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Start your engines — Winter Festival of Speed is back on track

Racing, kids events, airplanes ... the ice will come alive over the February 25 weekend

LAC LA BICHE - After some stop-and-start years working around a pandemic and unsettled weather, the Lac La Biche Winter Festival of Speed is on course to take over the frozen surface of the namesake lake during the February 25 weekend.

Ice racing cars and snow-blasting sleds will share the winter backdrop — that will once again feature an on-ice airstrip for visiting aircraft. 

The spectacle is the most recent version of the event that has been running for the last 40 years.

Other events to pack onto the ice for this year's lineup will include a vintage snowmobile display, a snowmobile trail ride, family sleigh rides, and aircraft show and shine, ice carving demonstrations, helicopter rides, axe-throwing, chances to get into the driver's seat and race, and the Alberta Trappers' Association displays.

"There's going to be more — I just can't remember it all," joked long time event organizer and local racer Ken Staples. "I do know — and I'm not just saying this — that this is going to be the best one yet."

The event first started in1984 on Beaver Lake in a partnership with the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. The event had motorcycle races and race car events. Over the years, the event grew  ... and moved to Lac La Biche lake where the Northern Alberta Sports Car Club and the local Lakeland Classic Wheels Society joined forces to host the Western Canadian Ice Racing Championships. While there are no motorcycle or quad races slated for this year, the ice racing championships and the Straightline Snowmobile Racing Association sled races will more than make up for it, says Staples.

"This is a premier event. It's a favourite with the car racers and the snowmobile crowd," he said.

It's also a favourite event for the spectator crowds. Organizers will be carving tracks into the Lac La Biche lake's snow and ice pack in mid-February, creating corners and straightaways that will give track-side viewers great views from a safe distance.

For those wanting to get a little closer to the action ... there's plans for that too.

Staples and the organizers are expecting to offer "ride-along-racer" sessions where a fee will allow anyone to strap in and ride with one of the NASCC's ice racers.

"Two or three laps going at speed, hitting corners ... it puts a smile on most faces," said Staples who has been ice racing for more than five decades.

There will also be a timed-event for local drivers to compete in, courtesy of the Edmonton Rally Club.

"We'll have locals, in their own vehicles race the clock on a shorter track than the racers are on," he said, explaining that a small fee, a helmet and a vehicle are all that is required to "race against your friends".

All the funds from the weekend event will be split between the drivers and community groups. Staples figures that over the recent years, the Winter Festival of Speed has put almost a quarter million dollars back into community groups who volunteer their time at the event.

Charity race

One of the largest fundraisers of the weekend will once again be Sunday's Charity Race.  For a $600 donation — along with a $400 damage deposit, because Staples says that "rubbing isn't always racing" — residents can race, fender to fender with other rookie racers. The Charity Race lets local drivers buckle up and drive the full race track for several laps, competing with other charity racers.

"It's always great to see who challenges who and who the surprise racers turn out to be," Staples said.

Family smiles

While the sound of racing sled and sliding cars will draw many people to the lake for the weekend, Staples says the family-feel remains a driving force for organizers.

A children's festival will be set up at McArthur Place on Saturday, and on-ice events will also help to bring some smiles. New this year, the Alberta Sculptors' Association will be creating ice carvings through the weekend.

"Its pretty amazing," said Staples. "They come in on Saturday morning with a block of ice and by the time they leave on Sunday, they will have created art."

Other events planned for the weekend include a unique trade show hosted by the Lac La Biche and District Chamber of Commerce, where booths will be set up on the ice, displaying company products or services.

"We did it before, and it was quite successful — like a little shopping mall on the ice. I think one of our car dealers actually sold a vehicle from the ice," Staples said adding that any residents with some new ideas for events are more than welcome to bring them forward.

With a little over a month and a half to go, Staples and a core group of organizers will be finalizing plans with regular meetings. 

Although he has been in the driver's seat of the event for the last four decades, Staples would like to see more local residents join the organizing committee as he plans to drive off into the sunset after this event.

"This is my last year ... I've said that before, but this is it.  The event is a lot of work, but we have a great crew working to keep it going. They could do with more people to get involved to keep this thing driving along," Staples said, who begins the NASCC's 2023 regular season of ice racing this weekend. By the time the Western Canadian Championships slide into Lac La Biche, more than three dozen racers in rubber to ice and studded racing classes will have had more than 20 scheduled races.

For groups looking to volunteer at the event or bring ideas and planning to the Winter Festival of Speed, the contact centre is the local Chamber office. 

 



Rob McKinley

About the Author: Rob McKinley

Rob has been in the media, marketing and promotion business for 30 years, working in the public sector, as well as media outlets in major metropolitan markets, smaller rural communities and Indigenous-focused settings.
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