SI Vault
Mason Smith
January 12, 1976
The St. Paul winter carnival was 500 miles away and the weather was every driver's worst enemy
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January 12, 1976

And They're Off—at 56 Below

The St. Paul winter carnival was 500 miles away and the weather was every driver's worst enemy

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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.

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