Merrill Ice Drag races a tourism event
The Merrill Ice Drag group has been bringing spectators, racers and tourism dollars to the Merrill area for over 50 years. Founded in 1965, the club incorporated in 1970 as a not-for-profit 501(c)4 organization. Since then, the races known as the “Fastest 1/8 Mile on Ice” has been performing on the public waterway of the Wisconsin River – just off the Council Grounds State Park boat landing – every Saturday for approximately six weeks in January and February.
The Merrill Area Chamber of Commerce is the Tourism Administrator for the City of Merrill room tax. Each year the Tourism Commission makes available tourism marketing grants to promote local events, like the Merrill Ice Drag Races. As part of the application process, each entity must provide information on economic impact for the regional area of Merrill, such as hotel stays, gas station/convenience stores and restaurants. This information is then spot checked with area businesses to verify if business is up on those weekends. Being a small, friendly town, many businesses will inquire what brings unfamiliar faces to the area.
This is especially true with the hotels.
As an example of the economic impact that this event brings to the area, in 2018 the hotels reported an average of 30 hotel rooms booked for the Merrill Ice Drag events each racing weekend between the three hotels, based on information supplied at check-in. Using an average of $95 per night for hotel stays, that is over $17,000 in hotel revenue. Plus, they paid 6 percent in room tax, or $1,020 that went directly into tourism promotion. Add in purchases of gasoline and food at restaurants, and the impact increases. We polled restaurants and gas stations from Gleason, Merrill and Town of Merrill and most reported an uptick in sales on these weekends.
In addition, their 2018 season had significant growth due in-part to local television coverage and the cable television show “Road Kill” and 1,320 Videographers attending the event. The average weekly attendance by spectators and contestants is estimated at 300-400. But the event that Road Kill attended in February drew over 1,000 spectators and contestants, and drew additional dollars due to a significant increase in pit pass sales and local television coverage promoting the Road Kill guests.
Videos of these events have garnered over 10 million internet views worldwide. The videos have been made by both nationally and internationally known companies. People have traveled from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Mexico and South Africa to attend this unique event in Merrill.
Documented racers travel from the following Wisconsin cities: Athens, Baraboo, Birnamwood, Bonduel, Danbury, Edgar, Gleason, Hatley, Hancock, Hewitt, Kronenwetter, Lodi, Marathon City, Medford, Merrill, Milwaukee, Mosinee, Menomonie, Neenah, Nekoosa, Oconto Falls, Ogema, Westboro, Withee and Wisconsin Rapids. Out-of-state racers come from Crystal Lake, Minn.; Menton, Ohio; Edinburg, Ind.; and Papillion, Neb. Road Kill is based out of California and they video documented their trip to Merrill to race last February. During the last race season, 30 racers with Merrill and/or Town of Merrill addresses raced weekly.
Their annual sponsorships are more than 50 from all over central Wisconsin, including 17 from the Merrill area. Those businesses include: Auto Jockeys, B’s Club 107, Brickners Park City, Chips of Merrill, Cosmo Theatre, Haunted Sawmill, Kathy & Cal’s Club 64, Les & Jim’s Lincoln Lanes, Lincoln Community Bank, Lotter Mobil, Merrill AmericInn/Arby’s/Pine Ridge Mobil, NAPA of Merrill, Oak Park Dental, RAJ Services and Rod’s Towing Service.
As a not-for-profit organization, the Merrill Ice Draggers donate funds under their charter to promote social welfare. Recipients have included: North Central Healthcare, Pinecrest Nursing Home, Weston Youth Trap Club, The Haunted Sawmill, Lincoln and Marathon County Humane Societies, and HAVEN. They also donated funds to Frank’s Gym Cancer Benefit and established an endowment scholarship fund at NTC with a value greater than $5,000.
The scholarship will be awarded each fall to any or continuing full or part-time NTC student, who is enrolled in the Automotive Technology, Diesel Technology, Mechanical Design or Welding program.
“The Merrill Ice Drag Races are one of the few wintertime events held in Lincoln County,” stated Debbe Kinsey, CEO of Merrill Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Administrator. “The Department of Tourism conducts a thorough assessment of tourism by county each year. While the 2018 data is not out, the 2017 data is available. In Lincoln County tourism business sales were $87.5 million and visitors to the county generated $5.7 million in state and local taxes. So, every event held here makes a significant contribution to this total annually.”
In question this year was the location of the event itself. For over 50 years they have raced on Ullman Bay on the Wisconsin River, which is a public waterway governed by the Department of Natural Resources and an outdated township ordinance that has not been updated since 2014. The ordinance was put into place to promote safety for residents, spectators, racers and everyone that is using the waterway. There was talk of repealing the ordinance, but the ordinance simply needs to be updated, not repealed. The ordinance in part regulates the use of the waterway, letting the town know the times of activities for sanctioned events. For safety purposes, the ordinance also gives permission to erect snow fence, and asks the other users of the bay to respect the sanctioned event for a maximum of six Saturday afternoons during late January and February.
Many meetings were conducted with township officials, residents and organizers, all working to ensure that there is an updated ordinance going forward, for all four area townships. This has allowed each township to adopt the same updated ordinance, so there will be a uniform, enforceable ordinance for the health and safety of everyone involved with recreational activities on the waterway.
“The Merrill Ice Drag Races have become a wintertime institution in Merrill and a much beloved winter tourism activity for the entire Merrill area,” said Jeff Schneider, Merrill Chamber Board Chairman. “Tourism is a vital element to our economy. This is why we promote the area in over 15 different ways and award marketing grants to event organizers like Merrill Ice Draggers, who have a proven record of drawing visitors to the Merrill area.”
“We appreciate all the community members, organizations and township officials that have organized, attended meetings and worked in support of this unique wintertime event,” concluded Kinsey. “We would also like to thank the township chairs and supervisors who worked together to make this a uniform ordinance. We would also like to thank the City of Merrill and Lincoln County who stepped forward in support of the Merrill Ice Drag organization, and to those local businesses who continue to sponsor this unique tourism event. A special thank you to those spectators both near and far, who come to Merrill year after year for the races.”
The 2019 Merrill Ice Drag Races are scheduled for Feb. 16 and 23. Races begin at noon. Enter through Council Grounds State Park. Races are free to watch, as is parking on the ice. If parking in the lot, you will need a state park parking sticker. Pit passes are also available for purchase. For more information visit their website at https://www.merrillicedrags.com/