SUPERIOR, WIS. – The motley crew of cars lined up at the icy starting line, engines revving. One man waved a green flag and they were off, careening eight times around the half-mile oval track plowed on the Lake Superior bay.
"I'm pulling for that red '57 Chevy," said Phillip Wright, who drove his own car onto Allouez Bay on Feb. 20 to spend a Saturday afternoon watching ice racing. "He used to be one of the slower ones, and now he seems to always be near the front of the pack."
Drivers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other wintry parts of the world have for decades used their cold-weather street smarts to put a frozen twist on NASCAR. When the temperatures drop enough, ice racing leagues pop up on frozen lakes in communities across the Midwest and beyond.
"It's so totally different than anything else," driver Greg Pluntz said as he prepared for his first heat of the day.
Most members of the Lake Superior Ice Racing Association, which hosts the weekly Allouez Bay competitions, unknowingly raced their season finale last weekend due to a warm spell that has started to melt the track. Organizers said drivers might yet be able to fit in a few more races in other leagues with smaller lakes, which may still have thick ice.
The sport draws thrill-seekers and the mechanically minded, who often spend hours fitting old or cheap vehicles with special engines, door bars and tires for ice racing.
Cars must comply with a list of safety rules regulating things from paint colors (must be dark or bright — no white or silver) to handling spinouts (two in the same race means you're out). No all-wheel drive vehicles are allowed, but cars can have studs on their non-drive tires for additional help rounding the icy corners.
"Race hard. Race clean," Mark Androsky, president of the association, instructed drivers. "This is not a demolition derby."
With cars sometimes speeding up to 65 mph on the slippery track, collisions happen. But longtime racers and fans in Superior say they've never seen any serious crashes — just lots of dents.
"It's exhilarating," said Loren LaGesse, the association's 2019 season champion. He sold his car last year, when he and his wife started thinking about building a house, but he still shows up most race days to officiate one of the track's corners.
This year the Lake Superior Ice Racing Association got off to a late start, but a cold stretch in early February quickly formed ice thicker than the 16-inch minimum. Organizers squeezed in four races — more than the two held last year but fewer than the 10 they'd hoped to host.
"We're completely dependent on Mother Nature," said Laurisa Richardson, a 22-year-old board member who has been racing since she persuaded her dad to let her work on a car for a senior project at Superior High School.
Volunteers from the association painstakingly maintained the track each weekend. The organization is insured but also posts signs notifying participants and onlookers that they enter at their own risk.
"This is our chance to get together and hang out," said fan Jeff Williams, who met up to watch the afternoon races with a group of friends and a cooler of beers. A concession stand trailer selling chili and cheddarwursts served the more than a dozen other cars lined up to spectate.
Cars rack up points throughout the day based on how they place in each six-car heat and the final feature, a 15-lap race against all 17 other vehicles. Winners receive small payouts after each event, and a season champion is crowned whenever the ice gets too thin.
"The adrenaline, the fun — that's why we're out here," said Jeremy Lambert, who raced the 1957 Chevrolet that was a favorite among fans.
"But," he added after a moment's pause, "I also want to win."
His red Chevy pulled ahead in the final race, slowly creating more distance between it and the second-place car. Snow and ice sprayed the windshield, making it difficult to see at times. One driver spun out into the snowbank lining the track's outer edge, and the race paused to reset.
Lambert, who has been ice racing for nine years, drove around and around and around until he finally crossed the finish line to the wave of a checkered flag. The red Chevy did a victory lap around the track with a showy doughnut spin at the end, as fans cheered and honked on the frozen bay.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478