In a new two-day format for cross-country racing’s highest profile 500-mile event, Wisconsin native Zach Herfindahl grabbed the early lead on his Arctic Cat and never let go, winning the top prize in the 2019 Goodridge/Grygla 500 snowmobile race Sunday, February 10, in northwestern Minnesota.
The event – run in the tradition of the historic I-500 cross country race that dates to 1966 and has been known under many names over the years – has traditionally been a three-day race event, where competitors race each other and also the clock to try to cover a 500+ mile distance across varying terrain in the least amount of time possible.
For 2019, the event was run in two days, meaning competitors and their machine would have to run pretty much wide-open for 250 miles each day on a challenging course that includes woods, ditches, rivers, trails, fire lanes and more. The race also differed from recent years in that there was a surplus of snow on the ground, adding more challenges as the sled’s engines and the drivers had to work harder as they clawed along the course.
A total of 146 racers signed up for the event, with scoring in 21 different classes. The big winner and race champion, though, would be determined in the Pro Factory 600 class.
For Herfindahl, it was his second cross-country I-500 victory in three years (he also won in 2017), but he had to hold off the defending champion Aaron Christensen to claim the title. Click here to see a list of past cross-country 500 winners.
Herfindahl From The Start
It started with the first “lap” of the first day, a 125-mile loop of ditches, rivers, forest roads and more. Herfindahl, 22, of Eagle River, Wisconsin, set the pace by running it in 1 hour, 49 minutes and 25 seconds, but fellow Cat rider Wes Selby nearly matched him with a time of 1 hour, 50 minutes and 19 seconds.
Selby found problems on the second 125-mile lap of the day and fell back to fourth in the overall standings and then dropped out at the day’s end. Polaris-riding Aaron Christensen, though, was on the charge – running the fastest lap on that second loop at 1 hour, 50 minutes and 50 seconds, moving him to second place, 28 seconds behind Herfindahl, who ran his second lap at a time of 1:51:54. Taylor Bunke slotted into third, 3 minutes and 9 seconds behind the leader, then Selby, Dan Revering and Justin Tate.
For Sunday, the racers were sent out onto the course “on time,” meaning that Christensen was released from the starting line 28 seconds after Herfindahl, and the first one to the finish line would win. The second-day loop includes more trails through the woods and forest roads and less river running than during day one, and Herfindahl again ran the day’s fastest times – both the fastest lap and the fastest overall.
On the first loop Christensen generally kept Herfindahl within sight, though Herfindahl’s lead grew slightly to 37 seconds when they stopped for fuel and oil. On the second lap, though, Herfindahl put the hammer down and ended up winning by 2 minutes over Christensen on a Polaris, while Bunke overcame a crash, remounted and stormed home to third place 9:56 back from the leader on his Polaris. Herfindahl’s winning time on his Christian Bros. Arctic Cat was 7 hours, 8 minutes and 33.504 seconds for an average speed – including pit stops for gas and oil, stop signs, etc. – of just under 70 mph. Impressive!
Semi-Pro racer Dan Revering (Polaris) was 2:49 behind Bunke to score fourth place in the Pro Factory 600 class while also earning him a victory in the Semi Pro Factory 600 class, with fellow Semi-Pro Cale Anseeuw (Arctic Cat) another 4:23 back, rounding out the top five in Pro and placing him second in Semi-Pro. Next in Pro came Alex Hetteen (Polaris), Justin Tate (Polaris), Timmy Kallock (Arctic Cat), Charles Revering (Polaris) and David Brown (Arctic Cat). The top Ski-Doo was driven by 13th place Ed Neubauer, and no Yamahas were entered in the race.
In interviews conducted immediately after the race Sunday by TRF Radio and posted on the USXC social media pages, Herfindahl said, “It went really good, we had a lot of snow up here. I started first today with Aaron right behind me, like 27 seconds. I think we stayed pretty much the same the whole first lap, so it was nerve-wracking for sure because Aaron can make a move at any time – he rides awesome. We had a lot of fun, though. Today’s course was a good course.”
Herfindahl said he had to keep his wits about him during a particularly rugged stretch of ditchline as the race concluded.
“At that point in the race you have to be smart and just take it easy on that stuff,” Herfindahl said. “It was really rough right at the end but I just made it through there smart and fast and came in in one piece.”
Christensen, the 2018 winner of the 500, called it “One of the better 500s we’ve had in a long time because of the [deep] snow. The second lap I backed it off a little bit, I knew Zach was way out in front anyhow. To get her back in one piece, that was the big thing, get it across the finish line.”
He also noted that the two-day format added some challenge. “A lot can happen. The sleds are really strong, so you don’t have to worry about much, but you never know when something can go wrong, so you just kind of pray – especially on a long straightaway and stuff, you’re just kind of sitting there waiting, ‘I hope this thing holds together!’ Fair enough – everything did.”
Bunke had a nasty tumble on the last day but patches his sled back together and came home in third.
“This year, it was a lot more challenging, being that it’s only two days and 250 miles a day,” Bunke said. “It’s a lot more physically demanding – mentally and physically – and it’s a little bit harder on the equipment. All around I enjoyed it – it’s nice to be in and out in two days, but it definitely brings a whole new animal to this game.”
Here’s a look at the winners of the various classes:
Pro 600: Zach Herfindahl (Arctic Cat)
Semi Pro Factory 600: Dan Revering (Polaris)
Semi Pro Improved: Cal Anseeuw (Arctic Cat)
Expert 600 Limited: Paul Brown (Arctic Cat)
Masters 40: Eric Christensen (Polaris)
Masters 50+: Jon Arneson (Arctic Cat)
Sport 600: Paul Brown (Arctic Cat)
Sport 600 Improved: Keaton Black (Arctic Cat)
Vintage: Jake Mattison (Arctic Cat)
Vintage 50+” Pete Mattison (Arctic Cat)
Classic IFS 1980-1998: Adam Geisler (Polaris)
Classic IFS 50+: Brian Brown (Arctic Cat)
Women: Lydia Sobeck (Ski-Doo)
Ditch Banger 18-30: Josh Hulberg (Ski-Doo)
Ditch Banger 40-50: Joe Cornelius (Arctic Cat)
Ditch Banger 50-60: Jeffery Dahle (Arctic Cat)
Ditch Banger 60+: Steve Sherwood (Arctic Cat)
Junior 10-13: Aiden Johnson (Arctic Cat)
Junior 14-17: Pail Brown (Arctic Cat)
Junior 14-17 Girls: Gabby Hallstrom (Arctic Cat)