In a year filled with upsets in snocross, another one was logged at X Games Aspen, where the Swede Petter Narsa claimed X Games Gold in snocross ahead of a very talented field that included the legendary Tucker Hibbert, who was going for his record-breaking 10th consecutive gold medal in the event.
Under bright skis on an uncharacteristically short track (by X Games standards) Narsa spent the day laying in the weeds – including finishing third in his heat race. But when the money was on the line, the diminutive 24-year-old from Moskosel, Sweden, guided his No. 54 Hentges Racing Polaris to the front on the first lap and then held off the field in a 30-lap race to earn not just his first gold but his first medal of any kind in three years of racing at the made-for-TV specialty event hosted by ESPN in Aspen, Colorado.
Quick Heat Races
After letting the boys of winter have at the track in practice, the field of 16 races was seeded into two heat races based on their fastest laps. Four would advance from each heat to make the final, and there would be no last-chance qualifier. It was do or die.
The fastest qualifier, Narsa’s teammate Kody Kamm, was essentially eliminated on the very first lap of the first heat when he ended up getting off his sled at the top of the hill while running toward the front of the pack. Adam Renheim emerged with the lead and held off fellow Ski-Doo driver Tim Tremblay to win the heat, followed by Narsa and Corin Todd. Andrew Carlson, Ross Martin, Trevor Leighton and Kamm were eliminated.
Heat two was a rough-and-tumble event that included two restarts after some brutal first-lap crashes. In the first run, Andrew Carlson was sent hard to the track as was Lincoln Lemieux, while a couple of other sleds also got caught in the fray. Carlson appeared to injure his left shoulder and was done for the day. On the second attempt, Lemieux again got turned, this time by Elias Ishoel, and was slingshotted to the ground once more, with Brett Nastala and Ishoel tangled up behind him. The red flag waved again.
Finally the start worked on the third try, and Lemieux proved unaffected by the crashes and won the race with Tucker Hibbert on his snowflap. Ishoel moved up to claim third while Ryan Springer earned the last spot in the final by holding off a hard-charging Corey Watkinson at the end. Watkinson, Nastala, Kyle Pallin and Christian were eliminated.
Run For Gold
Eight fast sled lined up for the final, and the start appeared to be very even when the sleds left the starting line for the 30-lap final. Since they were the heat winners, Renheim and Lemieux got to choose their starting positions, and both opted to go far to the inside so they didn’t get washed out on the outside of the tight first turn – which is what kept happening in heat two.
It appeared to work for Renheim in the final – the 27-year-old from Lima, Sweden launched into the lead on his Boss Racing Ski-Doo but he had his countryman Petter Narsa champing at his rear bumper. Toward the end of the first lap Narsa undercut the leader in a turn and led past the flagman to complete lap one. Renheim was second, then came Lemieux, Hibbert and Ishoel.
Narsa opened a bit of a lead but then Renheim re-engaged on lap five and applied pressure. Behind them a similar battle was going on between Lemieux and Hibbert, as they swapped third place a couple of times during lap 6. Lemieux officially claimed the spot back on lap 7 and started to open a bit of distance on Hibbert.
That’s when Narsa began to creep away from the field, as the track started to get rutted out. The lead grew from 1.7 seconds on lap 9 to 2.8 seconds on lap 11 and 3.5 seconds on lap 15 – the halfway point of the race. At that halfway point, Lemieux was now 5.7 seconds behind the leader in third and Hibbert 7.1 seconds behind the leader in fourth. Tim Tremblay had moved up to fifth, 9.2 seconds back, with Ishoel sixth, 11 seconds behind.
As the track got rougher and there was more lapped traffic in the way, the size of Narsa’s lead varied from over 5 seconds to under 3, but Renheim never got a good sniff of the leader again. The margin of victory was 2.839 seconds, but Narsa coasted toward the finish line which affected the margin.
In the end, it was Narsa with gold, Renheim silver and Lemieux bronze, 4.284 behind the leader. Hibbert was fourth, 6 seconds back, with Tremblay eight seconds back in fifth.
Neither of the Swedish racers – Narsa and Renheim – have had a very good start to the snocross season. Narsa sits a distant fifth in season points while Renheim is 11th and has needed to go through last-chance qualifier racers more than once just to make the final. It’s also been historically stated that the Scandinavian racers generally do good on long track that more closely represent what they race on at home as opposed to the short, tight courses like was found at Aspen this year. With that in mind, there was no reason to think they would do particularly well at this event.
But, as they say, this is why they play the game.
Narsa received high fives and other congratulations from many after the race, including a huge hug from his teammate Kamm, who had to watch the race from the sidelines.
In a post-race interview, Narsa explained his feelings.
“I can’t describe it right now. We struggled early this morning with my [qualifying] time and then we got a good holeshot and ran away with it,” a beaming Narsa said in a post-race interview on the ESPN webcast. On racing on the short course, Narsa said, “You just had to follow the line that developed – the fast line – and then just do a good holeshot.”
Meanwhile, the Hentges Racing Facebook page lit up with photos and congratulatory remarks.
For Renheim, it was his second silver medal in a row at X Games Aspen after finishing fourth in 2015. It could also kick off a stronger second half of the season for him on the Amsoil Championship Snocross series.
Lemieux, 23, of Vermont, earned his first X Games medal in his second attempt at the event for the Schuering Speed Sports Ski-Doo team.
For Hibbert, 32, from Minnesota, it was a non-podium finish at X Games since 2006 in snocross and only the second time he’s missed the podium since he won his first X Games final at age 15 in 2000. To call him dominant on his Arctic Cats would be the understatement of the century. But on this day, he never seemed to have a clear shot at the lead and came home fourth.