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Flashback: Pictures, Details From The 1996 Soo I-500

Snow Goer staff

After finishing a couple of laps short of victory in 1995, Troy Pierce and Todd Krikke earned a dramatic and historic victory in the 28th running of the Soo I-500 on February 4, 1996. The victory wasn’t easy — the duo had to withstand late-race challenges from legendary racers John Wicht III and Guy Useldinger on the high-speed one-mile oval, plus Pierce had an off late in the race at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. 

But when the money was on the line, Krikke was in the saddle and charged back into the lead with just a couple of laps left to earn the victory in extreme sub-zero temperatures at the sport’s toughest one-day event. The race was shortened from 500 to 400 laps, but lest anybody question the winning duo, Pierce and Krikke repeated as champions at the Soo in 1997. 

Snow Goer magazine recently unearthed slide photography taken of that race in 1996 by then-Associate Editor Vince Castellanos for our then-sister publication, Snow Week magazine. What follows are (1) the beginning of the long story Castellanos wrote about the race, (2) the 11 photos we were able to salvage from the old slides and (3) at the bottom, a few concluding paragraphs/details about the race that were found later in Castellanos’ story. Also, catch the somewhat related recap of the 1996 Eagle River World Championship here

Did you compete in or attend this historic race? If so, add further details from your memory bank in the comments section below. And check back on SnowGoer.com all year long, as we input more of the old slide photography from a glorious era in snowmobiling. 

Krikke Helps Pierce Avenge 1995 Soo Heartbreak 

Story and Photos by Vince Castellanos

The wait lasted longer than a month of Sundays for Troy Pierce. In fact, it took 52 Saturdays and one long Sunday before Pierce could erase last year’s painful Soo 500 second-place finish. But, with the help of co-driver Todd Krikke and a support group that won the Pit Crew Award, Pierce realized a dream. 

They team triumphed in a Soo race that was shortened due to darkness by besting four-time champ John Wicht  III by a scant 25 seconds, thrilling the crowd in the process. 

The victory certainly didn’t come easily. Pierce and Krikke had to overcome both minus 31 temps and a destroyed track during Saturday’s aborted start and a two-hour delay before the complete restart of the contest on Sunday. Then they survived a potential disastrous late-race crash and furious charges near the checkered by Wicht and 1981’s Soo champ, Guy Useldinger. 

In the end, though, it was simply too much for Team Pierce, as Krikke took the finishing flag on lap 400 and a mob of jubilant spectators flooded the track and surrounded the winners. 

“What did you expect?” shouted an overjoyed Pierce. “It’s a Polaris!” 

For Krikke, it was his second Soo victory, the first coming in 1991. For first-time winner Pierce, it was a long-awaited salve for deep wounds created by 1995’s hard-luck loss. In that race, Pierce had built a seemingly insurmountable four-lap lead with less than 10 laps to go. Then, on lap 497, his engine got so hot it blew the hose off and his almost-certain victory was gone. 

This year, though, there was no such problem. “I guess being back to back years like that makes it nice,” Pierce said, referring to winning the year after suffering such severe disappointment. “It doesn’t make up for last year, because it was a mistake I made that we probably could’ve avoided, but it obviously helps,” he continued. “I think the good teams learn from their mistakes, and we learned from that one.” 

Troy Pierce

Troy Pierce and Todd Krikke combined to win the 1996 Soo I-500.

Guy Useldinger

The legendary Guy Useldinger took the lead of the Soo with less than 10 laps to go, but then was passed by Todd Krikke on the Pierce sled, and then Useldinger blew his drive belt and coasted to a stop. “They had more speed anyway,” Useldinger said after the race. “I thought I had a good line, but they were running a great race and it would’ve been hard to catch ’em.” Useldinger ended up third.

John Wicht

Captured here in snowdust, four-time solo winner John Wicht III was disappointed with his second-place finish, mainly because the racer known for racing best at the end wanted to run 500 laps. “I’m kind of bummed about the whole deal,” he said after the race. “It’s kind of a bad deal, but what can you do? We thought we had them [the Pierce team] covered but it’s one of those racing deals.”

Steve Mitchell 1996 Soo i500

The team led by Steve Mitchell qualified for the front row and raced well throughout the event, finishing fifth.

Eric Fountain 1996 Soo

The team led by Eric Fountain finished 10th.

Scott Maciag 1996 Soo

Scott Maciag was involved in a lap-three crash on Saturday that resulted in two injured drivers, and eventually led to the race being moved to Sunday. On Sunday, Macaig had problems early but worked his was up to 8th when the race concluded.

Tim Leeck

Tim Leeck ran fast and aggressive, but problems like a pesky hood that would not stay on plagued him all day. He finished 15th.

Tim Havercroft

The team led by Tim Havercroft was strong in the middle of the event — running 6th at lap 200 and 4th at lap 300, but problems later relegated them to 12th, 39 laps behind the winner.

Jerry Artuso Soo500

The team led by Jerry Artuso completed 187 laps on the No. 5 Ski-Doo and finished 23rd.

Karl Schwartz

Veteran race Karl Schwartz bucked the trend by racing a twin-cylinder engine while most others were running triples. It paid off in qualifying — he started fourth — but the sled didn’t last and he was out after 132 laps and finished 29th.

Brian Sturgeon

Oval sprint star Brian Sturgeon led the first couple of laps, but broke both spindles in the early going. Still, the team repaired both sides, hung around and finished 9th, 28 laps behind the winner.

 

Further Details from elsewhere in the Snow Week story: 

The Late Off:

Immediately after a vote to shorten the race to 400 laps, Team Pierce was almost struck by another late-race catastrophe. With Pierce piloting the Polaris and Useldinger hot on his bumper, last year’s runner up tried to keep the ‘Dinger’s #224 machine from passing him and possibly gaining another lap if a yellow came out.

“I ran like 30 or so laps before the incident, during that time from dusk to dark, and it was hard to adjust,” Pierce explained. “I was battling Guy for position and we were battling hard.” Just then Pierce passed into the shadows under the bridge that crosses the start/finish line and nailed a huge bump he never saw. Bucked off the back end of his mount, Pierce saw his #57 machine slip away, and with it, he thought, slipped his title hopes. 

“All I remember is seeing the machine go off by itself,” Pierce recalled. “I was thinking I didn’t want second place again.” 

With that in mind, he instinctively took off after his sled, which had run up into the wall (and, ironically, put a hole in the Polaris billboard) and slid down the track toward the inside hay bales, miraculously missing other sleds shooting by.

“I didn’t think they’d let me across, and you’re supposed to stay where you’re at when you fall, but I had to get back to it,” he said. 

Pierce bravely took off across the track and into the blind corner where his sled sat. “It was like running across the interstate,” he described. “All these sleds were coming at me and I was waving my hand and shouting, like that’s gonna’ do any good. I finally got there and then I couldn’t find my tether. I finally found it up inside my jacket, and then it started on the first pull.”

The Late Battle:

Around lap 380, the track announcer made the startling declaration that the top three machines were only seven seconds apart. They would get closer. Two more machines went down and the yellow came out, giving Useldinger and Wicht the chance to move right behind Krikke. A buzz went through the crowd and necks craned to try and catch the final laps.

As the line of sleds approached him, the flagman stood with both the yellow and green flags in his hands, ready to wave either one. Krikke wasn’t expecting green. He should have been.

“When we came around that last time a sled was down on the front straight, then another one was on the back,” he explained. “So when we came around again I thought we’d have another lap on yellow. And then all of a sudden Guy goes blowing by me. I didn’t even see the green until he was passing me. I guess I had my head in the clouds.” 

Useldinger was hot on the throttle and pinned it the moment he saw the flag. “I was looking for the green,” the veteran said. “I knew I had to make a move.” And that he did, shooting into the lead…

The Concluding Pass 

“Around turn three, Guy went over a berm and that slowed him down a little,” Krikke explained, describing how he got within striking distance. “He had a couple of lapped sleds in front of him and I think it was slowing him down. I was taking the inside line but there were some bumps and I wasn’t sure I should try it, but I figured it was now or never.” 

At the start/finish line Krikke sent the crowd screaming by slipping by Useldinger on the inside. 

“I held it [the throttle] as long as I could through the bumps and hoped I could make it.” Krikke recalled. “I felt like I skipped 20 feet.” 

Useldinger gamely tried to stay even but it wasn’t to be. “I was right behind Todd and my belt blew.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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