March 15-16, 1997, was the final weekend of racing on the MRP Snocross World Series for the 1996-97 season, and a star-studded field of racers gathered in West Yellowstone, Montana, to determine season champions. There were the glory days of snocross, where even making it to the final in the Pro class was a major accomplishment. The list of racing legends who showed up to compete was seemingly endless, their surnames still read like a who’s who: Hibbert, Vincent, Pake, Titus, Struthers, Brown, Durmas, Strege, Crapo, Scheele, Hyde, Felker, Jones, Schubitzke, Burks, Berggren, Tupper, Haeg, the list goes on and on. Toni Haikonen would have been there but he was injured, and guys like Kohanski, Reimer, Eckstrom and Schaden were still in Semi-Pro.
Bottom line, there were a lot of star racers there who had honed their craft and were shooting for points titles and future factory contracts. Not exactly as easy place for a newcomer to break into the sport, but Blair Morgan didn’t just break-in, he broke out. Racing on a borrowed ZR440 in the Pro 440 class, he looked, acted and rode different right from the start. And he won all three of his heat races and led more than half of the final before being passed by a true legend in Kirk Hibbert. Of course, it would be Kirk’s son Tucker Hibbert who would later become Morgan’s primary rival.
Below is a segment of the Snow Week article written by Vince Meyer 25 years ago this week, after seeing some kid on a No. 734 Arctic Cat shock the sport. It’s fun to look back upon, and also interesting to think about whether something like this could happen today. Could some young punk none of us even knew existed show up at an Amsoil Championship Series snocross event this weekend and school the field? It seems unlikely, but hey, it was just as unlikely 25 years ago – and it still happened. Look at that list of names above again: Blair didn’t break-in against a bunch of slouches!
Hibbert Saves Best For Last At West Yellowstone
March 15-16, 1997. West Yellowstone, Montana
Pro 440 was a grab bag all season on the MRP World Series as no racer or manufacturer succeeded in establishing supremacy. Brad Pake opened the season with a win for Arctic Cat at Duluth, but Nathan Titus followed with a victory for Polaris at Wilmington. Dennis Durmas grabbed a win for Ski-Doo at Shakopee, David Brown claimed Polaris’ second win at Muskegon and Toni Haikonen won again for Ski-Doo at Lake Geneva.
Who would emerge on top at West Yellowstone? Qualifying heats did little to solve the riddle. The biggest surprise was registered by Arctic Cat’s Blair Morgan who hails from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Morgan won all three of his qualifying heats and entered the Pro 440 final as the top qualifier.
Not bad for someone who had never raced a snowmobile until this winter. That’s right, Morgan was a rookie this season whose prior experience totaled five races in Saskatchewan. West Yellowstone was his first pro race and the first time he had raced in the United States.
So how was a rookie racer from Saskatchewan able to beat the top pros, most of whom have years of experience?
Morgan, 21, is one of Canada’s best motocross racers and has ranked in the top three nationally for the past three years. In 1994 he was the 125cc and 250cc national champion and in 1996 he won the Toronto Supercross.
Morgan’s motorcycle training is reflected in his snowmobile racing style. He stands more than most racers and attacks the course with a vengeance. But Morgan doesn’t know much about snowmobile setups, so with the help of Arctic Cat’s Canadian Race Director Jamie Anseeuw, he formed a partnership with Barry Dawson, a mechanic from Winnipeg.
“He had my machine running just awesome,” Morgan said. “I was pulling holeshots.”
While Morgan was the star of the 440 qualifiers, other dramas were unfolding. Dennis Burks and David Brown were neck-and-neck for the season points championship and the qualifying heats brought out the best of both racers.
Burks won his first heat and moved a point ahead of Brown, who answered with a heat win of his own, pulling him even with Burks. Brown finished his qualifying heats with a pair of thirds while Burks had a second and a fourth. That left both racers with a total of seven points heading into what promised to be a thrilling final.
Brad Pake and Kirk Hibbert, meanwhile, qualified for the 440 final by finishing 1-2 in the last-chance-qualifying race. Each had won a qualifying heat but lower placements in other heats forced what for them was an unusual route to the final.
Another surprise was the appearance of Jack Struthers, who raced for only the second time this year. In the past Struthers was a threat to win almost any race he entered. At West Yellowstone he made a decent showing with a third and two fourths in qualifying heats, but he didn’t make the final.
When it was time to line up for the 10-lap final, Morgan, the top qualifier, chose the second lane and Hibbert took the first lane. Later, Hibbert explained why.
“Before I lined up there,” he said, “I was thinking of going clear to the outside because the top outside line was starting to work well. As it turned out it was flexible either way.”
True to form, Hibbert did not take the holeshot. Morgan did and led for the first three laps. Greg Hyde was a close second and Dennis Durmas was third. Behind them were Brown, Pake and Hibbert.
Soon, Hibbert had moved up into fourth. Later in the lap Brown momentarily got ahead of Hibbert, but not for long. On lap three Hibbert made the first of several great moves as he got around Brown and then Hyde to take over second place.
As lap four began with Morgan maintaining a safe lead, his success in qualifying heats was no longer questioned. The unknown from Saskatchewan obviously has something working right this weekend. But could he hang on?
“I wasn’t riding too relaxed,” Morgan said. “I was losing my breath to the altitude.”
The battle for fourth was fierce, with Hyde, Pake, Crapo and Burks all packed together. Brown, in third place, needed only to finish ahead of Burks to get the 440 season points title. Brown, therefore, couldn’t run full bore and risk wiping out. The race with Burks turned out to be much closer than perhaps either driver expected.
Hibbert used different lined to steadily close in on Morgan. “My mechanic flashed that 41 was following and I knew it was Kirk. I got tensed up and made some mistakes,” Morgan said.
On the sixth lap Hibbert made his move. On the backstretch he skied over the big jump and pulled up next to Morgan as they approached the turn at the back of the course. Morgan went outside while Hibbert straight-lined and took the lead.
That was the last lead change of the race. Though Morgan remained close, Hibbert stayed in front. In third place was Brown, followed by Hyde, Pake and Burks.
From the last chance qualifier to 440 winner, Hibbert had astonished everyone with his resourcefulness. He was characteristically modest in his post-race interview.
“It was good for me that the weather changed,” Hibbert said, “because yesterday I had a horrible day. I couldn’t’ do anything right. The old eyeballs don’t work in that flat light anymore, I guess. But today the sun came out and I had everything working good and the home crowd got me going.”
Hibbert’s performance was impressive, but equally impressive was the performance of Kurt Crapo, who with only four laps to go was still in sixth place. But soon Crapo had moved into fifth and was making a run at Hyde in fourth. On the last turn, Crapo went high and outside while Hyde stayed low and inside. When Hyde failed to block Crapo, the young racer from St. Anthony, Idaho, shot past Hyde and went after Brown in third. The crowd applauded. The Crapos definitely were fan favorites at West Yellowstone.
On the seventh lap, Crapo passed Brown for third, leaving Burks and Hyde to content with Brown for fourth. Burks managed to get past Hyde but couldn’t overcome Brown, and the race ended with the two Polaris drivers finishing 4-5. Brown won the point championship over Burks 262 to 259, which is about as close as it gets.
“Dennis and I must have swapped positions for the lead five or six times in the last few weeks,” a relieved and happy Brown said later. “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s nice to see two Polaris’ battling for the points.”
Brown said his sled ran well until about the halfway point, when for unknown reasons it started to lose RPMs. “I was a little worried,” Brown admitted. “I pushed it as hard as I could. But there was basically only one good line out there so it would have been tough for Dennis to get by me anyway.”
Brown, in his first year as a factory racer, said he was happy to prove Polaris’ confidence in him was not unfounded.
“I’m glad I can give something back to the factory because they took a stand and gave me a lot of help,” he said. “We had some problems this year with the new motor, but we’ve come a long way and had a great year.”