Thursday, August 28, 2008

And They're Off - at 56 Below

Yvon Duhamel, French Canadian, who won the race in 1972The article below is from the newly opened Sports Illustrated archives. Now I'm not a sports fan per se, but I do appreciate certain sports and certain feats accomplished by individuals and sometimes groups normally known as teams. The article is about an event that used to happen in our neck of the woods, and is very familiar to anyone growing up when I did. We'd get out of school to go see the crazy participants race by in the most brutal weather we could dish out. It was truly exciting and inspirational to see the machines and the men who rode them whiz by as we hooted and hollered from our warm bus.

My cousin worked at the Artic Cat plant back in the day. She'd bring home scraps from the fabrics used to make suits. I still have a tea cozy lined with it - it keeps my tea nice and warm!

The writer of this article says that the race is different in the north than it is in the south. He's right - it's more individual against nature, pure and simple. And our little school on the prairie and the handful of kids from it were witnesses to it...

All through the night the 376 machines sat out on the shelterless prairie south of Winnipeg , 12 tight ranks of snowmobiles inside a snow fence impoundment. Shock cords crisscrossed the hoods, indenting the driver seats from side to side. Tool kits, clutch belts and parts were lashed on. Auxiliary gas tanks were bolted astern. Big blue-on-white racing numbers were plastered wherever they would fit, partly covering names of drivers, mechanics and sponsors—farm-implement dealers, lawn and garden shops, Pabst Blue Ribbon , the U.S. Navy . The machines were set. The temperature contracted to 22 below zero. The north wind blew endlessly, a steady 32 mph. No one was around. The race crews slept in motels.

Sunrise would start a 500-mile, three-day cross-country race to St. Paul and, on the evidence of nine past runnings, not more than 15% of the machines would ever get there. That would be 57 snowmobiles. Most of these expensive, evil little beauties were going to break; at about $1,700 an entry, they were derelicts already, brand-new and soon to be buried. It would be a marvel if they would even start after this night.

The tradition of a long midwinter race between Winnipeg and St. Paul goes back to 1917 and the old 510-mile Great Northern Pembina mail route. It used to be a dogsled race, with real dogs. Nowadays it runs in roadside ditches with RCMP or state police spying on the competitors at every turn and crossing. The field is accompanied the whole way by a stream of comfortable cars and trucks. (This year's race, starting Jan. 19, goes the other way, St. Paul to Winnipeg .)

If you do not own a snowmobile, you know that hardcore snowmobilers are beer-swilling oafs with no respect for privacy, quiet, fences, young trees, physical exertion or the trackless beauty of the snow itself. If you follow their trails through field and wood, you will find that they are just using this kiddie car reversion as a way to move from bar to bar. Once in a while they get what's coming to them, good and proper: they crash and break various bones.

But a look around the crowd at the drivers' meeting in Winnipeg that night shatters the stereotype. Apparently this impossible contest is selective. The racers, who come from 23 states and provinces to flirt with destruction, have passed some kind of screening, not for insanity but for good-natured, hearty wholesomeness. This is a mead hall full of Vikings about to deal with Scotsmen hand-to-hand; lots of full-face beards and crow's-feet faces lit with private excitement. They are dignified. They are somehow nice.

There are few fearless idiots in racing. These racers are disciplined; they don't just hope to finish but intend to win. How easily they shed the hoo-ha from the St. Paul Winter Carnival promoters who all want to clutch the microphone and say farewell with excessive drama. And, overcome by the scene, snowmobile PR men tear their hair. To think that they can't get through to Wide World of Sports—this thing is really big.

In business volume snowmobiles are said to involve more money than all firearms and ammunition, more than golf equipment, even more than skis and ski equipment; and this is one of the major annual races. But you would almost think the media were purposely looking the other way. Some of the factories hire their own film crews, but their helicopters can't get to Winnipeg—a blizzard stops them to the south. So the start will be almost pure sport, not commerce.

The sunrise through the gray layer of blizzard was triple, three apricot-tinted glows whole points of the compass apart—a "sun dog," meaning it is cold. Down at the border the visibility was zero. Word of this condition was sent back, and the start was delayed. Officials muttered that the machines might have to be trailered down to East Grand Forks, Minn. to start the second day.

That would be awful because there they were in the queer dawnlight, 376 machines, pointed south. But they could not be started now, only topped off with fuel. Then the drivers were kicked out of the compound once again, to mill around and breathe pure frost and wiggle their toes and wait an hour for the go/no/go announcement. The effective temperature in the wind was—56F. Still dim after rising above the horizon layer, the sun dog doubled. Someone noticed white spots on a photographer's cheeks and hustled him into an ambulance.

Frostbite is the danger. Even that morning the drivers' bodies would be hot once they were racing, but they would have to protect their faces carefully with masks of leather and rabbit fur or of wool with plumber's tape around their eyes and over their noses. They all made deflectors of the tape: over the nose and out to the face shield or helmet to keep their breath from steaming goggles. The 16-year-olds and the two women racers looked like grown monsters. One would not have wanted the job of telling these Martians that they could not start their race.

At 10 o'clock one of the officials from St. Paul climbed a snow pile, tried his frozen bullhorn—through which he sounded as if he had been breathing helium—then gave up and bawled the only news acceptable. A driver and mechanic rushed to every sled, greatly relieved. Hoods were removed, chokes set, dry gas and ether readied. The front line was allowed to crank. A cloud of exhaust fog went up, yellow, blue and white. Irregularly, the front rank jerked ahead beneath the banner. The second rank was permitted to start engines. One minute later the first was off.

If the whole race were this dangerous, nobody would get to East Grand Forks, let alone St. Paul. In the first 100 yards of sorting out, going from 30 abreast to five, to one, hitting the drifts with no visibility in the snowfog and exhaust condensation, drivers were catapulted loose and sleds overturned. Someone was hit, someone was hurt.

The second wave skidded ahead to the line. The third started engines. Broken sleds and drivers dotted the prairie. The second wave roared and went out of sight in its own smoke. One Yamaha driver hit a drift, flew horizontally above his sled and came down alongside it while the sled went end over. He slowly got up, threw the sled back on its skis, pulled the rope. It didn't start. The fourth wave cranked up, the third took off. Somehow between an observer's glances, the Yamaha disappeared.

You can't really follow this race by car. If you see the start, you can never catch up with the first wave. You drive down course, see a few desolate machines already finished, pass a few not running well and stop to watch machines from later waves come across. It approaches boredom.

Perhaps that is best. Were there spectators on the old mail run? Up here in these white expanses where the sleds stretch out sometimes half a mile apart, the race is pure, it belongs to the drivers only. If you experience it at all, you do so through some of them that you have spoken to: Ian and Dave Corbett of Winnipeg and Phil Hazen of Essex Junction, Vt., on Sno-Jets. Harry Austin, met in a bar last night, comes from The Pas, Manitoba , and drives a John Deere . Bill Benedict, from the Minnesota Iron Range, sells Arctic Cats and lives for such events as this. A professional driver who has won this race twice is Dale Cormican. You try to get to someplace from which you can see them pass, just once, see how they're running, how their time to the border compares.

Still, one can't help seeing the race as a competition between manufacturers. No independent has ever won. The big makers field their own pros. Polaris is always strong. Last year it was Arctic. Ski-Doo has a couple of top drivers in the race. So has Mercury.

This year the unusual policies of one newer manufacturer have produced a slight embarrassment. John Deere , only three years in the business, decided to go for the 500. But not just for a factory-team victory—for a numerical, statistical win with lots of independents among the finishers. The company hired Cormican to help design its machine and head the factory team, and gave dealers and customers unprecedented financial support and incentive to enter sleds. Everything Cormican discovered about tuning and strengthening the machines was shared immediately with the John Deere independents.

John Deere hoped for 100 entries. It got 187. Half the field was John Deeres. The old tractor company seemed to have gone acquisitive. Its green sleds had been winning cross-country events, and Cormican was reason enough by himself. If one asked why Cormican should so consistently run in front in this fate-ridden steeplechase, his mechanic looked up from the machine and said, in complete seriousness, "Explain Richard Petty ." That was about it.

Cormican's performance this first day was standard. He started in the fourth wave at Winnipeg 15 minutes behind the front rank. He passed about 85 machines, crashed twice, got lost once and came into East Grand Forks 11th in order of arrival. Ian and Dave Corbett both made it, with 34th and 38th best times, Phil Hazen was 111th, Harry Austin 81st. Bill Benedict ran powerfully and finished seventh in elapsed time, best among the 74 Arctic Cats.

But the bottom of the ditches had been out-of-the-question rough. Everybody rode on the sides all day. Somewhere, the side of the ditch becomes the shoulder of the road. You can go faster the higher you ride, but at some point it also becomes illegal. At the drivers' meeting that evening in East Grand Forks, Dale Cormican learned that he had been disqualified for road running. So were about 20 others. They all said they were just doing what everybody else was doing.

All entries in this race must be stock production sleds with a maximum engine displacement of 340 cc's, and the companies must manufacture at least 1,000 of them. There may be modifications for endurance, such as strengthening skis and spindles, mounting oversize or extra tanks or adapting track and suspension to the driver's taste. Engines and exhaust systems can't be touched. The engines can't be repaired during the race.

Sleds had come across the line in East Grand Forks with hoods ripped open, shields gone, skis bent or even missing. They were impounded again right away, in large well-lit shops at a new vocational training center on the outskirts of town. The drivers were shooed away into the inside halls for doughnuts, coffee and first aid.

From seven to nine that night two men per sled could enter the shops to make repairs with maybe a wife or brother waiting at the door to run out to the factory van for new parts. There was a moment when everybody was ready; an official said, "You may..." and was drowned out. In seconds you could not find space to take two steps in one direction. Sleds were jacked up or thrown on their sides, their tracks and skid frames pulled, the ice knocked off; parts and tools were handy. In the two-hour official repair period, new bogie wheels were installed, plus new hi-fax plastic inserts on the rails, new tracks, new drive sheaves, new clutches, drive belts and skis. Carburetor jets were changed for forecast temperatures (near zero), sleds were sometimes skidded out and tested. Everything had to be buttoned up by nine o'clock or finished on the starting line next day by the driver alone—after the race had resumed.

The first day had been fierce, but the second was worse. The wind was from the south, 30 mph and more, rolling up a blinding snow cloud and stringing drifts across all the east-west jogs in the route. The start was delayed an hour again because nobody could see 100 feet.

The first 50 miles were run half blind. Forty sleds went down a lane together and were not found till after dark. The sun was just a generalization. The racing was desolately personal. Only 68 machines arrived at Alexandria , and 31 of them were past the deadline. That left 37 sleds to run the final leg.

Suddenly, in Alexandria , the race had lost its character. Perhaps there is a certain minimum north latitude for these events. Now there were noisy dilettante snowmobilers all over Lake Darling; airplanes, too. You couldn't tell the racers coming to the finish line from the kids out playing. John Deere people overran Arrowwood Lodge, which itself overran a perfectly nice piece of Minnesota lake country real estate. They gathered out in front of the finish line to tally home each John Deere , prayerful that they might not lose a percentage point in their proportion of surviving machines, since Cormican was out and Polaris was methodically stacking the top places. Out of the mouths of lounges and banquet halls came the bellow of crowds nothing like that pure hardcore community at Winnipeg .

At the drivers' meeting there was positive ugliness. Inequitably, the race committee set a single cutoff time by which a sled must have arrived to qualify for the third day. But it failed to compensate for the 30-minute span between the starting times of the seven waves that had left East Grand Forks. Instead of correcting the mistake, the race director offered the first 37 drivers the choice of permitting all or none of the other 31 to continue the race. He posed it as a blackball choice: unanimous or negative.

Most of the finishers seemed to feel that anybody who had made that day's run deserved to stay in the race. But a few were less softhearted. They didn't seem so nice anymore, nor did the ousted 31, threatening lawsuits against the race officials and sabotage on the last day's race markers—or coming to the pits that night to jeer at those working on their sleds.

The only patch of innocence left seemed to be a boy leaping around his John Deere in the pit shed that night, obviously surprised to be doing so well. "You think I'm crazy, don't you?" he asked an onlooker. The observer shook his head. The kid's mechanic, another kid, didn't seem to know what went where. The first kid sprang across to show him, pounced for a tool, forgot another, straddled the sled for it. The observer wanted to tell him to slow down.

The excited youngster was No. 263: Wayne Muller from Windom, Minn. He was just one place ahead of Ian Corbett on the Sno-Jet. Harry Austin was among the 31 who came in late. Bill Benedict lost a few places during the first 50 miles because his air filler had clogged in the blizzard. When he got it changed, he ran fast again and was about 50th at the first fuel stop. Then, at 110 mph, his piston skirts began disintegrating. For a while, the pieces blew out with the exhaust. Then a chunk fell to the base, where the crankshaft pressed it through. Instead of going crazy like the properly obsessed racer he is normally, Benedict sat on his sled, lit up a cigar and thumbed the stream of pickups and vans and cars along the route.

The last day was actually comfortable. The sky was clear at times. The country became more populous, spectators watched from their driveways, helicopters hovered overhead. Wayne Muller was still in the race, but independents like him were already out of it. The pros were heading for the money now, the $35,000 pot. Polaris was uncatchable.

Roger Janssen, one of those who spoke out against letting the 31 late racers ride the final leg, had the lead temporarily on this stretch. Then he stopped at a confusing intersection and was directed down a wrong road by someone posing as a race official. It cost him 15 minutes, and he finally came in fourth, behind another factory teammate on a John Deere .

The race route led into St. Paul, winding under arched stone bridges and through park valleys, lake to lake. A hot-air balloon advertising Hershey's Cocoa cut loose from the finish line on Lake Phalen, and drifted away. Twenty-two sleds came in, not 6% of those that lay impounded out on the prairie 500 miles north three days ago. Outside the barn where the engines of the surviving sleds were being inspected, the little crowd around the finish line was already gone. The race had dived into its sponsoring city and been overwhelmed. The awards ceremony for winner Ed Monsrud of Roseau , Minn. can be skipped.

But it was something else for a while. In Manitoba that dense battalion of ingenious machines penned together on the prairie had excited a pardonable human pride and interest, such as Spanish peasants might have felt when coming upon the harbor in Cadiz . (Well, perhaps not quite such.) Just that fearsome Manitoba cold authenticated it. The sun dog was a seal of approval. Now the independents who are the heart of this grueling race were scattering back to their hometowns, many of them probably saying the hell with the Winnipeg-St. Paul International "500" Snowmobile Race. But they say that every year, and every year it is bigger than the last.

From And They're Off - at 56 Below