On a gray winter morning, a steady parade of cars and trucks winds through Council Ground State Park, down a snowy boat ramp and onto the frozen surface of Lake Alexander near Merrill.
They come to drag race on the ice, something gearheads and thrill seekers have done here for half a century.
“It’s our 50th anniversary of the Merrill Ice Drags, the fastest 8th mile on ice,” said Bill Bunnell, president of the Merrill Ice Draggers, the club that organizes the races. “I think ’64 was the first actual race.”
Back then, the event was born of boredom.
“Just of bunch of good old boys sitting around in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, middle of winter, what the heck else do you do?” Bunnell explained. “So they came out, and they plowed some lanes, and they started running.”
Today, the event includes dozens of racing classes and a wide variety of automobiles: classic muscle cars, high-speed “rail” cars, souped up trucks and SUVs, even family cars and minivans. Lynda Krebsbach races in her 2014 Malibu sedan.
“My brothers raced for ten years, and I’ve always liked fast cars,” Krebsbach said. “So I tried it and it was fun … it was the best $20 I spent last week, and I’m going to do it again.”
Each car comes under Bunnell’s inspection before hitting the track.
“We just check safety items: drive shaft lube, fire extinguisher,” Bunnell said. “On all of our money classes, we have class rules that the cars have to be. It’s a whole different ballgame, and I have to really dig into the cars.”
Along with preparing their cars for speed, many drivers also prepare their tires to run on ice. Some drive hundreds of small screws through their tires from the inside out, hoping to gain extra traction.
At noon, the first cars take off down the track. A few slide of slip, but most seem to zip effortlessly across the lake.
“I like the rush you get … sometimes it’s slicker. It’s exhilarating,” said one driver.
Other drivers seem to enjoy their time socializing off the track as well as their time behind the wheel.
“The people … talking to people you don’t get to see,” he said. “The racing’s fun, but you can race in the summer, too.”
For club president Bunnell, the cars are the draw.
“What really got me hooked was, I was spectating the first year I came out here, and one of the rails took off from the line … and when the nitrous kicked in, he lifted the front tires off the ice about a foot and a half,” Bunnell remembered. “I’m like ‘Wow!’ I was hooked. That was it. That’s all it took.”