The 2014 USXC Seven Clans Casino I-500 lived up to expectations for racers and fans alike, delivering three days of fantastic racing worthy of its history and legend.
154 racers came to Thief River Falls to test themselves against snow-filled ditches, rivers and, of course, other racers.
While these brave competitors also faced temperatures in the minus double-digits, they were rewarded with sunshine and blue skies for most of the race. For a cross-country racer barreling down a northern Minnesota ditch at 85-plus mph, excellent visibility is like a Godsend.
Seeing the sleds staged outside of the Seven Clans Casino on Thursday morning brings a chill of excitement to any race fan.
With hundreds, maybe even thousands of vehicles parked and following the course… with the dozens of conversations among friends and strangers… the prognostications and proclamations… the culture of the this race is like no other.
For anyone involved with this race or watching with interest, it’s like living in a different world, where everything you do, see, say and hear revolves around the event.
Because the race spans three days, 500 miles and 154 competitors, the narrative of what actually happens unfolds in bits and pieces. Everyone is tuned to KTRF for all day race coverage, which offers a rough outline of information, based mainly on who makes it to the gas stops, who has broken down, and who crosses the finish line.
But the actual details of what happened to each person, each day, is gathered in brief conversations with people who wittnessed the action, crew members and sometimes the racers themselves. Everyone “trades” information with each other to fill in the blanks and, over three days, a story emerges.
An hour before the race begins, crews fire-up the sleds. If you weren’t already amped up for the action, the site and sound of this coming-to-life-moment sends shivers down your spine. With hopes and dreams hanging in the balance, this last check is a mixture of anticipation and energy. But also some fear and prayers.
Frankly, I think of it as a holy moment of snowmobile racing, and I wish that everyone reading this would someday experience it for himself or herself. It will draw you in, and you will draw it within yourself. And once inside, it will never leave you.
Speaking of the hold that the I-500 has on a person’s soul… the two pix above are of Richard Hanson (right) and his brother Jeff.
Last year these two fulfilled a lifelong goal of participating in the I-500, Richard as the driver and Jeff as mechanic. Seeing Richard make across the finish line and into a bear-hug from Jeff at last year’s race was a sight that won’t be forgotten for those fortune enough to have witnessed it.
The Hanson brothers were back for 2015, this time on an Arctic Cat. And once again Richard survived three days of rough terrain to finish!
Every year there are a couple dozen people who muster the courage; money; and green light from the wife/parents/boss to compete in their first I-500.
One such person at this year’s race was Arctic Cat ATV engineer Mark Esala (above). Mark not only survived this almost-crash less than a mile from the start on day one (witnessed by his friends in the truck next to him), he also survived three full-on crashes on the second day AND muscles so sore that simply walking brought tears to his eyes.
But survive he did! And now Mark has a dozen great stories to tell and, more importantly, the humbling satisfaction that comes from having finished this incredible race.
Congratulations Mark, you deserve it!
Just how “big” is the I-500? It’s big enough that in the town of Plummer, they let the kids out of school to watch!
No question, this was the coolest thing I saw the whole race. And it’s why I love northwestern Minnesota.
Ross Ilstrup was one kid who wasn’t watching (because he was racing). Ilstrup won the Junior 12-17 class ahead of Tyler Brown and Blake Johnson.
Dan Fischer is on the other end of the age spectrum (which is equally impressive in my book), winning the Masters 50-plus class.
Ryan Weidemann is another racer who has utterly, completely fallen in love with cross-country snowmobile racing. Earlier this season he scored his first career win in the Trophy 85 class. And now, he’s scored his first ever win in the same class at the I-500!
No, this isn’t Brad Pake or Kirk Hibbert, and it’s not 1997 either.
It’s Brad Naplin (looking like he could run with Pake and Hibbert circa 1997), winning the Classic IFS class.
Kelsey Pladson has been on a tear all season long, and she did it again in the Junior 12-17 Girls class at the I-500, finishing ahead of Kaylee O’Brien and Sara Larson.
Massive congratulations girls!
If you want to get an idea of how much fun is possible racing cross-country on a vintage sled, check out Team Mattison Racing Facebook page. This family has it all, including one of the most entertaining sites I’ve ever read and a fleet of sweet Tigers!
Gerry, Dale, Karl and Jake saw the finish line of this year’s race, while Jim, Mike and Pete made it in spirit only as they suffered from the dreaded “mechanical” issues.
Gerry Mattison must have oodles of spare ski spindles lying around the Team Mattison race shop, because every time I see him he’s landing his El Tigre without a care in the world that he might break one.
Mattison is like a Timex watch; he just keeps on ticking and winning the Vintage Legends class.
(Note: the ArcticInsider contingency check is in the mail for winning, Gerry. All $2.37 of it.)
Looking like Archie Simonson but wearing modern gear, Michael Fugelberg won the Vintage class his Polaris TXL.
Sam Vandeputte won the Super Stock class and collected a hefty $5,000 for his efforts. Rumor has it that next year’s I-500 will be on Super Stock sleds ONLY.
Jared Christensen topped the Trophy 600 class and, like the two other non-Cat racers who won a class at this year’s I-500, deserves recognition for his achievement.
Jolene Bute was down 17 seconds after the first day of racing, but nobody was about to bet against her. She put in a hard charge on the second day to move into a 9-minute lead, then cruised to her 8th career I-500 win!
If Gerry Mattison is like a Timex watch, then Jon Arneson (above) is the Energizer bunny. Arneson raced his ZR 6000RR to a win in the Masters 40 class, as well as third in Super Stock, sixth in Semi Pro 600 and 15th in the Pro 600 class.
Keep in mind, that’s a stock ZR 6000RR, the non-race sled!
Okay, now for what went down in the Pro 600 class, starting with defending champion Ryan Simons.
This shot was taken less than a mile from the start on the first day. It’s the third ditch approach of the race and, as you can see, Ryan was intent to win.
But a sharp edge halfway through the first leg would put an end to Ryan’s race, as the hard-charger found himself in the middle of the road, in serious pain and staring into the face of teammate Brian Dick (who saw the whole crash and immediately went to help Ryan).
Ryan went to the doctor banged and bruised. He’s okay (in fact, as I write this he’s on a plane to Alaska to compete in the Iron Dog), but pretty bummed out.
Dick would be credited for the 3 minutes he stayed with Simons until help arrived, then proceeded to set the fastest time of the day, just 52 second ahead of his other teammate, Zach Herfindahl.
Although neither Dick nor Herfindahl suffered any crashes in the high speed running on the first day, a blown belt added a minute or so to Herfindahls time.
The next closest finisher was Justin Tate, 2:36 behind Dick.
If day one was a glimpse into the future, it appeared as if the 2014 I-500 would be a showdown between Dick and Herfindahl.
But cross-country racing has a way of mixing things up, and this year’s I-500 would underline such unpredictability with a Day 2 scene that turned the race upside down. Sort of.
Coming within a hundred yards of the finish on the second day, Zach Herfindahl was one road crossing and a blip of the throttle away from setting the fastest time and becoming the race leader. But the worsening clutching performance he’d felt since the last fuel stop finally gave way on the stop before crossing the road, his drive clutch rollers locking the clutch at full-engagement and preventing the stopped sled from moving forward.
Zach tore the side panel off his sled and saw the problem, but he didn’t know exactly how to fix it. He kicked at the clutch and yanked at the belt, but to no avail.
Seconds turned to a minute. Then two minutes.
Then Brian Dick came hurling into the scene. After crossing the finish line, Dick ran back across the road to try and help Herfindahl. Dick knew exactly what to do, gave Herfindahl a tool to spread the driven clutch, and lifted the back of the sled to allow Herfindahl to start it. Vroom… sled comes to life and Zach finishes, albeit with an extra 3-4 minutes for the clutch problem.
But helping Herfindahl would soon turn into problem for Brian Dick. The USXC rule book says that, “On-course repairs must be completed by the driver only and only with tools and parts carried on the driver/snowmobile at the start of the race.”
Dick had interpreted verbal instructions at the original driver’s meeting to allow for outside assistance of a racer who needed help, and in his mind he was within the rules.
USXC gave Brian Dick a 1-minute time penalty (with no penalty to Herfindahl). Fair or not, it left Brian Dick leading the I-500 by 3:17 over Herfindahl going into the third and final day.
In the repair session following the second day, Dick was not happy about the 1-minute time penalty, but he had little time to think about that. A broken plastic rail tip on the rear suspension peeled off all the metal clips on one side of his track, and he only had an hour to swap tracks (and perform all the other maintenance his sled needed).
Working like a well-oiled machine with mechanic Joe Lesmeister, Dick got it done with time to spare.
But would the race be decided by the time penalty?
Saturday morning, the third and final day. Arctic Cat’s Roger Skime (left) watches as Brian Dick does the last bit of warm-up prior to race start.
As per tradition in the I-500, the racers left the start line according to their time, meaning that Brian Dick left first, followed by Herfindahl 3:17 later, and so on.
This format means that the first person across the finish line is the winner.
And with Team Arctic’s Cody Kallock, Timmy Kallock and Ben Langaas slotting into 3rd-5th, it looked like it would be an Arctic Cat taking the win. But which one?
Forty miles into the day, Brian Dick came flying by looking smooth, despite speeds approaching 100 mph on the crusted snow and untold numbers of sharp-edged drifts sending his skis skyward.
After the first of two fuel stops in Warren, roughly one-third of the way through the final day, KTRF radio broadcasted that Herfindahl had chopped 1:45 off of Dick’s 3:17 lead. He was only 1:30 behind!
At that pace, he could catch him before the second fuel stop.
Hearing of the diminishing lead from spotters on the course prior to the fuel stop, Dick’s mechanic Joe Lesmeister told Brian to pick up the pace.
Coming back into Warren for the second fuel stop, Brian Dick flew through the concrete culverts as if they weren’t there.
And chasing him at lightning speed, Herfindahl attacked the course with everything he had.
Once again, KTRF radio broadcast their positions. Dick had gained 30 seconds on Herfindahl, who was now 2:15 back with just 60 miles to the finish.
Dick continued his relentless pace on the final portion, crossing the finish line 3:14 ahead of Herfindahl.
He’d won the I-500!
Dick crossed the line and rode straight into the congratulations of his friend and mechanic, Joe Lesmeister (who must be excused for having destroyed the posted speed limits to make it from Warren to TRF for the finish) and Brian’s fiancé Alicia.
There was a big congratulation between Brian and Zach.
This was Brian’s second I-500 win (after a career of near-misses, he notched his first win in 2011). When someone mentioned something about him aiming for Bryan Dyrdahl’s record of five wins, Brian Dick replied, “It will be Zach who can go for that record.”
Brian wasn’t being facetious with that comment.
Zach Herfindahl turned 18 the day after this year’s I-500. Eighteen!
He is one of the smoothest, fastest cross-country racers I have seen in 25 years of covering snowmobile races. If he stays focused on cross-country, I have no doubt that he will win the I-500, more than once.
For now, he’ll have to settle for second place… a phenomenal finish for anyone, let alone a 17-year-old in just his second season in the Pro class.
Now let’s look at the five other Team Arctic racers who scored a top-10 finish at the I-500:
Nick Fischer had a great run at the 500, finishing in ninth. Add to the joy that his dad won the Masters 50-plus class, and I’m pretty sure they have some good stories to share.
Chad Lian threw down consistently fast times all three days (with a smoking-fast fifth-fastest time on the final day) to notch eighth overall.
Timmy Kallock put in a solid race, taking seventh despite a tumble on the final leg.
Even though he’s in his first season as a Semi Pro, Ben Langaas has made one heckuva transition into the Pro class (USXC allows racers to double-enter “higher” classes). He finished fifth in Pro, first in Semi Pro.
There are a lot of people tipping Langaas as a future I-500 winner. His results this year support such predictions.
Last year Cody Kallock landed on the podium with a third. This year he finished fourth. Were in not for a crash on the final day, he might have taken another third.
After years of racing the I-500, Justin Tate (right) notched his best-ever finish with a 3rd, preventing an all-green podium. I’ll forgive Justin though because I like him.
Congratulations to all the racers who chased the finish line at the legendary I-500 cross-country, whether you made it or not. I’ll see you there next year!
Thanks for reading.