I-500,Tommie Bauer Racing

A Photo Finish for the Records

Tommie Bauer Racing #19, wins the closest I-500 finish in 54 years of racing the famed 1-mile ice oval.

By Joyce Wiswell, Contributing Writer

After some nine hours of racing, there were only about five laps to go in the International 500 Snowmobile Endurance Race. Tommie Bauer Racing had a tough  decision to make.  Stick with the status quo and be virtually guaranteed a third- or fourth-place finish? Or make one last pit stop to change the skis on No. 19 and go for glory?

That was the dilemma facing driver Joey Burch. The front end of the carbides on the Polaris were not turning well, so he radioed the pit. “I need to come in and get new skis or we are only good for 4th place,” he said.

“We had nothing to lose at that point,” Burch said later, recounting his thought process. Not everyone agreed, but team owner Mike Otto backed him up. “We were going there for the win. That is where everyone wants to be,” Otto said.

So Burch steered into the pit, the crew flew into action, and he was back on the course in just 30 or 40 seconds – “if that,” Burch said. He kept advancing on the last few laps and the next thing he knew, he was neck and neck with D.L. Racing’s #29 Polaris.

The two sleds flew across the finish line so close together that no one could tell who had won. Then the official time came up: No. 19 had crossed first — by .0001 seconds.

If a Hollywood movie had scripted such a close finish – after more than nine hours and 500 laps — it would have been panned as ridiculous. But that was exactly what happened at the I-500 in Sault Ste. Marie on February 4.

“It was so close I didn’t know if we won or if we didn’t, then all of a sudden I heard someone screaming on the radio we won,” said Burch. “I couldn’t believe it had happened.”

Disbelief was definitely the emotion of the moment.

“The end was something else — a great thing but a different thing,” said Otto. “I bet it never happens like that again, like never. It was just a major coincidence. You can’t take it away from us.”

Or, as driver Tyler Nickels put it, “Instant tears in the trailer and then rolling around in the snow.”

I-500,Tommie Bauer Racing

History Maker

That photo finish was the closest result by far in the 54-year history of the I-500, billed as the only one-mile, high-banked ice oval track in the world. It takes three weeks and some 1.8 million gallons of water to prepare the track, and then two intense days of qualifying rounds just to participate in the prestigious race. In fact, Tommie Bauer Racing had a lot of trouble during qualifying, and it wasn’t until a last-minute change to the wiring harness that things started looking up.

While most teams have two or three drivers, Tommie Bauer Racing had four, including longtime members Nickels (since 2012) and Cody Bauer (since 2014).

“Last year we picked up a third driver, Nick Wickerham. And then Joey said, ‘I wouldn’t mind hooking up with you guys,’” Otto recalled. “It’s nice to bring three guys to the I-500, but four can be a challenge because you start cutting into everyone’s drive time.”

But all agreed to give it a go, and everyone checked their ego at the door, with no prima donna moments where members demanded more driving time. That teamwork, everyone agrees, is what made the team and its spectacular win so special.

Nickels, a 46-year-old licensed master mechanic from Alpena, started things off as the first driver. “I have always been a pretty good qualifier,” he said. “The pace is faster in the beginning because the track is smooth.”

After about 30 or 40 laps, Burch jumped on and Nickels switched over to pit crew. “I am getting to be the old guy, so I let the younger guys have the rough race,” Nickels said. “This sport tends to make an old man out of you – your back really takes a beating.”

“Oh yeah, Tyler is all about letting us ride when it’s rough,” Wickerham said with a laugh.

Cody Bauer was up third and ended up doing three different stints for a total of 120 to 140 laps. “It eases your mind when you only have to do 40 to 60 laps at a time,” he said. “The hardest part is adjusting to how much the track has changed from the last time you were on.”

Nick Wickerham, 28, was the fourth man on. “I started around lap 200 or 250 and put about 70 laps on,” said the 28-year-old resident of Belding. “The course was getting a little beat up and when I got back on again at about lap 350 or 400, it was a lot rougher.”

I-500,Tommie Bauer Racing

Photo Finish

The original plan was for Bauer to finish off the race, but Burch was feeling strong. “We actually planned the end a bit different, and it was originally going to be Cody at the end,” Otto recounted. “But we said, ‘let’s just leave Joey up,’ and Cody agreed, which was very unselfish.”

Cody, who owns a construction company in Farwell, played down his sacrifice. “The teamwork was pretty awesome,” he said, “and it couldn’t have gone any better.”

Burch, 32, did about 220 laps in total. “Everyone has their good days and their off days, and as the day went on, I was doing decent and wasn’t fatigued,” he said. “But then we slowly started losing the front end of the carbines and it was not turning as well. We went from 1 to 2 and 2 to 4 or something like that. I knew we had to do something or we were only good for fourth place.”

So what was it like when the official time came up and Tommie Bauer realized they’d won?

“Pretty wild, pretty awesome,” said Bauer, 30, who owns a construction company in Farwell.

Said Wickerham, a power company worker and business owner in Belding, “I probably didn’t even watch the last 10 laps. I was a wreck — I could not do it. Then an hour or two after the race, I watched the end. It was all in Joey’s hands, and he was the best man for that job on that day.”

It wasn’t until after that crazy finish that Burch, a motor sports service manager from Mt. Pleasant, registered the fact that it was the anniversary of his father’s death. Joe Burch II died of a heart attack while racing in the I-500 on February 4, 2006. He was only 44 and Joe III, who was in his dad’s pit that day, was just a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday. “He  probably would have been at a loss for words,” Joey said of his father’s reaction.

The maturity that comes with a dozen years driving in the I-500, Burch said, was a major factor in the win. “You learn not to overdrive. In previous years, being younger and kind of dumb, I would have driven harder and run into risk of actually crashing. When you’re inexperienced, you think once you’re in the lead you’ve got everything set.”

I-500,Tommie Bauer Racing

Teamwork

All the men said it was the spirit of camaraderie and true teamwork that made the race so special.

“It’s an awesome group of guys, second to none,” said Wickerham. “Everyone gets along, everyone talks about everything. I have rode for teams where there is a little bit of hard feelings inside the trailer. But we are all one, we all want the same thing, and there is no ‘I’ in this team.”

Nickels agreed. “It’s always hard as a driver because you want to be on the sled, but what is so great about this team is that nobody is greedy,” he said. “Everyone works to make the best decisions, and no one complains about a lack of seat time.”

Otto said he’s proud of his entire team. “It is very satisfying that they don’t get their egos up so much,” he said.

The drivers are quick to return their respect to owners Mike and Kelly Otto, who own a Tool and Die business that supports the plastics industry, out of Farwell. They keep the sleds at their cottage in Lake, where each Tuesday and Thursday are spent tinkering. “My neighbors say, ‘oh, we see you guys partying every night,’ and I tell them, ‘that’s not partying,’” Mike Otto said.

As Burch noted, “Drivers get all the glory but people don’t realize how much work and time and hours goes in behind the scenes every week till midnight, 1 a.m.”

Nickels agreed. “This could have never happened without Mike and Kelly Otto and the countless hours they put into it. it is pretty special to get to be the guy who rides the sled — it’s a big honor. I have no desire to ever be on a different sled.”

All four men have committed to Tommie Bauer Racing for this season, including the I-500 on February 3. A celebration party and kickoff for the 2024 season drew more than 100 people to Farwell in September. The Farwell Chamber of Commerce has paid homage to the team by erecting a congratulatory sign.

Does Burch think they will repeat?

“I don’t want to  jinx myself or the team,” he said, “but obviously that is the ultimate goal —  to win or do the best you can.”

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