Most people may think that building an ice surface to race on is easy and takes only a little planning: cold weather, lay on the water, and good to go. Well, there is a bit of truth to that, but a lot more planning and work needs to take place.
Building of the track starts in spring with some of the local farmers, usually CPTC board members, seeding flax. Once the crop matures and is harvested, the flax straw has to be baled and stacked. In a good fall, this is an easy job. In a wet, cold fall, it turns into a really miserable job. Somehow every year we manage to get the required 3700 bales it takes to line the entire track, which is what makes our track so safe to race on.
The track surface is maintained all summer long by cutting the grass, draining, leveling and packing it after summer events such as the rodeo. A smooth surface is much easier to build the track on. Every year is different. Wet falls are the worst for track preparation as we end up having to pump standing water off the track surface. As soon as the temperature drops, we begin packing the track to push the frost into the ground. The surface has to be frozen enough to carry the weight of the water tanker without cutting ruts.
Once flooding starts, temperature becomes an issue. At -10 degrees Celsius, flooding can take place 24 hours a day. At this temperature, the required 12 to 18 inches of ice can be made in about a week. If it warms up during the day, flooding slows and more time is required. Volunteers will alternate between dumping a load of water on the track and one in the pit area to allow more time for the track surface to freeze. Incredibly, there has only been one year since the December race began in 1989 that we had to cancel it because it was too warm to build the track. The year was 2009, and it was so warm in December that farmers were still doing field work the week before the races were scheduled to take place.
When flooding of the track is nearly complete, volunteers begin loading, hauling, and placing the 3700 bales needed to line the track. Depending on the number of volunteers, it usually takes 2 days, starting with completely lining the outside bank of the track 2 bales high, with 3 high in the entry points of corners 1 and 3. Then the inside corners go up. They are set about 10 feet out from the outside wall to give a cushion zone. Once all bales are in place, the inside bales are covered with orange plastic snow fence for driver visibility and to help hold sections of bales together in case of a crash. The snow fence acts like a giant elastic band in the event of a crash.
During the race, the track is maintained by graders and brooms for safety. When racing is done for the December race weekend, the inside row of bales gets removed to prevent them from freezing to the track surface and also to make it easier to clean the track. Flooding begins all over again to get ready for the March races. There have been times when one to two weeks before the March race, the track has almost melted because of warm weather and there was 8 inches of water in the marshalling area. We had to fire up the pumps and get rid of the water, then start packing and re-flooding. It takes 16 minutes to load the water tanker and about 12 minutes to spread it on the track. 330,000 gallons of water can be applied to the track in a 24-hour shift. The inside bales and snow fence are put back on the track the week before the March race, and we’re ready to go racing again.
With the March race complete, it is time for clean-up. The flax bales are sorted, with the good ones saved and stacked for the next year. The rest are pushed up into piles and burned. In only 2 months, the cycle starts all over again.
This is just a little insight into what it takes to build the oldest, fastest, and safest ice track in the world. Of course this is possible because of all the volunteers that take time away from their busy schedules, families and jobs to put on the Greatest Show on Snow. So the next time it is -20 to -30 and the races are coming up, do not forget the volunteers working at the track making ice, moving bales, or cleaning snow. They are out doing it because they love the sport and their community, and want to see it continue on for many years to come.
As told by Dean Linke, CPTC Director