Michigan Ice Racing Association heats up Chippewa Lake with wheel-to-wheel action

GAINING TRACTION: J.D. Ackley races around the icy track at Chippewa Lake during a Michigan Ice Racing Association race. (Pioneer photo Dan Meloy)

GAINING TRACTION: J.D. Ackley races around the icy track at Chippewa
Lake during a Michigan Ice Racing Association race. (Pioneer photo Dan Meloy)

CHIPPEWA LAKE — Fans stir as cars race down the backstretch, engines roaring, wheel-to-wheel action as the drivers approach the turns.

Then a burnt orange Chevrolet HHR gets stuck in a snow bank, waiting to be retrieved by a pickup truck.

It’s a far cry from The Indy 500 – both in size and temperature – but for the drivers who make up the Michigan Ice Racing Association, Chippewa Lake is their Indianapolis.

On Saturdays during the frigid weeks of February, drivers from across the state and the Midwest put their racecars on trailers and head to Mecosta County to take part in ice racing.

“Ice racing is a really fun way to race,” said Rick Scott, Michigan Ice Racing Association president. “There really isn’t a whole lot of money you need to put into the cars; it’s more about driving skills than horsepower.”

Ice racing serves as an attractive alternative to pavement racing in the summer, since the costs of ice racing cars are significantly lower.

“Some guys put a lot of money into these cars, but you don’t really need a lot,” Scott said. “Really, just take a beat-up car, put some basic safety features on it (brake lights and a three-point safety belt) and as long as you have good snow tires, you are good to go.”

Racers meet on Saturday at Chippewa Lake, providing the ice is at least 10 inches thick, while families of the drivers and fans curl up in their cars watching the action.

“It really is a family atmosphere,” Scott said. “We have the drivers’ families spotting for them, taking down lap times and helping pull the cars out of the snow if necessary.”

Races consist of eight to 20 cars, depending on turnout. Scott said the group prefers to divide the grid into two classes: front-wheel and rear-wheel drive cars because front-wheel drive cars have superior handling and traction on the ice.

As with all forms of auto racing, having a well-tuned car helps a driver’s chances of winning, but veteran racer Stacey Despelder, of Greenville, said it really comes down to skill.

“The classic way to pass is to get behind someone and wait for the person to screw up,” Despelder said. “Then you take advantage of the mistake and get around them. A lot of these young guys just drive too aggressively, and that’s why they end up in the snow bank.”

The track is in the middle of Chippewa Lake, a good distance from any houses or docks. The Michigan Ice Racing Association team sets up a different course every week to change things up.

Pontiac native Rich Kreiner has been ice racing for two years in a Honda Civic after a friend told him about the sport. He doesn’t race during the summer, but makes it up to Chippewa Lake as much as possible during the winter.

Drivers make it out to the lake whenever their work schedules allow. For competitors, ice racing serves as a way to satisfy their need for speed before the short track racing season starts back up in the summer.

“My friend talked me into it, and it’s a lot of fun,” Kreiner said. “A lot of people just do time trials, with one person going at a time, but you get more excitement with wheel-to-wheel racing. It’s a combination of skill and getting your car set up well to deal with the track.”

Weather conditions caused this season to be delayed until Feb. 7. Then Scott had to call the races off for the following week on account of poor visibility.

“What we really need is a really cold, clear day where the ice is thick but everybody can see,” Scott said.

On Thursday nights, Scott posts on the group’s website whether or not races will take place on Saturday.

The biggest challenge the series faces might not be the weather or the competition on the lake, but insurance.

The association has insurance for its spectators, who stand 50 yards from the track. But making sure they are safe is a top priority for Scott.

“We insure for liability for the spectators,” Scott said. “If something were to go wrong – which we make sure it doesn’t — they will be covered. That’s our biggest challenge. But the people out at Chippewa Lake are friendly and we don’t have any problems with law enforcement. They just want us to be safe.”

After cancelling the first three weeks of the season, Scott feels the Michigan Ice Racing Association will race each weekend from now until March 8.

At the end of the season, the Michigan Ice Racing Association declares a champion based on a point system related to how drivers finished after every race.

“Most these drivers don’t really care about who’s the overall champion,” Scott said. “They’re competitors, they want to win, but it’s not all about winning.”

Each driver wants to win, but Scott said there is something more important for each competitor when they are racing around the track — the thrill that comes with racing down into Turn 1 and cranking the steering wheel hard to the left as the car slips around an icy curve.

“There is a lot of camaraderie on the track,” Scott said. “Yeah, we’re racers, we all want to win and we rough it up some times. But all these guys are friends and we really don’t see each other much off the track. So it is great to see them around.”

For more information about the Michigan Ice Racing Association, visit michiganiceracing.com.

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