really extraordinary to stand out — but the I-500 Snowmobile Race at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan has managed to get to the top of the totem pole in a remarkably short time.

Actually, the I-500 has been more than an idea for only two and one-half years. Even measured by snowmobile standards, that’s not very long. Following is a brief chronology of the high points in I-500 history, a skimming history that can only hint at the back-breaking labor on the part of men and women who have taken part.  This is almost a plan that could be followed by any community with the desire to create a classic event — but it has only happened in the Sault.

I-500

July 15, 1968 — On this date, the original idea for a 500-mile snowmobile event was first formally presented to the Sault Ste. Marie City Commission. The proposal outlined the basic thinking, including the fact that the Sault could well use the economic boost possible from hosting a major winter event. A number of interested citizens and many civic organizations favored the idea and it was pointed out to the commission that city-owned property adjacent to the I-75 Expressway would be an ideal location for the race.

From the start, it was intended that the track should be the finest available. The city gave its’ blessing. The only cloud on the horizon?  No one knew if a snowmobile could run 500 miles.

August 1968 — A group of original ideas are combined and the scope of the track is decided upon. It will be a one-mile banked oval, constructed in front of a hill that will provide a natural overlook for spectators. The formation of an international 500 project committee is achieved.

September 1968 — Ground is broken. By this time, race rules, qualification dates and the date for the first race are set. The International 500 group has set up committees to supervise the building of the track and the organization of the race. Lake Superior State College, located in adjacent to the race site, aids the 500 group in construction by dumping clay from college building projects at the track property.

October 1968 — General Chairman Jim Hoover announced that a $250 champion’s trophy would be up for grabs. The trophy was donated by the Sault Automotive Dealers’ Association. Purse sizes were still under consideration. A team driver principle is recommended and added to the race rules as a suggestion.

October 8, 1968 — It is announced that the track is approximately one-quarter complete, with some 30,000 yards of dirt and clay moved into the area.

October 10, 1968 — Prize money is announced by Hoover. It is decided that $1,000 and the champion’s trophy will be awarded to the winner.  Second place will earn $750, third $500, fourth $250, and fifth $200.  Sixth through tenth spots will each earn $100.

November 1, 1968 — The track is about three-quarters completed, with culverts installed and the north and south turns roughly shaped.  Some snowmobile manufacturers are requesting multiple entries, others seem to be shying away from the idea of a 500-mile test run directly under the scrutiny of the public.

January 6, 1969 — Twenty-six snowmobiles turn out for the first turns on the new track. It is pronounced to be in excellent condition and plans are made to ice the surface to make it even faster.

NOTE:  Up to this point, each event in the track’s brief history is a milestone. No one has laid out a one-mile banked oval for snowmobiles and no one really knows if the natural clay base, augmented by more clay from all around the area, is an advantage or not. 

January 28, 1969 — Time trials open. Dr. Velton McKinleq of Houghton Lake, Michigan makes the first official run for qualification in an elapsed time of 5:52.3 for four miles.

February 8, 1969 — A total of 47 machines answer the first running of the International 500 Snowmobile Race.  After 13 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds, Dan Planck of Lapeer, Michigan takes his Ski-Doo TNT 669 under the checkered flag. 

November 30, 1969 — Entries were cut off for the 1970 I-500 with 250 machines registered for the trials and 11 more on the waiting list.

February 7, 1970   Don Brown of Traverse City, Michigan, piloting a Chaparral 793, starts in 40th place and spends 325 miles working his way to the lead position — and then forges on to first. The run takes a total of 11 hours, 18 minutes and 45 seconds, for which Brown and his team picked up almost $4,500. An estimated 35,000 spectators were on hand form the race and according to a local data processing firm, pumped some $935,000 into the Sault’s economy. 

January 2, 1971 — Entries for the 1971 race are cut off with 223 machines signed up.

January 3, 1971 — The Can-Am Invitational Snowmobile Race is held on the I-500 oval; this gives the committee an excellent opportunity to see how the track is shaping up for the big event and to plan refinements that will mean so much more during the 500-mile grind.

January 23, 1971 — Time trials start for the drivers who mare not on the rolls. Only one in five will see the starters flag. 

I-500

There’s something about the Sault International 500 snowmobile race. I have a hard time explaining it to myself. After seeing races all across North America, there is still that special feeling inside of me for the I-500. I can’t put it into a single sentence, but maybe some of my impressions from the last two races will help you to get the idea, if you’ve ever been there.

For one thing, there’s a different sound to the machines as they go into the straights on a one-mile banked track.  It’s a high-pitched whine that I have never heard anywhere else. The big 800cc machines actually “wind out on the high end” during that staightaway and come flying into the corners higher and faster that anywhere else in the past.

In a 500-mile race you really get a champion. He has sweat, worked, probably spent all his money, and at the end of the race is completely exhausted.  In many cases the machines look completely exhausted too. The winner really deserves the trophy and the money. Sure, I enjoy short lap races. They’re exciting, but they will never match the thrills for me of watching the I-500.

The success of the I-500 has been partially due, I believe, to the fact there is only one champion at the end of the day.  250 drivers qualify for the race. The fastest 50 get into the race.  But there is only one winner.  And the look in his face at the end of the race is worth waiting all day to see.  And you know when you see him that he wasn’t good for just five laps, or 25 laps or 50 — but for 500 miles. No stops for sleeping or staying overnight. He had to prove himself and his crew for 10 or 11 hours in a row. He had to make countless decisions about where to take the corner, where’s the groove, can I pull this guy on the straights, how much gas do I have, will the belt hold until the pit stop, remember where that hole was at the edge of the south corner, and so on.

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