The Wisconsin River meanders through the state from which its name is derived, flowing at times slowly and at times rapidly until it empties into the Mississippi River.
In northern Wisconsin, there are plenty of flowages that create areas of backwater teeming with large species of game fish like Muskellunge and Northern Pike. In the warmer months many folks can be found along the river enjoying the warmth and the water. Many will have fishing poles in hopes of landing “the big one,” others will be on skis skimming across the water at seeming break-neck speed, while others will be simply cruising the river with family and friends.
Once a thick layer of ice forms on the river in very cold winter months, especially in the north central part of the state, the river’s use slackens. Only the hardy venture out, most for ice fishing.
In the community of Merrill, however, some hardy folks have found another exciting way for fun on the river. For more than 50 years, Merrill has been the site of the Merrill Ice Drags. It all started back in 1965 in the community of approximately 10,000 souls north of Wausau. As an Iowan, of course, I’d never heard of “ice drags” but I learned firsthand once I began my first post-Army job as a writer/sportswriter for the Merrill Herald.
I’d become a part of the Merrill newspaper staff, even though I’d been hired by the Wausau Daily Record-Herald. As I was searching for a job, a shot-in-the-dark letter I’d written landed on the desk of the newspaper publisher. The larger paper in Wausau had just purchased the Merrill Herald and, within a year, a new high school would be opened in Wausau. Evidently, my letter arrived at just the right time. The sports staff at Wausau would be expanding by one, while a staff was then being formed at the newly-acquired Merrill Herald.
I was hired to work at the Merrill Herald for a year, then would make the move to Wausau to cover athletics at the new school, Wausau West.
When I arrived in Merrill, it was already cold. It was mid-November when I settled in as a writer both in news and sports. When January rolled around and the temperatures took a quick and steady nose dive, I got a new assignment – go out on Sunday afternoon and cover the Merrill Ice Drags.
I had no idea what a spectacle I’d be covering.
Hundreds of people lined the shoreline of a backwater flowage northwest of Merrill. Assembled on the shore in another area were about 20 street legal passenger cars. I learned quickly that those vehicles would drive out onto the ice, be “staged” side by side, then sent roaring down an eighth-mile course of ice. To say it was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement.
As the afternoon wore on, I began shooting photo after photo of the events. Often, I’d taken a position behind the side-by-side cars which afforded a beautiful photo of ice spewing in my direction, thrown up by tires on cars quickly accelerating down the track.
Soon, however, I was told I’d have to move. My position had become too dangerous as a new class would soon be competing. It was called the “nailie” class and it was just as the name indicated. Drivers in the class meticulously pounded flat-headed roofing nails into the tires. Inner tubes kept the tires inflated, hopefully at least, and a hundred or so short nails protruded from the tires.
One of the race officials told me the reason I’d have to move. “Sometimes those nails get thrown out of the tires and they shoot almost like bullets,” he said. I quickly obeyed. I didn’t want to be the target of any nails thrown from the rear tires. Those “nailie” drivers really put on a show, speeding down the track at speeds faster than I could imagine.
It was an eye-opening experience for someone who’d never seen anything like it.
In the ensuing years, the Merrill Ice Drags have become an almost weekly wintertime experience for folks seeking speed thrills. Rarely is a weekend too warm, but when the weather doesn’t cooperate, of course, the ice drags are postponed. It seems illogical to most, though, that a winter sports event is postponed because it’s too warm outside.
I checked the group’s website to see if they are still in business. To my surprise, it’s bigger now than it ever has been. In fact, classes have progressed to the point that some dragsters compete, not just passenger cars. And, some competitors get so much power to the ice that the cars do wheelies down the track. The speed record for the eighth-mile ice course is more than 141 miles an hour. Some ruts as deep as an inch are left during the competition.
I’ve seen lots of strange things in my life – perhaps none is as strange, though, as watching cars race down the Wisconsin River, tossing nails toward anyone foolish enough to stand behind. It’d almost be worth a long drive to see it again, just once more.