“We left the drainway in Winnipeg one race. It was really rough … hard drifts, and we’re going along, and these people are flying through the air. They’re crashing. I’m just driving along watching them. They were hauling people away. Well, you’re not going to win in the first 5 miles. You just try to keep a good pace and try to stay out of trouble.”
Guy Useldinger could fill a book with the stories he accumulated as a snowmobile racer during a 30-year career that 15 years ago this month earned him a place in the Snowmobile Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Germain, Wis.
The story of that long-ago Winnipeg to St. Paul International 500 snowmobile race is but one example.
Snowmobile racing is a young person’s sport, and Useldinger, 59, of East Grand Forks, called it a career in 1997 at the age of 40. Even after all these years, though, listening to his stories is a pretty darn good way to spend a couple of hours on a snowy January afternoon.
From grueling cross-country races such as the I-500 to ice oval track racing–he won the Formula III championship in Eagle River, Wis., in 1992 and six out of seven races along the way to qualify — Useldinger logged thousands of miles and thousands of laps.
He also earned a reputation as one of the sport’s nice guys on his road to the Hall of Fame.
“I really enjoy racing against him,” fellow Formula III racer Brian Sturgeon told Forum News Service in 1990. “He’s a gentleman driver. When you race alongside him, you don’t worry about getting run into. And he’s also one of the guys that is always around to help you when you need it.”
Useldinger is among the snowmobile legends scheduled to be on hand Feb. 6 for the fifth annual Anna Kozel Vintage Sled Show in East Grand Forks. A fundraiser for Relay for Life, the show will feature vintage snowmobiles on display outside the Blue Moose, and a silent auction will be held from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. inside the Blue Moose, along with a swap meet from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The vintage sled show is named after Anna Kozel, an East Grand Forks woman who died of cancer in May 2010. This year’s event also pays tribute to George Anderson, a longtime East Grand Forks snowmobile enthusiast and auto body repairman who died in October.
First race at 10
Useldinger’s ride to the Hall of Fame started when he was 10 years old, when he won a junior class race in Grand Forks driving an Arctic Cat Panther with a 399cc Hirth engine.
“My cousins were racing, and friends from the area, and we’d go to like Manvel, Hatton, Fertile … a lot of small-town stuff,” Useldinger said.
“I think it was just the competition between family and friends,” Useldinger said, adding his dad, Greg, worked on his sled until the young racer got his driver’s license.
“And then he was done,” Useldinger recalls. “But there was probably 30 to 40 guys every weekend from town, and then families would go, and we’d have a parade out of town.”
Useldinger — or “Dinger,” as he’s known to many — drove Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha snowmobiles during his racing career. He even logged a couple of years on John Deere sleds.
He takes the diplomatic road when asked to pick a favorite brand.
“They were all good, I guess — heck, I don’t know,” Useldinger says. “I did best on Ski-Doo oval racing, but the (Arctic Cat) Wildcat 700, that was a fast sled — two cylinders, and it just had grunt right from the takeoff.
“The Ski-Doos, the Formula III sleds when we won the world championship in ’92, the faster you went, the better they drove.”
Useldinger, along with teammate Dan Enns, won the International 500 snowmobile race — a grueling one-day event that allows up to three drivers–in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., in 1981. In 1978, Useldinger was leading the Winnipeg to St. Paul I-500 by eight minutes when a poorly marked sign resulted in a 30-minute penalty for him and more than 50 other drivers. In the second half of his career, he made the transition to oval races and a circuit that would take him from Beausejour, Man., northeast of Winnipeg, to races as far away as Quebec, Maine and New York before moving west through Wisconsin and back to Beausejour, where the season ended.
Useldinger’s racing career also included its share of close calls and brushes with disaster.
The scariest, he says, occurred in December 1990 during an oval race in Brainerd, Minn., where a collision resulted in a domino-like crash that threw Useldinger from his sled, and the studs from the spinning track of the machine behind him tore through his clothes.
Think of spinning knife blades, and you’ll get the idea.
The crash resulted in Useldinger missing half of that season’s racing circuit, although he was back in action less than a month later for a race in Grand Forks.
“I really hurt my knees and had to get them working again, and I had 120 stitches in my butt,” Useldinger recalls. “I guess that was one of the scariest times I’ve ever been in because I couldn’t move my body… There wasn’t a lot of snow, so we landed on ice and dirt. I was going about 70 going into a corner.”
“I was sliced wide open. It ripped my leathers right down to my knees.”
A year after winning the Formula III championship in Eagle River, Wis., Useldinger’s quest to repeat in 1993 went up in flames when his sled caught fire after a wire on the tachometer shorted out.
He was leading the race at the time.
“I had a half-lap lead and had to bail,” Useldinger recalls. “The flames were coming right out the hood. I figured I better not try to ride five more laps” to finish the race.
“It would have kept my hands warm, though,” he adds with a laugh.
During last year’s East Grand Forks vintage sled show, Useldinger had a surprise reunion with the 1973 Polaris TX he once raced. He hadn’t seen the sled since a collector from Becker, Minn., picked up the snowmobile several years earlier outside a grain bin on the Useldinger farm near East Grand Forks.
Merlyn Werner, one of the organizers of the East Grand Forks show, said they’d been trying to get the sled to the local show for a couple of years as a surprise for Useldinger. The snowmobile, which has been restored to race condition, has been to several vintage shows across the region, Werner says.
“It’s been seeing the light of day,” he said.
Useldinger also is being honored at this year’s vintage sled show as the star of a custom-made guitar, which will be sold as a fundraiser. The guitar features his photo and logos of the snowmobile brands he raced.
Organizers also hope to get other well-known racers from the area to stop by and sign autographs during the show, Werner said.
“It’s turned out to be a real good fundraiser,” he said.
His racing days behind him, Useldinger works as a Realtor and farms in the summer. He says he clearly remembers the day he decided to retire from racing.
He was sitting at the starting line before a race in Antigo, Wis.
“It was windy and cold, and I was sweating, and I was freezing, and I just said to myself, ‘this is it,'” he recalls. “I didn’t tell anybody. I was just sitting there with my helmet on, and that was it.”
He missed it, at first, he says, but that didn’t last long.
“My hands got so bad from freezing them too much,” Useldinger said. “I couldn’t handle the cold.”
Less than four years later, he was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame.
“It was kind of a surprise,” he said. “Usually, you’re done for quite a few years before you get nominated, but I felt like that was the icing on the cake.”
For more information on the Anna Kozel Vintage Sled Show, check out the website at akvintagesledshow.com.