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
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
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
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.
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.