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144 sleds race in snowy USXC Heartland 200

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Going airborne in a ditch along Cty. Rd. 4, David Brown (#17) is one of the racers who competed in the pro class of the USXC Heartland 200 Sunday. Lorie Skarpness/Enterprise.

A winter storm that brought eight inches of fresh powder to the area Friday night and Saturday made the USXC Heartland 200 race in the Park Rapids area both challenging and interesting as sleds raced a course of forest trails and ditches.

“Saturday, racers had to deal with a significant amount of snow that was on the race course,” Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Butch De La Hunt said. “Those who started first in the pack were cutting trail most of the way. North of Emmaville, the ditch trail was ungroomed and untouched, so racers were breaking trails that whole way.”

In order to even out the competition, racing orders were reversed for Sunday’s race.

He credited the Nevis Trailblazers and Forest Riders snowmobile clubs for helping groom race course trails along with their regular routes.

The 110-mile course took racers through scenic woodlands in the Park Rapids, Emmaville, Nevis and Akeley areas. There were 98 riders in Saturday’s race and 56 sleds racing Sunday.

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The number of racers was down slightly from last year’s total of 164. “I’m guessing we probably lost a few due to the weather, with it being hard for people to get here,” De La Hunt said.

He said the consensus of racers he chatted with at the awards ceremony Sunday evening was that they loved the race course. “They said it was fantastic, very challenging, like none of the other courses they race,” he said. “The snow was definitely tough for them.”

De La Hunt credits dedicated volunteers with making the event a success in the midst of tough weather.

“We had close to 60 volunteers who weathered the elements and were very committed,” he said. “We were able to cover all of the areas with spotters. The Hubbard County Sheriff’s Office was fantastic and also the First Responders.”

De La Hunt said they are hoping to run a similar course again next year. “Of course it depends on snow,” he said. “If we don’t have snow, then our backup plan would be to race on Fish Hook Lake and hope we have ice there.”

He said the race was a boost for the economy. “I think two hotels were near capacity,” he said.

Three locals competed in race

Blake Higgins, a 2018 graduate of Park Rapids Area High School who is now attending North Dakota State University, finished first in his first USXC race.

“I’ve been driving snowmobile since I was 5,” he said. “I ride every winter, but I’ve never raced. I’ve always helped my dad, who has been the head spotter for the past few years, helped him get ready for the race. This year I decided to try it out.”

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He was among three racers Saturday in the Independent Front Suspension (IFS) classic racing sleds made from 1980-1998.

“I was driving a 1997 Skidoo,” he said. “It is one my dad bought new in 1997, sold to my cousin, and then my cousin gave it to me. I have other snowmobiles too, but that’s the one I wanted to race.”

Higgins said the main difference between the old snowmobiles and the newer models is the suspension and how they handle.

“There’s not a lot of give on those old ones,” he said. “It was a lot rougher ride. By Monday, I was sore all over. A lot of the woods were fine because they were ungroomed trails and pretty smooth. But the ditches were really rough. They’re also a little slower and not as forgiving on corners. County Road 4 was especially bad because we ran up and down it on the same side of the road. A lot of the spots on the approaches would have a crater on the back side from where people would land, but then when you come from the other side you created another crater and a bouncing effect.”

Higgins said his test ride the weekend before the race was completely different from the race itself.

“The trails were amazing and groomed beautifully last weekend, perfect for racing on,” he said. “Then we got all that snow and they didn’t have time to groom all of that, and that’s what made it so bumpy.”

He said he hopes to compete in the Park Rapids race again. “I know how much work the whole Park Rapids area puts into it, between all of the spotters who put their time in and the businesses that sponsor and support it and everybody else who makes the race happen,” he said. “I really like the track and having a ditch race was really fun. It was a tough race on that old one, so I might try to do a different race with a newer sled.”

While it was his first snow race, Higgins has raced snowmobiles in the summer as part of the Watercross.

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“It’s just a regular old snowmobile and you mess with the clutching and track to make it a little more adapted to water,” he said. “I’m no stranger to snowmobile racing, I was just a stranger to racing in the snow.”

Evan Edevold, a sophomore at Park Rapids Area High School, placed third out of 12 sleds registered in the junior division for youth 14-17.

Ean Voigt of Park Rapids finished in 10th place out of 19 sleds registered in the Semi Pro Factory 600 division.

For complete race results, go to www.usxcracing.com.

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Blake Higgins, a 2018 graduate of Park Rapids Area High School, said snow from the winter storm the night before Saturday's race made for a bumpy ride, especially in ditches. He said the race was fun and he hopes to compete in the USXC Heartland 200 again. Submitted photo.

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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