Story | Hal Armstrong

Four Days to St. Paul

“The Winnipeg” as the race became known, returns this February 2015 after a 35-year hiatus. The original mega mile cross-country race that first ran back in 1966 was part of a double header that every manufacturer and race driver wanted to win. (Eagle River was the other half).

The ancestry of the International 500 route traces back to a 1917 Winter Carnival when 10 sled dog teams raced from Winnipeg to St. Paul Minnesota. The first “modern” International 500 snowmobile race ran 49 years later in 1966 and just 58 sleds entered. The “Winnipeg” ran for 14 straight years and the tales of racing in -40 degree temperatures and howling winds are legendary. The I-500 was an adventure as much as a race. The stories that riders tell could fill a book. The race was about man and machine vs the elements. To finish was a huge accomplishment.

Jon Carlson, who raced Pro for John Deere in the ‘70’s, sums it up best; ”I think about the I-500 every day. The life lessons I learned were about courage, perseverance, determination, leadership and being a team player.”



Herb Howe: Winner of the First I-500 in 1966

The first I-500 did not draw the number of entries that the organizers had anticipated. Racing for 500 plus miles was going to be tough, real tough. No one had tried to race a snowmobile this far, and the 50 plus riders had no idea how to prepare. The rules allowed sleds up to a maximum of 14 hp. Drivers could have as many mechanics as they wanted, repairs could be made at any time and there was no time limit to complete each of the four stages. Fuel was purchased at gas stations along the way. There were no designated fuel stops. Sounds like a typical trail ride, right?

The race left Winnipeg in -42C weather in January and the racers headed for the Manitoba/Minnesota border. The sleds that were used were really basic. There was literally no suspension in the track with bogie wheels and small torsion springs providing 1-2” of travel. Up front leaf springs with no shock absorbers supported the front end.

Herb Howe was 36 years old when he won the race. Herb, now in his 80’s recalls,” Man it was cold! It was 45 below when we left Winnipeg, and 24 below when we got to St. Paul (three days later). It never once got above zero the whole time.” Howe was part of a three-man team that had heard rumors of the race several months before it was even finalized. He and fellow snowmobilers Jim Langley and Clark Dahlen signed up - even before the St. Paul Winter Carnival organizers had finalized the plans.

“We had to be in Winnipeg the day before and all three of us had entered, but when we got there we realized we didn’t have anyone left to drive the truck home,” Howe said with a grin, noting that the pickup had no reverse gear and they had literally no spare parts for any of the three Polaris Colts. “Luckily, we found a guy from Polaris to drive the truck back, and eventually Clark’s sled broke down so then we had a driver!”

The race was broken into four stages that first year and the format stayed the same over the 14-year run of the race. Howe remembers, “There were no trails then. It was all ditches and roads, and we’d have to replace the rear springs every night after each leg, from bouncing across the driveway (approaches)” he said. “And it was a fine line between getting stuck in the deep snow in the ditches and wearing stuff out on the road. It was a balancing act. I remember we’d have to replace windshields from rolling over so much!”

Herb won that first race on a 14 hp Polaris Colt with a 372 cc single cylinder JLO engine in a time of 13 hours, 36 minutes and 54 seconds. His average speed 36.72 mph! What did he win besides bragging rights? A cool $500.00, a sore back and lots of frostbite.

The Years Between (1967-1979)

The years between would see huge interest from all the manufacturers trying to put their machine in first place. Dale Cormican racing for Arctic Cat was the first rider to win back-to-back I-500 wins in 1968 and ‘69. Entries had increased to 126 riders for the ‘69 race. The sleds were getting faster now with Cormican riding a 400 cc modified Panther. The race started in a blinding blizzard and only 33 of 126 starters finished the first leg of the race. After day three, Polaris factory rider Bob Eastman held the lead over Dale Cormican. As the sun was rising prior to the start of the final leg, Cormican’s sled had clutch issues. Eastman, always the person to lend a helping hand even to competitors, told Cormican to get the parts he needed from the Polaris race trailer. That friendly gesture would back fire on Bob, as Cormican would eventually pass him and win the race.

The 70’s would see interest in the race explode as entries were capped at 300 riders. Leroy Lindblad was the consummate terrain racer and he would go on to win the race back to back in ‘70 and ‘71. The race length increased to 571 miles and Lindblad in 1970 averaged 43 mph.

Cross Country racing has always been the ultimate test bed for the manufacturers to shake out all the components that make up a snowmobile. Suspensions, engines, clutching and how well the sled is put together are quickly revealed.

The Race up to 1972 had been a battleground between Arctic Cat and Polaris until the first and only Canadian, Yvon Duhamel would win the race on a Ski-Doo.

Yvon remembers, “I started in the last flight of 300 drivers that started the race. When I reached the first checkpoint at the American border I was in second place.” Yvon was racing the 400 Blizzard with a cleated track and after each leg they replaced the track. The rules allowed the driver and mechanic to replace any part of the sled except the engine, which could not be touched. “On the last leg my mechanic made sure I carried a spare primary clutch along with more than 90 pounds of spare parts and tools. It was good thing I did. Two miles from the finish line in St. Paul the engine stopped and I could not pull the engine over. I thought the engine had seized so an old trick I had learned was to throw some snow on the engine to cool off the cylinders to release the piston. The engine still would not turn over. I was frantic because I could hear the other sleds catching up to me. I took the hood off and found the clutch was engaged. I loosened the clutch so it released off the belt. I swapped out the clutch and put a new belt on in about ten minutes and headed to the finish line. I was running wide open when just before the finish line the sled blew another belt. I did not cross the line first that day but I won the race. When I was asked what I was going to do with the $7,500.00 prize money, I told them to ask my wife!”

John Deere had been working hard to win the I-500 and in 1976 it all came together. Team Enduro Deere entered the race with hand-picked riders who had been in a boot camp since the fall. With the new Liquifire purpose built cross-country race sled they were ready to win the race. Brian Nelson won the race for Deere and recounts the last day of the race, ”Day four and I was 14 minutes


The Race up to 1972 had been a battleground between Arctic Cat and Polaris until the first and only Canadian,Yvon Duhamel would win the race on a Ski-Doo.


 

behind the race leader when we lined up. Polaris sleds surrounded me and the sky was gray and overcast. The light was really flat. I had great vision so I could pick off the drifts and find my line. This worked to my advantage. I was hitting road approaches so hard you would almost black out because of the G forces you were generating. When I crossed the finish line in Winnipeg there were reporters and photographers everywhere. I kept an eye on my wristwatch till the lead Polaris crossed the line a good 15 minutes later. I won the I-500!” 



1980: Bruce Olson the last I-500 Winner

Bruce was just 21 years old when he crossed the finish line ahead of Gerard Karpik the dominant terrain racer of the time. The 15th running of the Tour de France of Snowmobile racing would see 127 drivers leave Winnipeg in mid-January, in -50 F temperatures with the wind chill. Cross Country Racing back then was as big as Sno-X is today. There were factory pros racing against independents like Olson every weekend. The Winnipeg-St. Paul carried as much weight as wining the X-Games today.

That year, Polaris and Yamaha competed using the first generation independent front suspension snowmobiles. Some chose to race the IFS sleds, others stuck with the tried and true leaf spring machines. Olson was sitting in the top 10 after this first day. “The first stop in Thief River Falls, we were only allowed to do repairs to safety equipment. The second day I set fast time for the 106 mile distance averaging 56 mph .The rules allowed a 2 hour work period to do repairs to the sled. I looked it over and made the decision not to change any shocks or springs. That poor decision nearly cost me the race. The third leg was 140 miles and I ran really hard capturing first place overall going into the last day. When I finished that day my sled had broken the front track shock and busted a rear torsion spring. My sled was basically sitting on the ground with no travel and you could not touch your sled to do any repairs except safety items.”

On the final leg only 69 of the 127 riders were left running and most people told Bruce what was the point in starting. “There was 185 miles between the finish line and me. There was no stopping me now! The whole way the track was ratcheting so I had to run in loose snow so the track would slip just enough and not ratchet. I was the 20th sled across the line but I just had to finish to win.” Bruce won the race by nearly three minutes over 2nd place Gerard Karpik on a Ski-Doo. His average speed for 591 miles was 52 mph. “I guess I got lucky that day. Looking back who was to know that this would be the last Winnipeg-St. Paul race for 35 years”

2015: The Return of the I-500

The founder of the USXC race association, Brian Nelson, is a two-time winner of the I-500 with wins in 1976 and 1978. When asked why it was important to bring back the I-500 race he said, “This race is important because it is the true test of man and machine. You can be a great driver but if you have one thing wrong with your machine or you don’t have the endurance to keep pushing, you will not be able to complete this race.”  He added, “All four snowmobile manufacturers will be involved in the race and will stand an equal chance of excelling because of the rules set forth by USXC racing and the ISR (International Snowmobile Racing).  The terrain and winter conditions these competitors will be racing through will create many challenges for them to overcome.  But at the end of this competition, anyone who enters the race will have such a sense of pride in their accomplishment and will have created memories that will last a lifetime.” The race will for the most part run the same route as in 1980. Bruce Olson is the returning champion and at 57 years of age now has entered the race. His goal if not to win is to finish and place in the top ten. Four grueling days separate him from the finish line.

 

 

 


This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of Snow Goer Canada Magazine. Be sure to get all the latest snowmobile news in your hands by subscribing today. If you missed an issue on the stands, or would like a copy of the issue this article was featured in, back issues are also available. Snow Goer Canada Magazine gift subscriptions are also available.

 

 

 

 

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