By Brian Nelson
This article is in response to the story in the book Starfire Kids – Midnight Blue Express regarding my win in the 1976 Winnipeg to St. Paul race.
First let me say I have the up most respect for the Polaris race teams of the past. Most of the time they had the best equipment, were excellent riders and very determined to win. I was a Polaris dealer from 1980 until 1998 selling thousands of Indy’s and racing Polaris Products also.
What I have issues with is what a few people have said in regards to the 1976 I-500. In the Starfire Kids – Midnight Blue Express it says that John Deere had a helicopter with someone in it telling me how to ride!! Or telling me when I could run the roads!! It’s hard to believe that anyone could or would believe that kind of gossip!
1. JD did not own a helicopter, lease or rent one.
2. I was in the lead flight from day two on and there was constantly hundreds of people watching us. Don’t you think someone would have noticed? Maybe even an official? Or what about the four or five Polaris sleds I raced with most of the way? If I was on the road they were to!!
When we started the last day from Thief River Falls, MN to Winnipeg, Manitoba, I was in fourth place and a full fourteen minutes behind the lead Polaris. They lined up the top ten sleds, nine factory Polaris riders and my single John Deere. I made up my mind I was going to be the first one to Winnipeg, pinned the throttle and left it there. Don Omdahl stayed with me for about five miles and crashed hard, I heard later he broke his leg. Now keep in mind there were hundreds of cars running alongside of us, there were people at every intersection, the Minnesota state patrol had an airplane watching, so how could I run down highway 59 and not be seen? THINK ABOUT IT!!! Plus I was running as fast in the ditch as I could have on the road.
The reasons we won that day are many:
- The Enduro Team Deere drivers were in superb shape, we had been on a 7 day a week workout routine since June. We went to Alaska in Oct, raced and test rode over 3000 miles up there. Then we went to Montana in early December. We rode every day and worked out every day for three weeks. I had over 5000 miles of test riding in before we ran the first race. Our coach Al Anderson was a former Army Ranger drill sergeant!! We were up at 6:30 AM every morning and ran two miles, we were in the weight room from 10:30 until noon every day. We were back in the weight room from 4:00 to 5:00 every day. At Breezy point the team went for a 75 mile ride almost every day, it was just like racing, we were trying to constantly out run each other.
- I started racing at 12 years old, by the time I was 22 I had run hundreds of cross country events and won a number of them.
- The Liquidator was a fairly good race sled, heavy but it did have speed on hard snow. It was a nice riding sled, easy to control. I was very fortunate to have had one of the best mechanics in the country my whole career. Hubert Fixsen who I worked from age sixteen on has a degree in mechanical engineering, never made a mistake on his jetting or clutching and is one of the most brilliant snowmobile minds in the country.
When they dropped the flag that last day I was in a zone and there was no way I was going to get bucked off!! I Came close a number of times but always got back on before the sled landed. It’s hard to describe – but when opportunity, determination and preparation meet, you have a special combination.
I came close to winning in 1975, leading the last day until thirty miles out and I destroyed the skid frame. In 1976, no one told me you couldn’t win from 14 minutes back. I had to average over 10 miles an hour faster for 140 miles – it was my chance to win the big one and I wasn’t going to let it get away! I just about broke my right leg that day. It was black from my waist to my toes the day after. I was off the sled way up high and was getting back on when we landed and my right thigh hit the belly pan edge next to the foot rest, my heel was up by the spindle, it just about took my leg off. It hurt so bad I had to stand up the next 40 miles or so. I heard Bob Prezkwas crashed a couple of times – but how much time do you lose when you crash? Maybe 32 seconds?
There are a few things people should know about racing in those days: Polaris and Arctic cat were expected to win and it was OK if they did. But a John Deere? A number of things were done during that race to make sure we didn’t win! On day three when the times came out in Walker, someone had added an extra 10 minutes onto my time! Now keep in mind I started with the lead Polaris sleds and crossed the finish line alongside them. Al Anderson had to push his way into the officials meeting and have them show him how they could have screwed it up!
On day four at the fuel stop I had to fight with the fuel man to get my tanks full. It took me over two minutes to fill, when the lead Polaris came in it took him 22 seconds! I always wondered why the fuel man was wearing a new Polaris suit!
When I went across the border there was a three foot high 90 degree hard snow edge that I had to go thru to get on the bridge. I came to a stop, they checked my wrist band then 50 feet away a guy pointed right at the wall he wanted me to hit! I jumped on the rear bumper hit the throttle pulled back on the bars and hit the bank wide open, luckily the snow broke and the big JD went thru it!! I yelled at the guy as I went past him: “YOU SOB!!!”
Then when we got to tear down all the officials were wearing new Polaris suits!! In fact a few of them used to work for Polaris! They tore my sled apart from end to end determined to find something wrong. I still have the protest sheet that Bob Eastman signed. First they did a cc check on the crankcase and poured in about 10 extra CC’s in each beret. When the case was full of oil they said “your disqualified because your case is stuffed!” Hubert had been watching and knew how many CC’s the case held. Hubert asked the guy why he poured in 10CC’s too much each time! After filling the case with oil properly, it was held exactly how much it should have.
Then they took off the little fitting between the exhaust ports where the water went in. The cylinders were sand cast and at the factory they had cleaned up the hole a little. The official said “your disqualified because you have ground on your cylinder!” It took us an hour with blue prints and cylinders off other John Deere sleds to prove that it was stock.
So then they decided to cut my exhaust system apart to try and fine something wrong with that! Meanwhile John Deere protested the top three Polaris sleds, and the officials never even looked at them. Now keep in kind its almost dark and they had started on this witch hunt at noon. Hubert picked up a “y” pipe that had been taken off one of the top Polaris sleds and it was ground and polished! Sure glad my pipes didn’t look like that! He showed it to an official. Polaris and the officials then had a meeting and decided to give up. They never did disqualify that Polaris!!
The banquet had to be moved back an hour due to the lengthy tech period. My John Deere was completely stock; think about it… why would I go into the biggest race of my life with an illegal machine?!
When it came right down to it we beat them fair and square and we just out rode them the last 140 miles. As far as I can remember no one from Polaris ever said congratulations, you rode a good race!!
Now, all these years later, I run a race circuit, the United States Cross-Country Circuit. Based on my experiences, I can tell you that we do NOT show any prejudice and we go out of our way to treat all the racers and manufacturers with the SAME set of rules. That’s something I wish would have happened on the ride of my life all those years ago.