It didn’t look good for the king of snocross racing at the season-opening ISOC Amsoil Duluth National. Through heat races, mega superstar Tucker Hibbert didn’t sniff the lead, getting beat in round one by Bobby LePage and then finishing behind both Ross Martin and Tim Tremblay in the second round.

            Then, in the final on a temperate night at the host Spirit Mountain Ski Resort just south of Duluth, Minnesota, Hibbert reacted slow at the starting line and started the race in the middle of the pack. Up at the front? It was TJ Gulla, Martin and Tremblay.

Tucker Hibbert celebrates his Pro Stock final victory at Duluth

          But with money on the line, Hibbert methodically picked his way through traffic on his Arctic Cat, searched for winning lines and took home another victory before a cheering crowd.

            The highest qualifier after the heat races was Brett Turcotte on his No. 16 Boss Racing Ski-Doo. The driver from British Columbia got the all important line choice for the crowded start, but it didn’t work out to his favor. He got caught in a washout and ended up toward the back of the pack.

            Instead, it was the Vermont-native Gulla charging into the lead on his Hentges Racing Polaris. Insiders in the infield and some up on the pit wall were openly cheering – it was one year ago at this very event where Gulla suffered a season-ending and career-threatening injury. Seeing him back on the track was inspirational enough – seeing him in the lead was awe-inspiring.

Another podium shot, another big win by Cody Thomsen

            Nipping at his heels at first was the No. 52 Cat of Swedish import Johan Lidman , but he pushed too hard into turn three and lost several positions. Polaris racer and defending Pro Open season champ Ross Martin of Kansasville, Wisconsin, slotted into second, with another Swede Emil Ohman taking third on his No. 27 Warnert Racing Ski-Doo. Then came Tim Tremblay and, after a lap, Hibbert moved up to fifth.

            Gulla stayed locked in up front and grabbed about a half-second lead over Martin, but Martin stayed within shooting distance. Tremblay moved past Ohman in into third on lap two, then Hibbert shot down Ohman and took fourth on lap three. Hibbert then made short work of Tremblay, taking one lap before moving past him.

            The top three stayed in that order through lap 12 of the 20-lap final, with Martin occasionally closing to within a couple of tenths on Gulla, but then Gulla stretching it back to close to a second a lap later, as the racers adjusting to the changing track. Hibbert was all over the track, trying a tighter line on the downhill and a central line on the uphill as he searched for the right route. It seemed to be in vain at times, as he faded further back occasionally, but Hibbert isn’t a snocross legend for nothing – he knows how to work a track, and knows not to panic and push too hard too early in a 20-lap final.

After the freestyle show, the Monster Girls and freestyle performers paid homage to Paul Thacker, who is in a Minneapolis hospital following a crash during practice.

            On lap 13, Gulla appeared to be losing his grip. His body language said he was tiring, and Martin pounced, taking the lead spot. Hibbert made easy work of Gulla on the next lap. Hibbert then chased Martin all of the track as the laps wound down, and took the lead over the tabletop finish line on lap 17 before the cheering crowd.

            It wasn’t over, however. While the leaders sliced through traffic, Martin using a superior line he found on the backstretch to close on Hibbert, and had a legitimate shot at him when the drivers came out of turn four and headed toward the white flag. Unfortunately there was a lapped driver right in Martin’s line, and he was forced into a big mogul which killed his momentum.

            Seemingly unaware, Hibbert ran a strong last lap and took the checkered with a healthy fist pump high above the finish line tabletop, 3.3 seconds above Martin, who ran the last lap on autopilot, seemingly realizing there was no catching Hibbert.

            Quebec’s Tremblay moved past a fading Gulla with a lap and a half to go to claim the third sport on the podium, 7 seconds, behind Hibbert. Gulla was fourth, followed by Cat’s Garth Kaufman, who used a last lap pass to claim fifth ahead of Ohman. Ontario’s Iain Hayden, Wisconsinite Justin Broberg, Euro-import Christian Salemark and Ontario’s Lee Butler rounded out the top 10.

            “I really had to work at that one,” Hibbert said while holding the ISOC trophy in the shape of the No. 1. “I had a bad reaction at the start and had to make sure I made it through that first turn – there had been a lot of bad stuff going on there this weekend.”

            Martin claimed he was happy with second, but his face told a different story. When pushed on the topic by Snow Goer after the race, Martin admitted that he had visions of a late pass.

            “The lappers were tough to get through all night,” Martin said. “I had a good line coming down the hill and I thought I had one more ran at him, but…” his voice trailed off. “But, we’re off to a good start on the season.”

            Tremblay, the only man to beat Hibbert in a final last year, in his first year as a Pro, said he was pleased to start his season off with a podium finish.

            “I’m really happy to be here for the first weekend – I got good points for the (season) championship,” Tremblay said.

Cody Thomsen, Super Semi

Some thought Cody Thomsen should have jumped up to the Pro class this year. Given his performance on Saturday night, more people may be making that argument.

            Thomsen won his heat races and then the final in high fashion on his Arctic Cat, proving he is the class of the field again this year.

            A big crash in the first turn after the starting line locked up several top competitors. Thomsen led the first couple of laps, but then Darrin Mees sliced into the lead on his Team Amsoil Polaris. Thomsen re-took the lead on lap 8 and never looked back, although Mees didn’t go away, though he really didn’t close either.

            Thomsen took the win, with Mees second and Mike Bauer third. Derek Ellis and John Stenberg rounded out the top 5.

            Check back tomorrow for the big Pro Open final, plus other updates.

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