Sault Ste. Marie looks beyond winter for snowmobile raceway

Sault Ste. Marie’s International 500 Snowmobile Race, a 500-mile endurance race on tap this weekend and held annually since 1969, is billed as the most grueling and prestigious snowmobile race in the world.

The raceway, however, has typically been used only in winter. But thanks to a $2 million federal grant, Sault Ste. Marie officials will expand and upgrade the raceway to become a year-round tourist destination. The efforts will also help reinvigorate the well-known raceway following some economic losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It's a huge deal,” says Linda Hoath, executive director of the Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This is an opportunity of a lifetime for us.”

The International 500, which draws snowmobilers from all over the country, culminates Saturday after a week of race-related activities. Some 10,000 people will be on hand to watch the race, which many have likened to the Daytona 500. 

Among the visitors will be Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, who is not only a regular spectator at the annual event but also encouraged the Upper Peninsula community to apply for the federal grant to expand the venue’s use. 

“I’m thrilled to see this happening,” Lorenz says. “Sault Ste. Marie is a wonderful town with great experiences, but I think it really needs a few more of these unique experiences. It’s one of those places that is so cool in so many ways.”

Winter events like the International 500 are great for communities and create a source of pride, but expanding use year-round will attract other events and visitors, he says. 

“These winter events mean a lot to a community, but you seldom want to see something used just one time of the year. (This grant) will allow them to put amenities in and use other times of the year for other events. This is a way to maximize travel as an economic development plan,” he says. “I couldn’t be happier for them.”

The $2 million Economic Development Administration was awarded to the Sault Ste. Marie Convention & Visitors Bureau to enhance the Sault Ste. Marie International 500 Raceway with new roads, a parking lot, a vendor building and other upgrades. The project is expected to create or retain 50 jobs and generate $2 million in private investment, officials say.

The venue includes three parcels totaling 51 acres and lies within the city of Sault Ste. Marie. The site is large enough, however, to accommodate double the number of spectators. Proposed improvements will allow for significant growth for the race and also offer opportunities for new events and programming to attract more visitors throughout the year.

Brian Chapman, Sault Ste. Marie city manager, says the city is already a big tourist destination “so to utilize the property for some more events will certainly bring in more tourism in the community.”

“We're thrilled for the opportunity and it's not just the city on the project,” Chapman says. “It's going to be great to transform that area to make it a better type of facility for the I-500, and also provide opportunities for year-round entertainment as well.”

Bids have just gone out for the engineering work, with work expected to begin this summer and completed in time for the 2024 snowmobile race in late January, Hoath says, crediting the partnership between the International 500’s board of directors, the city, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Jeff Hagen at the Eastern Upper Peninsula Regional Planning and Development Commission. “It's a great partnership, with everybody working for the same thing.”

Among the ideas for new winter events are vintage snowmobile races, and pond hockey tournaments on the track prior to the International 500 race (the track is layered in ice for months to prepare for the snowmobile races).

Summer proposals include dirt track races for stock cars or dirt bikes, specialty events sponsored by Red Bull or Nitro Circus, and outdoor concerts in coordination with the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians Kewadin Casino (COVID concerns have limited concert attendance at the Casino’s indoor venue).

The International 500 Raceway site also offers opportunities for other outdoor activities. A trail connector is proposed to pass through the site to allow hikers and bicyclists to access public nature areas along Ashmun Creek to the south.

The grant proposal calls for paving, parking upgrades and reconstruction of streets that are impassable in the summer because of massive potholes. The holes are filled with snow in the winter to make them usable. A gravel parking lot will be installed where the street terminates into a field at the raceway site. The project also includes installation of a pedestrian bridge connecting the north and south bluffs at the raceway site. 

The north bluff includes a press building overlooking the bluff, the primary pedestrian access point to the inner track, as well as an area where fans stand along the hillside to watch the race and visit vendor tents.

The south bluff is separated from the north by a ravine with a dirt road used by race vehicles and support vehicles. The south bluff offers parking for RVs, campers, and fan vehicles; thousands of fans stand along the south bluff hillside to watch events as well.

The pedestrian bridge connecting the bluffs will allow easy fan access at the raceway site and will benefit future events that take place throughout the year. 

Other work includes upgrades to electrical service, construction of a permanent vendor building, safety fencing and bluff terracing and grading to allow for fans to stand on level ground, or set up chairs, and to accommodate older fans more easily. 

The idea for the I-500 came about in 1968 when several businesspeople were discussing the Indianapolis 500, and the questions arose of whether or not a snowmobile could run for 500 miles. The idea became a plan for a race patterned after the Indianapolis 500 but for snowmobiles.

The city of Sault Ste. Marie approved a section of land for construction of the track— a site originally used as an ammunition dump for Fort Brady during World War II. Three concrete munitions bunkers that remained on the property posed an obstacle for the newly created I-500 Committee, but with the help of the National Guard two of the bunkers were destroyed. (The third remains to this day). In less than six months, a crew of volunteers completed construction of the one-mile-long track

The U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded $510 million in grants to all 50 states and territories in 2021. The $2 million grant to the Sault Ste. Marie Convention & Visitors Bureau comes specifically from the EDA’s $240 million competitive American Rescue Plan Travel, Tourism, and Outdoor Recreation program. That grant requires a matching $513,000 grant. Hoath says she is confident local matches can meet the requirement. The program is designed to accelerate the recovery of communities that rely on the travel, tourism and outdoor recreation sectors. 

The potential for other raceway projects, if additional funding becomes available, include: 

LED lighting: Track lighting was installed before LED lighting was available, and much of it was installed on a tight budget, due to the volunteer-oriented nature of the I-500 race event. LED lighting upgrades will allow for increased safety and aesthetics along the race track. Better lighting will allow fans to more fully enjoy multiple events throughout the year, and improve safety for racers, or event concert performers when additional events are launched.

New scoreboard: A new, digital scoreboard will allow fans to more fully enjoy the I-500 and other events that take place throughout the year.

PA System:  A site-wide PA system will offer better announcing and sound capabilities.

Billboard upgrades:  Two old billboards on the site need refurbishment to promote the I-500 and other events.

Flag poles: New flag poles will draw positive attention to the raceway site and celebrate both the events themselves as well as Michigan and the nation.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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