Top O'Michigan Outboard Marathon
Starting point: DeVoe Beach, Indian River
The Top O'Michigan Outboard Marathon National Championship race will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2023. Race weekend is Aug. 12 and 13.
Founded in 1948 the race, which is known as the world's toughest outboard marathon, has grown to legendary status in the boat racing world. For more than 70 years, boat racers from across the United States, as well as other countries, have been coming to northern Michigan to race across the rivers and lakes of the Inland Water Route in an adventure that tests both drivers and boats.
Top O’ Michigan is highly competitive. In the 2021 race the top three drivers in the C Class went back and forth during the entire 40-mile race and were less than a minute apart. While the race is competitive, it’s a friendly competition. For both drivers and spectators, the race ends up being something of an annual reunion. In the pit area before and after the race, it’s not at all uncommon to see drivers both active and retired, young and old sharing race stories. Many of the thousands of spectators who line the shorelines plan vacations around the race. Community members and local law enforcement agencies assist in patrol boats to help make the race safe and help racers when they break down. Over the decades, the race has become part of the area’s culture.
The race starts and finishes at DeVoe Beach each day, but takes a different course. Saturday’s race goes up to Cheboygan and back. Following a short run out to a turn buoy in Burt Lake, racers come back through the entire Indian River, run down the Mullett Lake shoreline to a turn buoy at Topinabee, make what is in some years a brutal, wave-tossed excursion through Mullett Lake to the Cheboygan River, go through the Cheboygan River to just past the Lincoln Street Bridge and then retrace their path back to DeVoe Beach.
On Sunday, racers go across Burt Lake in open water racing to a turn buoy near the high banks, then up the shoreline to the mouth of the Crooked River. After making their way through the twists and turns at the bottom end of the river, racers emerge into Crooked Lake at the locks in Alanson. They then take a turn and make their way to a turn buoy in Conway and come back down the far shore of the lake back to the locks.
After coming back across Burt Lake the boats go through the Indian River and out into Mullett Lake before coming back into the Indian River and into the home stretch to the DeVoe Beach finish line.
Unlike closed-course races that go round and round in laps on a single lake or river, the Top O’ Michigan race is a marathon with a little bit of everything: open water on Burt, Mullett and Crooked Lakes that can be pleasant enough to skim across at full throttle or have white capped waves that pound boats and drivers just trying to finish the race. The Indian, Cheboygan and Crooked Rivers include tight turns where drivers move forward in the cockpit and lean to bring boats around and also have straight stretches where drivers slide to the back of the boat, crouch down, squeeze the throttle and feel the rush as the boat accelerates.
The race is family-oriented with a shorter class for young Junior Class racers. Many of the adult racers are men and women who started as junior class racers or are second generation racers following in the path of their parents before them.
The race is organized by the Top O’ Michigan Outboard Racing Club, a group of volunteers that meets throughout the year and spends many hours doing the work necessary to have the race carry on as a northern Michigan tradition. In recognition of the race's 75th anniversary, the racing club is planning to have special events. They want to have a Saturday night celebration with live music and food, boats on display, and a meet-and-greet for people to talk with veteran racers.
In recent years the race has been averaging about 90 boats. For the 75th anniversary, it's possible there may be more than 100 boats.