In 1972, Ski-Doo factory racer Yvon Duhamel won the Winnipeg-to-St. Paul cross-country I-500 aboard a Blizzard and became the first driver from that factory – and the first non-Polaris or Arctic Cat racer — to win the high-profile event.
The following summer, he told his story to Snow Goer for its Racing Annual issue. Seeing that this coming winter will mark the 40th anniversary of this historic victory, we decided to share the story with you. Enjoy.
How I won the Winnipeg To St. Paul International 500
By Yvon Duhamel
From The 1973 Snow Goer Racing Annual
My name is Yvon Duhamel and I get paid by Bombardier to win races.
We were very happy to win the International “500” from Winnipeg to St. Paul this year, since it is the first year Ski-Doo decided to make a real effort to go after this big title, one of the very few big races we have never won before. I was also happy to win because I was the first Canadian ever to win this race; I hope I won’t be the last, since next year we expect to come back with our same Blizzards and do as well or better.
Many people ask us if there is a special way to prepare for the “500.” Only if you want to win. I entered the 1972 “500” to win, like all the other races I enter. To win this race, I started on the project about two months before the race, fitting in testing, building my “Winnipeg” machine and planning for the race with my regular racing schedule. As a member of the three-man Ski-Doo “Can-Am Racing Team,” I run a lot of races and it’s a little difficult to prepare completely for each one.
The “500” is a very tough race. After running it and coming in first, my philosophy is that there are three most important things you need to win it. You need the man, you need the machine and you need lots of luck. The first two I can do something about. The last thing I can do something about by taking good care of the first two.
I race all year. In the warm months, I race motorcycles on an international circuit. When the snow comes, I am back in the Ski-Doo barn at Valcourt, Quebec, to begin the snowmobile racing year. I stay in good physical shape so the man is ready when the season starts.
Even though I drove a stock Ski-Doo Blizzard in the “500,” the machine took me about two months to build especially for myself. Delivered to the racing barn, it was a production Blizzard with the new rotary valve 400cc Rotax engine. We entered about 33 of these new rotary valve engines in the race. Mine and the rest were completely stock for the race. We have been testing this new Rotax engine for over a year and proved it very reliable. I had no fears about its ability, even though the rotary valve is a new engine for us.
Conrad Bernier, our technical director at the competition center, developed a strong new Blizzard for ’72. It was about the same weight as last year, but it has a number of changes which make it better. The engine is more up front with new suspension to change the handling of the machine. We have a new drive train and completely new clutch to match the new engine’s power curve. The bod and engine are aluminum alloy and we have other materials in the machine which will probably show up on future production Ski-Doos. The Blizzard is an exceptional snowmobile as well as a special racing model for us.
When I got my “Winnipeg” machine, I immediately went over what I wanted done with my mechanic. We started by tightening all of the nuts and bolts, adding double nuts and wiring bolts. By that I mean we drilled in bolt ends and ran wire or pins through the holes to prevent nuts from working loose in such critical spots as ski spindles and the suspension. This is a very big job which takes a long time.
Then we added an extra 5-gallon fuel tank in the back which gave us the 10-gallon capacity which you need for the “500.” Next we built a seat around the tanks, then positioned it and added foot pegs to the chassis, then cut a windshield, all to my height. At 5’3”, I’m a bit shorter than many others and build my machine to match.
I had hand warmers on my machine, which nobody else in the race had. They are “Polly Heaters,” electric handle-grip warmers which operate off the CD ignition. They were new last year, a guy at the Montreal trade show approached me and offered to give me some for the “500.” My mechanic tested them on my machine for possible shorts or problems, but they kept my hands warm for the whole race without a problem.
We have an adjustable slide rail suspension, so I set it so there wouldn’t be much weight on the skis because of the pavement and dirt riding in the race. The suspension and cleated track are the same we use in oval racing.
At the racing center in Valcourt, we have a two-month program to get ready for the “500,” using a test course near the center. We know approximately the route and program and atmospheric conditions of the “500” each day, so we simulate that. For instance, we know that the first day is 180 miles, so our test drivers do 180 miles on the same type course over roads and woods near here. We haul the machines in at night and go over them thoroughly, making little repairs. The next day we drive the right number of miles for that lap and repeat the inspection. We simulated that race three times last fall during the two months before the race so we were prepared. My machine had about 3,000 miles on it before the race, so it was ready.
Over the Christmas holiday, I took my machine home and practiced on trails, got in shape and at the same time looked closely at the machine to see what could be adjusted and what could be timed to make it go better.
When I flew from Eagle River to Winnipeg before the race, a mechanic with all my clothes and equipment in his car got stuck along the way and I stayed up until 2 a.m. the night before. So when I had to get up at 4 a.m., I didn’t think I was going to win the race with no sleep, no equipment of my own and starting off in 230th position. I had to borrow clothes and goggles to get started.
It was 38 degrees before zero the first morning in Winnipeg. When it’s so cold we have a warmup routine. We set up the timing, then put in warmer plugs. We prop up and let the whole machine run to warm up the clutch, belt and track, then, at the last minute, we take a warm belt from the car and put it on, put the machine down and go. I didn’t ruin any belts in the race until almost the finish line.
I started out slowly the first day the first 20 miles or so to get the feel of the machine and get myself warmed up. Then I started to move faster, trying to get ahead of some of the 229 riders in front of me. I didn’t drive wide open, like some of the other racers, during the whole race – just steady enough to stay ahead and not destroy my machine. After a while I replaced the plugs with regular ones.
I didn’t have to make many adjustments during the race. We started off with a 16-tooth sprocket for the first day, went to a 17-tooth for the next two days, then back to a 16 for the last day. Each night we changed the track, sliders and looked at the runners, maybe changing them twice during the race. Everything else held up well, including my hand warmers, except for the last day.
The final day, even though I had a good lead, I was going a little too fast and blew my clutch about three miles from the finish line. It was only a broken finger but it froze up the clutch and cost me about 9 minutes. When I got started again, my belt blew after another mile.
These are good reasons to carry spare parts. The first three days I carried tools, spark plugs and belts along, but no other parts. The last day I got kind of scared about my lead so I decided to carry a drive chain, pulley and clutch, plus all the other stuff. It was lucky that I did.
I saw a lot of drivers suffer badly from frostbite. I didn’t get any during the race. The worst I got was a burned finger from changing the clutch. When I got my equipment back, I wore an extra jacket over my Ski-Doo racing suit, goggles with tape over the air inlets, a face shields, regular helmet, a good pair of mittens, and safety equipment . . . the same things I wear on oval tracks. I taped the air holes on goggles because, on the first day, I got behind drivers and got smoke and dirt inside the goggles without my face shield. The tape worked beautiful.
A lot of people kidded me about getting lost during the race, a couple of times. The first time I got lost there was kind of a nice little road and a very sharp turn. I put all of my attention on the sharp turn to avoid sliding over the bank, then I went ahead down the nice road through some woods and bush. After a couple of miles I didn’t see any more flags so I turned around. When I came back to the turn I could see the flags going the other way over the bank, but from the way I came before I couldn’t see them.
The next time I came to a stop and the cops that stopped me showed me a le3ft turn with their flags, so I turned left and started down the highway. Finally a cop chased me down with his car and told me I was going the wrong way. It might have been the same gendarme who pointed me that way. I don’t know why he did it. He had a flag in his hand, he was facing me and showed me to turn right so to me it was left so I turned left. The policeman had a fast car. I don’t know how much time I lost on that turn.
The third day I stopped at a stop sign and a cop stopped me for 20 or 30 seconds and lets lots of cars go by before he showed me to go. I asked, “Why did you stop me for so long?” and officials could not tell me why I had to wait. I asked some other drivers if they had to wait, but they said no. That cost me another half minute or so.
There were some other problems too. The second day on the lake the flags were kind of far in between so I had a hard time seeing them. Sometimes your goggles get dirty and your eyes get tired so it’s hard to see if they don’t put flags every 20 feet. On one lake they are about a mile and a half apart and you have to go out of your way to get into position to see the flags. If you are in position, okay, if not then you lose time.
After the race, I went to the meeting and we talked about it. These guys have been running this race a long time so I guess they know what they are doing. I know they could do better but sometimes it’s a matter of money or something else, it’s hard to say.
I was, of course, happy with my Blizzard’s performance, especially since it was a stock machine. I saw a lot of other machines along the way that were not so stock. Some build special expansion chambers which seem to get banged up a lot. Some carry a lot of extra parts so they look like freight trains as you pass them. Some drivers have those big mittens on the handlebars that look very warm although my electric warmers were perfect.
Our technical coordinator, Marcel Lafrance, agrees with Conrad Bernier and I that too much modification doesn’t do much good. Some of the drivers we know try to improve engines and goof. They may do some work without having the machines to check everything and lose 5 to 10 horsepower. At the beginning of the year, we had a little problem with the engine. It was a mixture problem with gas and oil. As soon as we found it, we added a little more oil and that solved it. So you start with what you know is reliable. In the Winnipeg race “stock” machines won.