Racing a snowmobile across northwestern Minnesota rivers, fields and ditches for 500 miles in three days is tough enough.
Add bone-chilling below-zero wind chills and controlling a snowmobile's throttle with a partly disabled wrist and you have the makings of someone who is either crazy or just loves his sport.
Brainerd's Steve Emerson, who raced his Yamaha Phazer FX to a third-place finish in the Sport 85 class of the United States Cross Country Racing Association Red Lake I-500 Jan. 18-20 near Thief River Falls, leans toward the latter.
"(Cross country racing) is a lifestyle ... it is something that you work for," he said. "Some people knit. Some people gamble. Steve races.
"The satisfaction of the end result of actually finishing the I-500 and doing it in a respectable amount of time was very overwhelming for me. It has been a goal for me since I was a little kid."
Steve Emerson of Brainerd raced his Yamaha Phazer FX to third place in the Sport 85 class of the Red Lake I-500 Jan. 20 near Thief River Falls.» Purchase reprints of this photo.
Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood
The 26-year-old, who has four plates and 10 screws in his wrist, finished "the world's toughest snowmobile race" less than nine minutes behind the winner on an Arctic Cat (6 hours, 57:56.691 minutes). The course started and finished at the Seven Clans Casino daily.
It was Emerson's second Red Lake I-500. His first was in 2006 when he didn't finish aboard his Ski Doo in the 440 class.
He said this year's race had harder snow because of the colder temperatures.
"This year the snow drifts were like rock, like ice hard, and they didn't move when you hit them," he said.
Racers also were instructed by USSC to install things like handle bar gauntlets. USCC officials also cut 46 miles from Sunday's leg because of the dangerous wind chills and poor snow conditions on the track.
The carbide studs on the track of Steve Emerson's Yamaha are longer than most. Studs have to be changed daily during cross country racing.» Purchase reprints of this photo.
Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood
Racers began each day later than normal to allow the temperature to warm up. They also had an half-hour jetting period where they adjusted their carburetors. Emerson didn't have to do this because his four-stroke sled is fuel-injected. He did set his sled's shock pressure and filled up the gas tank.
Racers left the starting line in 20- to 30-second intervals to conquer the river and "hard ditch" Day One course in which Emerson finished third.
Emerson said his sled's clutch malfunctioned and caused his sled to lose its maximum speed. Because drivers only have an hour to repair their sleds using manual tools each night, he said it was too risky to repair the clutch.
He said he would normally see a wide-open speed of about 92 mph compared to his 78 to 82 mph that day.
"It adds up fast when you don't have the mile per hour," he said.
An extra drive belt is located on Steve Emerson's Yamaha. He said a cross country racer should be able to change a belt within a minute.» Purchase reprints of this photo.
Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood
He said his sled's great acceleration allowed him to maintain speed going through the woods and ditches.
He also made up time on the two mandated fuel stops because his fuel-injected sled made better gas mileage. So he had quicker stops.
The second day's course was longer with a lot of ditches, more river and what Emerson described as a "goat path."
"It is really tight but it's full of a lot of bumps, really technical," he said.
He also came around one corner where he had to hit the brakes to place his skis between two trees. One of his skis caught on a tree that was at a 45-degree angle.
"The next thing I know my sled was almost vertical," he said.
He said the second leg of the course was the most challenging.
"Really tight and technical, you really had to use your head and try to go as fast as you can but realize that if you made a mistake you probably are going to get hurt or you are going to end up breaking something," he said.
He said Saturday also was a long day for him.
"A lot of hot and cold sessions ... you would get hot, then you would get cold," he said. "The last section coming back in was really cold."
Emerson also suffered frostbite on his stomach.
Emerson credits his rookie mechanic, Jon Stumph, their preparation and the backing of Steve Vandeputte at Brothers Motorsports for his success.
Their preparation included tearing down the sled and putting Locktite on the all the nuts and bolts.
"Overall, race conditions were really good," he said. "Good snow made for a rough course. It was nice running on the river. Just being challenged by the elements was one of the toughest things."
Emerson, a service adviser at Tanner Honda, likes this challenging sport because he always liked going fast on snowmobile trails and his heroes included cross country racing legend and past I-500 winner Brad Pake.
Emerson also won the USSC 440 class in 2006 with two wins, one second place and two thirds.
A few months later, disaster struck though when he and another ATV racer in July at Moto City in Staples tangled on a jump.
"When we landed we both ended up hitting, touching and I got the bad end of the stick," he said.
The crash aboard his Honda sheared his right tibia inside his boot six inches above his ankle and destroyed the radius on his wrist on impact.
He said his forearm was split almost halfway up to his elbow. His leg was recast several times and still is "a little bit crooked."
At first, doctors told him there was no hope for having any range of motion is his wrist. But another doctor helped him in getting partial movement.
Emerson's injuries didn't stop him from racing in the second round of the USSC at Minto, N.D., a few months later.
He finished 18th in the Semi Pro 600 class aboard his Ski Doo.
"I tried but I was still too green yet where stuff hurt too bad and it was too dangerous for me to be actually doing it."
Two months later, Emerson finished 13th in the Semi Pro Open class in the USSC "Full Throttle 300" near Garrison Bay on Lake Mille Lacs.
Emerson said after that race, he felt he was "way behind for the year" so he decided to make a "hard run" at racing the 2007-2008 season.
clint wood, staff writer and photographer, may be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5869.
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