EDITOR’S NOTE: 20 years ago this month, I covered my first snocross race for Snow Week magazine — the Duluth National at Spirit Mountain. Back then, there was a different guy named Hibbert who was dominating terrain races, and there were still racers who competed in different styles of snowmobiling who would cross-over and chase paychecks on off-weekends. Modern snocross was really just getting its start, and the Duluth national was only in its second year. The race weekend was a fascinating spectacle, but frankly it was also a tremendous pain in the butt that year as the total number of driver entries overwhelmed the hosting Motorsports Racing Plus (MRP) race circuit, resulting in racing action that went past midnight Friday and Saturday. By the time I left the track each night/morning, I was cold and hungry but, more importantly, it was past bar time! Below are excerpts of the Pro class coverage from Snow Week magazine that year. How many of these racers’ names do you recognize?
We’ll be attending the Duluth National again this year — check back on snowgoer.com for updates over Thanksgiving Weekend. Also, look for the Fantasy Snowmobile Racing Challenge to launch before then as well — hopefully on Friday of this week.
Action In Duluth Is Just Smashing
Ashley Overcomes Injury, Hansen Wins At Home, Hibbert & Sturgeon Also Shine
NOVEMBER 26-28, 1993 — Duluth, Minnesota: The 1994-94 race season got off to a flying start, literally, at the ICO Duluth Snocross in Duluth, Minnesota, November 26, 27 and 28.
The three-day event was a showcase of North America’s most talented cross-country and snocross riders together showing off their considerable talents on the berm-filled slope at Spirit Mountain, a local ski hill. The action was fast, furious, occasionally rough but always highly entertaining. A total of 508 driver entries was recorded, which more than doubled the 240 driver entries for last year’s Duluth Snocross, and that was the previous record turnout for an MRP event.
In the Pro classes, an injured warrior thrilled the crowd, a king showed his considerable talent, a hometown boy made good and an oval racer proved his diversity.
The warrior was Idaho’s Toby Ashley, who competed two days with a dislocated shoulder and won the Pro Open class. The king? The venerable Kirk Hibbert, who put on a driving display all weekend and devastated the competition in the new Pro Mod class. The hometown boy was Steve Hansen, who recorded the biggest victory of his career in Pro Stock at an event he helped organize. The oval star was Brian Sturgeon, who scored a victory for the circle-track racers by proving his skills in snocross.
Cat racers put on an impressive show in Duluth, sweeping the Pro classes with four different drivers winning the four different finals.
In Pro Lite, John Sandberg and his ZR 440 appeared to be the man and machine to beat going into the final Sunday, beating all comers in the qualifying round-robin heats, recording three first-place finishes in three races. But when the green flag waved Sunday, Sandberg got bumped and then ran over a hay bale in the crowded first turn and never fully recovered.
Oval racer Brian Sturgeon also had trouble in turn one on the first lap after getting the holeshot, but he managed to recover and gain second place after a lap. He was chasing Duluth’s own Craig Hansen, who pulled away to a sizable lead.
That lead quickly evaporated, however, as Sturgeon ran down and passed Hansen on top of the hill in turns three and four on lap four. Sturgeon then proved to be the one that got away, as he left Hansen and all the others in his wake and won going away on his No. 30 Arctic Cat ZR 440. Hansen held off a very hard charging fellow Polaris Indy XCR rider in Rob Irving to finish second, with Irving third. There was then a gap back to Eric Loge, Todd Wolff, Steve Hansen, Dale Lindbeck and Sandberg.
Sturgeon collected a check at the finish line for $1,680 for his efforts. After the race, he recalled his first-lap blunder.
“I went wide on the first lap and almost went over the berm,” said the Burnsville, Minnesota, native who now lives in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. “I almost made a tragic mistake.”
Upset In Pro Stock
In the Pro Stock class featuring the 580cc sleds, Kirk Hibbert and another Duluth rider, Steve Hansen, were the strongest finishers in qualifying heats. But at first, everybody was chasing the veteran who got into the race with a last-chance qualifier victory: Jack Struthers.
The Idaho rider barely even qualified for the LCQ after posting finishes of fourth, fifth and second in his round-robin heats Friday and Saturday. But Sunday, Struthers cruised to an easy victory aboard his Polaris in the last chance race and then grabbed the early lead in the final in which he was riding the only non Arctic Cat.
Following a holeshot that gave Struthers a big lead, Steve Hansen found a smooth way around the track, using a far outside lane on the backstretch to reel Struthers in. The two drivers traded the lead and brushed up against each other in turn one on lap three and Struthers emerged with a renewed lead again. But Steve Hansen was again in pursuit after fighting off a challenge from fellow Cat racer Brad Pake.
Steve Hansen continued his strong line and caught Struthers a couple of laps later. The two then put on one of the most thrilling battles of the weekend, exchanging the lead in the last two turns on the track before firing down the bumped hill that formed the front stretch before going hard into turn one. On lap 10, Hansen made his move insider of Struthers at the top of the track and came down with the lead with the heavily partisan hometown crowd cheering him on. He then pulled away from Struthers to gain the victory.
Struthers finished second, followed by Pake. There was then a gap back to the always hard-charging Kirk Hibbert, who got off to a bad start and then had trouble in traffic early in the race and let the leaders get away. By the time he reached fourth place, the top three racers were already a half-lap ahead, though Hibbert did narrow the gap. Dan Fena, Jason Jones, Aaron Scheele and Brian Sturgeon finished fifth through eighth, respectively.
After the race, Steve Hansen was glowing with a toothy smile.
“That one was fun,” Steve Hansen said as he ripped off his helmet for the TV cameras. “I just had to get the momentum up. I knew that back line was going to work sooner or later.”
Steve Hansen said the victory was the biggest of his career, both because of its magnitude and the fact that it happened at home. He’s hoping the victory is a sign of good times to come.
“I’ve been working hard. Hopefully it will work out,” Hansen said.
Hibbert Dominates Pro Mod
The new Pro Mod class allows for modified machines under 500cc, and Hibbert showed up with the machine to beat. The modified ZR 440 was not just fast, it even sounded much different than the rest of the field, making a loud tearing sound almost reminiscent of an especially loud chain saw. But the only cutting done in Pro Mod was Hibbert slicing over the moguls and absolutely running away with the final just like he did in the heats.
Hibbert grabbed the holeshot from the outside lane and left turn one like a rocket ship leaving a launching pad. By turn two of lap one, he had already established his supremacy. Nobody ever got close again.
Thirteen laps later, Hibbert crossed the finish line alone. Toby Ashley then led the rest of the crowd across the line on his Cat, follow by Rob Irving on a Polaris and Dan Skallet and Steve Hansen aboard Cats.
After winning, Hibbert waved to the crowd which clapped, whistled and yelled its approval of Hibbert’s sled and his smooth, efficient driving style.
“That felt really good,” Hibbert said. His sled easily ate up the bumps and berms. In fact, the track was almost too smooth, he said.
“This machine works best in the sloppy stuff,” Hibbert said. Of his ZR, Hibbert said there was no secret formula used to build his 440cc machine. His engine modifications were the same ones put together by Team Arctic’s Al Shimpa and included in this year’s Team Arctic Performance Manual, he said, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see a few added modifications by Hibbert.
Injured Ashley Takes Pro Open
The final race of the day was possibly the story of the weekend. Toby Ashley overcame not just tough competition but also a dislocated shoulder to win the Pro Open class that could have almost been renamed the Idaho Challenge.
At the starting line, young Keith Dierkes of Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, got the jump on his Polaris Indy XLT and led the first three laps, but Ashley was coming on strong. On lap four, Ashley slipped by the first-year Pro racer in the switchback between turns three and four, took the lead and pulled away to a half-lap lead by lap 10 of the 14-lap final.
Dierkes’ next challenge came from Jack Struthers, Jason Jones and Kirk Hibbert, who were staring at his taillight. Struthers slid by Dierkes in turn three on lap seven but then got into the switchback too hard and tipped his machine on its side, allowing Dierkes to get away and bottling up Hibbert, who ran into Struthers. Jones grabbed third and then there was a big gap back to Brian Sturgeon, Struthers and Hibbert.
Ashley and Dierkes were never seriously challenged again. Hibbert climbed his way to third, passing Sturgeon and Struthers on lap 11 and catching and passing Jones on the final lap. Jones took fourth, followed by Struthers and Steve Hill, meaning there were five Idaho drivers in the top six, with Ashley, Jones and Struthers from the Boise area and Hibbert and Hill from Driggs. John Wicht was seventh and Sturgeon didn’t finish after crashing off his sled.
For Ashley, it was a gritty performance that the crowd seemed to appreciate. Ashley went over his handlebars in a serious accident at about 1 a.m. Saturday morning in one of the last races of the Friday night program. Ashley returned to the track Saturday with his arm in a sling and a diagnosis: dislocated shoulder.
“The doctor said, ‘No snowmobiling,’ but we had other plans,” Ashley said. He not only snowmobiled but he rode the rough snocross track well enough to win one of his heats on Saturday and finish third in the other.
He was back Sunday morning, again roaming the pits with his right arm in a sling. He won the last chance race to gain a spot in the final and then he went on to dominate the final race of the day.
When he was picking up his $1,075 victory check, Ashley credited “lots of ibuprofen and ice” for allowing him to compete. He said he rejected the doctor’s advice after driving 30 hours from Idaho to race in Duluth, although he said he would now take time off to let the shoulder heal properly.