At the Decanter Inn in Kasilof on Sunday, dozens of cars ripped over the ice — they kicked up clouds of snow, filled the air with the sound of engines, and each hoped to be the first to reach the checkered flag. They were there for Kenai Peninsula Ice Racing, held each weekend at the inn. The races have been drawing crowds for decades, and the racers say it’s the sense of community and the family-friendly atmosphere that keeps them out on the ice and behind the wheel.
Ice racing on the Kenai Peninsula has been around since the 1960s, said Anthony Hannevold, one of the racers, on Thursday. Back then, it was just “a couple of guys trying to figure out whose car is faster… we’ve grown it substantially over the years.”
Today, Kenai Peninsula Ice Racing is a significant production, with multiple events, dozens of racers, commentary broadcast over the radio and a focus on providing family-friendly entertainment in the cold winter months.
On Sunday, under a shining sky, the racers put on a show for dozens of spectators lining the track in the warmth of their own cars.
“We’re all trying to do a family thing out there,” Hannevold said. He started racing in 2004, shortly after moving to Alaska in a car with his father and brother. That same car that brought them to Alaska became the car they raced on the lake. Hannevold said he still brings it out once a year for the “Old Timer’s Race.”
“Every year could be its last, but it keeps on ticking,” he said. Usually, he drives a large black and orange truck, part of a local team called AK Rebel Runner’s Racing.
Brandie Reid, another of the racers, similarly described a long personal history with the sport. She said she’s been racing since 1997, originally with her father. Decades later, she’s still out each weekend driving the same truck, a 1975 Ford.
“I was scared to death,” Reid said of first getting behind the wheel. But she said she couldn’t pass up the chance to get out on the ice and race.
It’s a strong sense of local community, Ralph Mills, also a racer, said keeps him coming back. He’s been a part of the races since 1997 and said he’s always eager to spend time with the other racers and hear their stories.
A big focus, Hannevold said, is making space for kids and teens to get involved and get excited about ice racing. He said all the racers are willing to answer questions or show folks around.
Reid pointed to the Frisbee toss, where kids get the chance to ride with a trained driver on the ice during the intermission between the men’s and women’s events, as being a part of that focus.
It was an opportunity like that 20 years ago, Hannevold said, when he got a chance to drive on the ice and “got hooked.”
Racing on the lake isn’t at all like racing on a snowy road, he said. The racers use unstudded snow tires, and because of the heat of the fast-moving vehicles and the shifting of the snow brought up in their wake, the track can change entirely every few laps.
“It’s a game of patience,” he said. “You’re always on your edge.”
He said the analogy he usually offers is that ice racing is akin to grabbing a doorknob covered in oil — it takes precision to avoid slipping.
“Every time you make a left corner, you risk losing control,” Reid said. “You have to be quick on the steering wheel.”
She described how she needs to know exactly when to brake and when to accelerate. It becomes a matter of knowing the limitations of the vehicle — after so many years with her truck, Reid said she knows exactly what it’s capable of.
“It’s a balance,” she said. “I try to push the limits.”
Mills said he’s still excited by the thrill of the race. He said it’s fun to “drive crazy.” He said it can be challenging when the snow gets kicked up and visibility drops, but he just pushes through.
“I don’t ever back off,” he said.
Hannevold said it can be difficult for spectators to realize just how challenging ice racing is. When racing, he said he’s always watching for “lines,” looking for the best and fastest way to make it around the track. The wrong choice can cause a racer to fall back several places in a moment.
Ice racing on the weekends is “something to look forward to,” he said. People can keep track of different teams like his own, “Ak Rebel Runner’s Racing,” on Facebook.
This weekend, on Feb. 10, Kenai Peninsula Ice Racing will feature a Saturday evening “Racing Under the Lights” event starting at 6 p.m. at the Decanter Inn in Kasilof. For a full schedule of upcoming events and more information, visit “Kenai Peninsula Ice Racing appreciation” on Facebook. The only entry fee is $10 for parking, cash only.