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Heartland 200 roars across ice

The sleds roar down the straightaway in the heads-up start of the Pro Open final Saturday afternoon. 1 / 3
In the winners' circle after the Pro Open final Saturday afternoon are, from left, Ben Langaas of Team Arctic, first place; Ross Erdman of Bouchard Racing, second; and Alex Hetteen of Hayford Racing, third. Hetteen went on to win Sunday's Pro Stock final.2 / 3
First-place winner Ben Langaas passes the checkered flag after the seventh lap of Saturday's Pro Open final. Waving the flag is Chad Bjorneby of USXC Racing.3 / 3

The loud noise last weekend around Park Rapids was the USXC Heartland 200 snowmobile races.

Open classes (featuring sleds with a modified engine or chassis) ran Saturday, Jan. 20, and stock classes (with machines answering to factory specifications) Sunday, Jan. 21 on Fishhook Lake. The modified sleds roared past spectators with an especially powerful blast of sound.

The relatively warm, sunny weather — especially compared to the previous weekend — was both a blessing and a boon.

Tony Smith of Hutchinson, driving a Polaris sled for Nelson Racing, said after the first of three heats he raced Saturday, "I feel good. The weather's a little warmer."

Asked what possesses him to ride two-stroke engines at speeds exceeding 100 mph on top of a frozen lake, Smith shrugged.

"You wear the right gear. You stay warm. It's not too bad...It's fun just coming out, enjoying the company, meeting the other riders. Setup is half the battle. Talent is the other half, I guess."

Smith admitted the mild winter may have worked to the event's disadvantage.

"Normally, we do two styles of cross-country racing," he said, explaining the differences between ditch racing, using typical sleds, and the specialized equipment used for ice racing. "It's all ice racing today. If we'd had a little more snow, we would have had the ditch races."

Scott Schuster explained the reason the event's name changed from last year's Heartland 106 to this year's 200: there were approximately 200 miles of races during the two-day event.

With three-lap timed heats for some races, and seven-lap heads-up races in the final, that was a lot of time for each racer to spend straddling noisy machines that, at times, were reported moving at 114 mph.

Randy and Denise Erickson of Barnesville, attending Saturday's open races to see their son Peder, 23, compete in the Sports 600 class, said it was the first time they have been able to watch him race in his first season on the circuit.

"He's learning a lot," said Denise. "He's doing OK. It's a big learning curve for something you've never done before."

Randy added, "He's finished all his races. The sled is holding up really well, and he's having a good time."

The couple appreciated the clear conditions on the lake.

"Even when they get way out, you can still see them running," said Randy.

Denise said the day was "wonderful and warm."

"When they were on Gonvik at Pine Lake," said Randy, "it was 50 degrees colder. We wouldn't have been standing out there then."

Denise laughed. "Last week, one of Peder's uncles told him, 'You're crazy! Sane, but crazy!"

Chad Bjorneby, the USXC team member in charge of staging, fuel and setup, spent a good part of the day waving various colored flags at the racers as they completed laps and heats.

"Each lap is (approximately) a 13-mile loop," he said. "The pros average that in a little over 16 minutes."

Many of the racers in Saturday's heats were clocking laps between 10 and 12 minutes.

Bjorneby described the course as a Le Mans-style course, "sort of like Indy car." He also explained the heads-up format of the final race, with all the racers starting simultaneously from two or three rows just past the finish line, and the winner being the first to cross the line after seven laps and a mandatory fuel stop.

"In the end, it gets interesting," said Bjorneby. "There's good competition."

RoAnn Trout, joined by her husband Alan, sister Rose, and other friends, came to watch her son Ryan Trout, 19, compete in his first season as a pro after winning in the semi-pro class last year.

Asked how old Ryan was when he started snowmobiling, RoAnn said 22 months.

"They were just radar runs, on flat ice, straight a little way," she explained. "He rode a Kitty Cat, which is a little Arctic Cat."

A member of the Christian Brothers Racing team, Ryan was having a rough day, his mom said. She noted he had trouble turning corners during heats earlier in the day.

Ryan finished fifth in the Pro Open final, five seconds behind Smith in fourth place. The top three prizes of the day went to Ben Langaas, Ross Erdman, and Alex Hetteen, after a dramatic seventh lap in which Zach Herfindahl fell out of the lead and could not complete the race. Only eight of the 15 sleds that started the Pro Open final finished the race.

The race was the first pro win for Langaas, racing for Team Arctic.