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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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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—56�. 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.

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