The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Snowmobile Olympus closes early due to safety concerns


January 6, 2020

P.J. Glisson/Daily Globe

MEMBERS OF the Kitty Kat Stock race at Sunday's Ironwood Snowmobile Olympus dash around their customized mini-track as Tavyn Strand, 7, of Merrill, Wis., takes the lead and leans in to win the competition. Tavyn was cheered on by his brother, Trentyn; their parents, Nathan and Leah Strand; and their grandpa, Mark Kanitz.


Ironwood - The ProStar Snowmobile Olympus ended before noon on Sunday due to repeated reports of "snow dust" on the track at the Gogebic County Fairgrounds in Ironwood.

"It was snowing hard earlier, and then it stopped, but it's sure to start again," said local race director Greg Basom after the closure.

Basom said race workers cleared the track several times during the morning, but added regarding racers that "once it gets bad enough that the ones in the back can't see, it's not safe."

According to Basom, board members of the United States Snowmobile Association - which sanctions the race - made the call to cancel after consulting with racers.

Several fans expressed exasperation at the cancellation, and David Strand of Ironwood, who was among more than 200 race registrants, said he was "bummed" by the early close. He conceded of morning snowfall, however, "When that snow came down, the visibility was pretty rough."

He said his own participation in Sunday morning's Formula 500 was not an issue because he was closer to the front of his fellow racers.

"There was no issue with the track," he stressed. "The track was awesome. The visibility was the problem."

Strand was one of several family hierarchies at the two-day weekend event.

His father, Richard Strand, also of Ironwood, won the 440 Superstock race on Saturday, and Richard's grandson, Jayce Baross, also was in a couple of children's divisions.

Basom said several early Sunday races did occur, including heat races for the F-3 and F-500 divisions and the 120 kids' race.

"The ProStar race would have been the last race of the day," he said, explaining that race officials try to make up cancelled races at a future date, but it is not always possible.

Cancellations of snowmobile races are not rare, said Basom, who added that the second day of races often seems most vulnerable to being dropped.

Several children's races were planned on a separate, smaller track for Sunday afternoon. The youngest kids, who included participants only two or three years old, already had competed inside of the horse barn.

Except for the weather issues, Basom said everything else about the races had gone well throughout most of the weekend.

He said that one driver had received medical treatment on Saturday for concerns about his back, but the same person signed up to race again on Sunday.

Participants seem to enjoy the opportunity to race whether they win or not.

"I come to every USSA event," said Travis MacDonald of Manitoba, who said he's been racing for 15 years.

During a social session with the public on Saturday afternoon, MacDonald said he hadn't won any races that day, but was looking forward to trying again on Sunday.

Gunnar Sterne of West Chicago, Ill., took second in Saturday's final races of the Pro-Champ and F-3 divisions. "I think we got a lot better throughout the day," he said.

Sterne, who is a three-time Pro-Tour champion, was anticipating Sunday as the big race day.

Dylan Anagnoustopolous of Hartford, Wis., said racing world enthusiasts know him more easily as "Dylan the Greek." He, too, was looking forward to Sunday's Pro-Champ race.

He said his motor had locked up during Friday practice, and added that, during Saturday's Pro-Lite race, "The clutch broke."

He and his team managed to fix the problem, but when he came in third, he was disqualified because he said, while making the repairs as quickly as possible, they forgot to place the required weight stack on the clutch.

Ongoing race wins are always desired, but members said they also compete to win as many points as they can toward the final season totals, which can result ultimately in a trophy and money.

Even some members of the audience were former racers. Dave Wahl of Greenbush, Minn., who was enjoying the races with a group of friends, was a snowmobile race champion in 1990, 1996 and 1997.

"When I was racing, I had two-track machines," said Wahl. "These just have one track, and they're faster now."

Wahl said he used to miss the action, but added, "Not any more. Now, it's a lot easier just watching."

Many racers appear to stay in the game for decades. As a two-time Eagle River, Wis., world champion, Blaine Stephenson of St. Cloud, Minn., said he's been racing for 20 years despite being only 23 years old.

Stephenson was well positioned for Sunday's races, having won first place in all of his Pro-Champ heats and final race on Saturday.

He said he and his fellow competitors realize that their ability to compete, year after year, is due to volunteers who help to make it all possible.

"It's a lot of volunteer hours and manpower, and we really appreciate their efforts," said Stephenson.

Kathy Jo Koval, who was serving as a bartender during Saturday's social session, said there are about 40 total volunteers, some of whom started to help in advance on Friday.

Kitchen manager Danielle Kettunen of Ironwood said she had about a dozen volunteers helping her to serve homemade chili, sloppy joes, nachos and cheese, and other treats.

Other volunteers included ticket and souvenir sellers and parking lot coordinators. In addition, track workers such as local plowers and groomers pitched in, and ice-makers worked in advance to apply ice to what normally serves as a horse track for the annual summer fair.

Even Basom, who was at the fairgrounds throughout December, works as a volunteer. He said he took over the role this year because former director Tom Auvinen, who had done "a marvelous job" for the past decade, "wanted a break."

"I would love to see an economic study done," said Koval of the many visitors in town. "They stay in our hotels. They snowmobile when they're not racing. They eat in the restaurants. This is a huge family affair."

Ironwood's snowmobile event was one of six annual competitions that the USSA sanctions. The remaining competitions will take place in Wisconsin, where the USSA is based, and in Canada.

Basom thanked all sponsors, as well as the Ironwood Snowmobile Olympics, the Friends of the Fair, and the general public for supporting the local event.

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