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The 500 International Snowmobile Endurance Race in Sault Ste. Marie. Marie keeps going despite the warm weather and little snow.
“Yes, we need some snow for the snowbanks,” said Bill Cryderman, race committee director. “But these rinks are built with solid ice.”
Thirty-eight teams will compete. I-500 riders travel along a one-mile track (you guessed it) 500 times.
“About every 60 or 70 laps, they have to go into the pits to refuel,” he said, comparing it to a NASCAR race. “They have a pit crew and they come in and change skis.”
Race organizers use an average of 1.8 to 2 million gallons of water each year to create a mile-long ice rink about 20 inches thick, pouring water onto the rink at night to make it freeze. .
Cryderman has lived in Sault Ste. Marie his entire life and has been involved with the race for more than three decades, since he was a teenager. Now, at 48 years old, he runs it.
In his words, Mother Nature has thrown some curveballs at the area this year, although they have plenty of ice for the track.
“In the Sault right now, I mean, we’ve lost a ton of snow in the last few days,” he said. “For the race itself, that’s not a big problem, because we built a race track out of ice. You know, we had three good weeks there, early and mid-January, where we built a whole ton of ice.”
But with highs now hovering around 30 degrees and lows a few degrees cooler, temperatures are much warmer than average. According data from the National Weather ServiceAverage highs this time of year should be around 20 degrees, with lows in the single digits.
A El Niño climate pattern has compounded the effects of climate change on northern Michigan’s winter.
Usually, Strong trade winds push warm waters toward the western Pacific.. El Niño occurs when those winds weaken or reverse, causing sea surface temperatures to warm in the Pacific and sending warm waters eastward. This can have wide-ranging impacts on climate around the world. It generally creates warmer, drier conditions in parts of the northern United States and Canada.
“We’re seeing this really up-and-down pattern,” said Michael Boguth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gaylord. “We had an exceptionally warm start to winter. We recently refreshed ourselves here. But now we return to the warm phase of that oscillation that we are seeing.”
Boguth expects the warmer weather to last into early February before it cools off again.
Even if the I-500 race doesn’t need much snow, the region’s trails do. And Cryderman said the warmer weather is affecting some of the early activities.
“Most of the fans will come and maybe come on Monday or Tuesday,” he said. “They will be riding the trails on snowmobiles all week and then they will show up to our race on Saturday.”
That main race is scheduled for February 3 and comes with significant prize money; Cryderman said this year it’s more than $50,000. The race is also a great economic driver for the community.
“It has to be close to a million dollars or so that comes to our area for this particular race,” said Tony Haller, executive director of the Sault Area Chamber of Commerce. “That has a substantial impact on our local businesses.”
And for now, they are still benefiting from the event.
“In Sault, Michigan, it’s very, very hard to find a motel room right now,” Cryderman said, laughing. “In winter, business relies heavily on snowmobile racing.”
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