Twenty-two years ago, the sport of snowmobile snocross racing changed forever. That’s when a stranger swept in from the Canadian prairie, entered the sport in the highest classes and won the first national points race that he entered, utilizing a radical riding style punctuated by incredible showmanship. That stranger was Blair Morgan.
Below is opening of a much larger story covering the 1997 Duluth National snocross race in Duluth, Minnesota, that was held on November 28-30, 1997 — it seems appropriate to recall as the year’s snocross season begins anew in Duluth on the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend. The Pro 600 victory detailed here was on the Saturday of opening weekend of the 1997-98 season. The next day, Morgan also won the Pro Open class, while Brad Pake claimed Pro 440.
Flying Green Wave Invades MRP Duluth National
Call them Hibbert’s Heroes.
Team Arctic racers came into the opening round of the MRP Snocross World Series with a new sled designed by their new engineering giant, Kirk Hibbert.
Hibbert, of course, has made a huge name for himself with his racing and sled setup skills over the past two decades. In the past couple of years, however, he has been working directly out of the Arctic Cat factory. For the 1997-98 season, Hibbert was put in charge of the race sled effort and ordered to come up with a sled that could reclaim Arctic Cat’s position of dominance in terrain racing.
Well things are looking good so far. With Hibbert’ s design skills and the awesome racing efforts of Brad Pake and Blair Morgan, Team Arctic swept the three Pro class finals at Spirit Mountain in Duluth.
The Black Magic-sponsored event featured the best terrain racers in the world, with a field of more than 930 entries from all over North America and a handful from Scandinavia. The crowds were huge all weekend for the three days of racing on a tight course featuring mainly man-made snow.
That snow was quickly turned tan by the dirt dug up by all the race sleds. Races wre won due to superior machine setup, spot-on clutching and driver savvy – it took all three and a lot of guts to emerge from the pack at Duluth.
Bright sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures helped create near perfect race-watching weather, and the fans ate it up. Other than an ill-conceived pyrotechnics show on Friday night during a “dash for cash,” the show went off without a hitch, The MRP crew runs about the tightest ship in the industry, giving race fans all they could want and more while making it look effortless.
Major event sponsors include Black Magic Motorsports, Roetin Industries, Blackwoods Bar and Grill, Chevy Trucks, Duluth Lawn and Sport, Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau, Great Lakes Region Ski-Doo Dealers, Spirit Mountain, Northwest Airlines, Coors Light beer and Breathe Right nasal strips.
MRP, meanwhile, has 29 sponsors of various levels. Their high-level sponsors include Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo, Yamaha, Reima Sportswear, Parts Unlimited, Fox Shox, Dayco, Woody’s, Featherlite Trailers, R.U. Outside and Black Magic Motorsports.
Paid attendance was estimated at around 30,000 for the three day event.
Morgan Opens With A Bang
Blair Morgan doesn’t look like most snowmobile racers, and he doesn’t act like them either.
Instead, the stocky redhead with the long sideburns has come to the sport with a new style that could become a pattern for future stars.
Morgan, 22, is the reigning Canadian national champion in motocross racing in two different classes, and it shows in the way he rides. First, Morgan is pretty aggressive and is not afraid of contact, which makes him somewhat of a controversial newcomer.
But Morgan’s riding style is also new and unique to snocross. Yes, many of today’s top racers use dirt bike riding to train for snowmobile racing, so they know how to handle a bike. But Morgan treats his snowmobile like a dirt bike, forgetting that a sled has a usable seat and weighs nearly 500 pounds wet. He can do the heel clicker and the superman, and he rarely catches air without at least turning the handlebars.
All of this would be looked at as a fluke if he was a back marker. Morgan, however, is a winner, and he’s showing it in the very early going. Morgan competed at three races in his native Saskatchewan and nearby Alberta last year. He was then taken under the wing of Canadian Team Arctic Race Director Jamie Anseeuw. Anseeuw hooked Morgan up with master mechanic Barry Dawson, and the group headed to the West Yellowstone Snocross last March. Once there, Morgan stunned spectators and racers alike. He swept his Pro 440 heats and claimed second in the final behind Kirk Hibbert. We were so impressed that we named him our Snow Week Rookie Of The Year.
His run in Duluth started. Friday afternoon. Morgan blazed through Pro 600 qualifying on his green 1998 ZR 440 Sno Pro, scoring two victories in early round heats and then settling for second in his third round-robin run behind Brad Pake.
Morgan was matched in qualifying by T/S Racing’s Pake and Polaris/Hot Seat Performance racers Greg Hyde and Jeremy Crapo, who also had two wins and one second. Other top qualifiers in the Pro 600 class, with its all-star cast of 44 entries, included Cat racers Aaron Scheele and Drew Hough, Polaris’ recent convert Dennis Durmas, Yamaha’s Nathan Titus and Ski-Doo’s Earl Reimer.
Ski-Doo’s Finnish Phenoms, Janne Tapio and Toni Haikonen, each used a last-chance qualifier to earn a second-row start in the final, as did Kurtis Crapo. Even more amazing was the list of drivers who didn’t make the final, including Kirk Hibbert, Chris Vincent, Per Berggren, Todd Wolff, Jesse Strege, Jason Jones, Ric Wilson, David Brown and Dennis Burks.
When the green was waved the sleds bolted toward turn one. Hot Seat owner Steve Houle appeared to give his drivers the best clutching combination, as Hyde and Jeremy Crapo powered through the moguled first turn at the front. The Cats of Pake, Scheele and Morgan were a halfheartbeat behind, along with Titus’ Yami. The pack attacked the uphill portion of the track, each driver looking for a clear line.
Hyde led the charge up the hill but Pake was on the assault. In year’s past Pake has used a quick start to run away with many high profile snocross races, and he looked like he wanted to do it again. Hyde had other plans. Coming down the hill each driver caught huge air off the main jump. The crowd roared its approval as these talented drivers aired it out and returned to turn one.
Coming out, Hyde led the racers back up the mogul-filled hill. Pake was second, followed by Jeremy Crapo, Scheele, Titus, Morgan, Haikonen, Kurt Crapo, Tapio, Hough and then a large gap to Durmas, who had trouble in turn one on the first lap.
Hyde chopped through the moguls, his XCR eating up everything in its way, but Pake matched every motion. At the hilltop Pake flashed his green hood into the lead momentarily, but Hyde returned fire and reclaimed the top spot. The two were starting to separate themselves from the pack. Jeremy Crapo looked relaxed in third while most other racers looked more frantic. Behind him, in order, were Titus, Scheele and a charging Haikonen and Tapio. Morgan, meanwhile, appeared to be fading.
Still chasing Hyde, Pake went far too hard into the 90 degree corner on the top of the hill and slammed hard into the hay bales on the outside of the turn. While the rest of the pack motored by, Pake was pulling on the rear bumper in an attempt to free his sled from the bales.
Suddenly, Hyde was unchallenged up front. His lead grew to almost an entire straightaway by lap seven. The Finns, meanwhile, were merciless in their charge. Both moved past Jeremy Crapo and put their yellow Bombers in second and third, with the surprising Scheele fourth.
Tapio then appeared to have problems. His once-tame steed now seemed untrained. He lasted another half-lap before he punched out The gremlin was later identified as a broken shock
While Tapio faded, Morgan was on fire. He smoked past Crapo, then Scheele and closed on Haikonen. The race was half-over, but Morgan was just getting started.
Titus was going the other way. He had speared a course-lining tire with his left ski. The tire acted like a brake and impeded steering, dropping Titus to the back of the pack. Meanwhile, the formerly scorned Pake was on the charge again. Pake didn’t become one of the sport’s best drivers by giving up easily.
On lap 12, Morgan moved past Haikonen and set his sights on Hyde. He continued his now-familiar style, never sitting and amazingly keeping his feet attached to the running boards despite the size of the moguls and holes. He leaned over the handlebars, looking unlike any driver on the track.
Still, Hyde had a 3.5-second lead with six laps to go. That was all-but eliminated the next lap. Morgan caught Hyde on top of the hill and dogged him on the front stretch. Then came the tough pass. Hyde got into turn one first but Morgan had his eyes on the prize. He slammed his ZR hard into the front of Hyde’s XCR, changing the direction of the Polaris.
Hyde looked stunned and slowed. Morgan ran away and Hyde soon fell to Pake, who continued his relentless charge.
For Morgan, it was showtime. He took the white flag with ease, roared around the track and returned to the front stretch. On the main jump, Morgan hammered the throttle and threw his legs up over the sled’s hood. In a move directly from motocross, Morgan touched his heels while in the air, completing a “heel clicker” and getting his feet back to the running boards before landing. He powered across the finish line with the crowd roaring its amazement and approval.
Pake finished second, with Hyde third, then Haikonen, Scheele, Jeremy Crapo, Hough, Reimer, Kurt Crapo and Durmas.
“I race motocross, and that’s a pretty demanding sport, so I’m maybe in better shape than some of the other guys,” Morgan explained. “It took me a while to get in the groove. But I knew it was a 20-lap final and I had a lot of time. I knew once I passed Toni [Haikonen] and Janne [Tapio] that I could probably win.”
Pake explained his faux pas.
“I couldn’t turn my sled up there and got up into the bales,” Pake said. ‘”I screwed up big time. But in 20 laps, you can do a lot, even pull it out of the bales.”
Hyde carried a look of heavy frustration. “I knew he was getting close, I guess I kind of expected it,” Hyde said of the pass. “Then my arms pumped up on me. The sled ran great – it wasn’t the sled,” that cost him the race, he said
Morgan defended the contact.
“The guy on the inside has the right of way,” he said simply. “I came on the inside and thought there was going to be plenty of room because he was going wide. I had to pass like that to get by.”
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