While the good old pre-nineties days were all about cross-country and roundy-round racing, the last decade has been focused mainly on snocross and variations of freestyle and hillcross racing.
Although snocross racing is far from over, the desire to participate in the sport has taken a serious downturn, partially due to its cash strapped, youthful demographic.
Purchasing a stock 500 or 600 class sled off your dealer’s showroom floor and being competitive in Sno-X is highly unlikely. At the very minimum, aspiring snocross racers are required to purchase a used race sled or an expensive, new factory race sled built strictly for competition.
This all begs the question: Where can the retired snocrosser seeking the thrill of racing or the newbie looking to compete with a stock 600 trail sled go? How about the United States Cross Country (USCC) racing circuit?
The following is the story of the ups, downs and upside-downs the Supertrax team went through competing in the 2008 USCC Red Lake I-500, a race with more than 40 years of rich history.
Normal USCC Rules don’t allow more than one rider per sled, however, due to the nature of this joint event, Arctic Cat and the USCC organization allowed media teams to sub-off riders for each loop to allow more editors to experience cross-country racing. Team Supertrax consisted of test riders Jordan Elliott, Luke Lester and me, AJ Lester.
With our well-bolstered egos pumped and ready to race, we thought this cross-country thing would be just another fast paced trail ride with a few high speed road jumps (also referred to as “approaches”, if you’re from Minnesota). With the race now behind us, all we can say is – wow! Were we ever wrong!
Under normal USCC racing classifications the F5 would fall into the Sport 85 class for sleds under 85 horsepower. You can enter a stock F5 with a few safety mods, but it’s not a bad idea to do some preventative maintenance, given a 500 mile race can be hard on equipment.
Our F5 received the royal treatment including Fox Floats up front and a rear Fox IFP shock. A 190-pound front arm spring plus 102 Stud Boy studs and 9-inch carbide shaper bars were added along with a few other Arctic Cat goodies to keep things strapped down and running smoothly.
From a consumer standpoint this easy upgrade amounts to a basic race package – well worth the money, for track or trail. If you’re on a tight budget, the F5 suspension could be left stock and set to the stiffest settings.
While a stock, baseline F5 was the right choice for Arctic Cat to begin with, a Sno-Pro would be a better choice for a first time racer as the suspension is already premium equipped.
During the prep times allotted each day and prior to the event, Black Magic Racing and the ace mechanics at Arctic Cat gave the F’s their final tuning touches and repaired the sleds as needed. Yes, repairs were needed.
Friday morning I was ready to go and pumped to see what kind of times I could run against the veterans of the sport. The air was crisp enough to freeze your eyelids shut and the bitter cold held the sweet scent of 2-stroke adrenaline.
As I pulled up to the line, my adrenaline was pumping and I was ready to ride the wheels off the minty-fresh F5. Things started out great running high speeds through the ditches – attempting not to catch a frozen drift at 85mph. After a half hour I started to get the feel for the ditches and really enjoyed running the high speeds.
I was starting to pass a few people, then a few more. I figured I was making pretty good time. The ditch run soon poured out onto a large river section – wide on the straightaways and tight in the corners.
The F5 was running strong, however, the 600 class sleds I was running down had more go on the straight sections forcing me to drive deeper into the corners and hold more speed through the turns, hanging myself off the inside of the sled like an acrobat.
The river section seemed to last forever when finally I entered the gas stop. USCC rules state you must come to a complete stop, get off the sled, then run beside it to reach your team. After an hour of minus fifty wind chill and hard riding, running isn’t as easy as you think!
I got the fuel topped off and turned out we had made up more than five minutes and passed a herd of sleds. As I left the gas stop I had a renewed energy to go harder and faster. That’s where everything went sideways.
About ten miles from the finish of the day’s race and a good 45 minutes after the fuel stop, I was running down the side of farmers’ fields at 80-plus mph, hitting road approaches with blistering speed and telling myself that I just needed to go a little faster to make up a little more time, push a bit harder.
The racer in me took over and I was running the F5 as fast as the little liquid cooled mill would chug. It was at that moment I realized a few of the drifts I was hitting were harder than others I had hit earlier in the day.
I was carrying well over 80mph when it all went wrong. The sled contacted a rock solid drift only four or five inches high and sent the front end vertical and slightly crooked. I held the throttle on hoping it would straighten out but, unfortunately, there weren’t any more ponies on tap to pull the little F out of the inevitable tank slappers I was about to experience.
From that point forward it was flashes of white, black and green – upside down and backwards. By Grace alone I didn’t get tangled up with the sled and managed to find my way to my feet after a moment of heaving to catch the wind that had been beaten out of me.
Running close behind was a semi-pro racer who stopped and asked if I was okay. He told me my get-off was the gnarliest crash he had ever seen.
As I stood in the middle of a farmers’ field in Northern Minnesota with a twisted pile of F5, tunnel severely bent, and plastic broken, I realized there’s a lot more to cross country racing than I had imagined. Although pain was setting in I was having some of the most fun I had ever had on a snowmobile.
We managed to limp the F5 home and, miraculously, the Arctic Cat engineers, along with Cat’s Joey Halstrom, Jordan and myself pieced the sled back together using a block and tackle, loads of zip ties and some 100mph duct tape.
Day 2 brought the same frigid weather with the addition of light winds helping to scatter snow dust at every corner. Jordan took over the controls this day and proved himself a cross country rider.
At the pit stop Jordan was doing great and Luke and I were able to fuel the sled and get him a new set of goggles. As he left the pit another sled entered with a glowing red brake rotor. As the crew’s fuel splashed over the edge of the tank it hit the rotor and flames jumped out, quickly engulfing the sled.
To my amazement the racers, pit crew and onlookers were quick to act, grabbing a fire extinguisher to douse the flames while moving gas cans further away to avoid a larger problem. The incident was handled like only a top-class race sanctioning body could, leaving no one hurt and the sled able to continue with only slightly burnt styling.
Near the end of the day, Jordan was running hard, pushing his last ounce of energy when he bobbled and came off the sled, getting his boot caught in the left footrest allowing the sled to drag him a hundred yards or so until he could get untangled and remount.
By day’s end, Jordan finished incredibly well with the sled showing nothing more than minor bruises.
Day 3 was Luke’s turn in the saddle and he ran strong right from the get-go. My earlier get-off had set us back too far to catch up to the other teams, but Luke knew that we needed to finish the race to prove we could do it.
Running fast and clean he didn’t make any big mistakes and ran at speeds above and beyond anyone in our class, proving that with age comes wisdom.
At the end of three days the F5 was looking a little rough – thanks mostly to my get-off. Other than a few cracks and scars, though, it handled the race amazingly well.
This is an event nearly 50 percent of the entrants do not finish over a route that owns comparable prominence in the snowmobile industry to what the Baja 1000 does in off-road racing.
If there was ever a race capable of testing both man and snowmobile, taking both to their physical limit for three consecutive days, it’s the I-500.
* See also: F5 RESURRECTION