Drive around Iowa’s countryside during snowy winter months and you’ll notice that a number of snowmobiles exist among us. If you don’t actually see a snowmobile, you’ll certainly see the tracks they’ve left in the snow.
It wasn’t always that way.
I’d never seen a snowmobile when I headed off to serve in the Army almost 50 years ago. By the time I returned from two years’ service in Germany, they were everywhere. At least they were everywhere in North Central Wisconsin where I’d landed a job as news/sports reporter for the Merrill Herald. Merrill was, still is, the Lincoln County Seat.
Those living in the town of about 10,000 souls referred to their home as the "City of Parks, Churches and Taverns," an obvious reference to the many of each located there.
That was about the time that Eagle River, Wis., was gaining statewide and some national notoriety as home of the annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby. Within a few years, the event would reach national audiences via the old "Wide World of Sports."
As January of 1969 ushered in a new year, folks in Merrill began buzzing about an event scheduled at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds. Right in the middle of the fairgrounds was a half-mile dirt oval, used for horse racing for generations, and an old wooden grandstand. A group of locals had decided to capitalize on the popularity of the new sport of snowmobiling and had scheduled the first annual "World Championship Powder Puff Snowmobile Derby."
I’m sure they had visions of the event becoming every bit as popular as the similar event in Eagle River. Reality, however, was that the first annual Merrill event was probably the last annual event. At least, in my nearly seven years in Wisconsin, I don’t recall a second Powder Puff Championship ever being held. I’m not sure, at least at that time, there were enough female snowmobile racers around to bring instant success to such an event.
But, in January of 1969, the event had quite a few local folks all excited.
While some entries began arriving, organizers were scheming of ways to add excitement to the Powder Puff Derby. One of those ideas was to hold a "celebrity" event and that’s where my own personal undoing began.
For some reason that I didn’t understand, I was selected as one of the participants in that celebrity race. Perhaps someone at the office had volunteered me to represent the newspaper. I never did find out.
Be that as it may, I found myself on that cold, sunny Saturday afternoon bundled against the weather and awaiting my call for the "celebrity" race. There were six of us – Merrill’s mayor and police chief, the Lincoln County Sheriff, plus two ladies from local community organizations. It was a Powder Puff Championship, after all.
I felt out of place right from the start. I was clad in a warm winter coat while the others all had their very own snowmobile suits. It was pretty obvious that my attire, if nothing else, made me stand out from the others.
"Oh, well," I thought. "It’s okay. I’ll just go out there and show them how to race and people will forget how I’m dressed."
I lined up in the front row between the two ladies. The others formed a three-wide row behind us. Since I’d never ridden a snowmobile before, I’d asked for a practice lap. I was turned down and told that "you’ll get a practice lap when the green flag falls."
I figured it’d be just like racing a car. The green flag dropped and I put the throttle wide open as we headed off toward the tree-lined first turn. Approaching the turn I prepared to put the machine into a slide to negotiate the turn. I’d leave them all in my dust … er, snow.
Just as quickly as I entered the turn at full throttle, however, I found that racing a snowmobile through a turn was not like racing a car through a turn. When I turned to sled to the left, nothing happened. I found myself heading directly toward one of those trees lining the turn. I decided the tree was much larger than it had seemed just moments before.
Quickly, I took my hand from the throttle and, fortunately, the machine slowed enough that the sled took hold and I careened back onto the track. I’d entered the turn ahead of the pack; as I gained control, I was at the back. In five laps, however, I did learn enough to pass two other riders and finish in fourth place.
I was proud of myself, but not proud enough to enter another snowmobile race. As a matter of fact, I think that was not only the first time I’d ridden a snowmobile, but the last. I imagined the hundreds of spectators there all having a laugh at my expense. I learned that, just maybe, a little common sense is sometimes a better path to follow than one’s desire to impress others.
(Bill Haglund is a freelance columnist for Stephens Media.)