Wednesday, March 19, 2014 | OUTDOORS
The original racer
First International 500 snowmobile winner recalls history
Greg Marsten | Staff writer
WOLF CREEK – One of snowmobiling’s legends made an appearance last Saturday, March 15, at the annual Wolf Creek Bar vintage snowmobile show and drag races.
Herb Howe, the winner of the first-ever Winnipeg to St. Paul International 500 Snowmobile Race, brought the original sled and some of the memories he still carries.
“Oh brother, it was cold that day,” Howe said, sitting beside the original 1966 Polaris Colt, lined with various show trophies and the giant trophy he received for that late January win in 1966.
Howe is nibbling on his lunch beside his little dog, Clyde, as he recalls the snowmobile race that was meant to mimic some of the original dogsled races that went back to the 1800s.
“Man it was cold! It was 45 below when we left Winnipeg, and 24 below when we got to St. Paul (three days later). It never once got above zero the whole time,” Howe said with a shiver.
Howe was part of a three-man team that had heard rumors of the race several months before it was even finalized, and he and fellow snowmobilers Jim Langley and Clark Dahlen, signed up - even before the St. Paul Winter Carnival organizers had finalized the plans.
“We had to be in Winnipeg the day before and all three of us had entered, but when we got there we realized we didn’t have anyone left to drive the truck home,” Howe said with a grin, noting that the pickup had no reverse gear and they had literally no spare parts for any of the three Polaris Colts. “Luckily, we found a guy from Polaris to drive the truck back, and eventually Clark’s sled broke down so then we had a driver!”
Howe had lots of memories to share of that pivotal race, which was technically 457 miles, in three stages, some of which were up to 170 miles long, with very little daylight to spare in the coldest part of January.
“There were no trails then. It was all ditches and roads, and we’d have to replace the rear springs every night after each leg, from bouncing across the driveway (approaches) and the edge of the road,” he said. “And it was a fine line between getting stuck in the deep snow in the ditches and wearing stuff out on the road. You’d sort of teeter, and we’d have to replace windshields from rolling over so much!”
Howe said one of the race’s 57 riders installed a wheel kit on the ski assembly of his sled, to stay out of the ditches, and try to make up time on the road.
“But he tipped over and broke his shoulder, so that night at the driver’s meeting, they said no more wheel kits, so it was all skis,” Howe said.
He led a great portion of the race south, but not by much, and then when he was near St. John’s University at Collegeville, outside St. Cloud, Minn., his engine began to seize up from a batch of bad gas.
“The Minnesota Highway Patrol was leading the way, pacing me as the leader, so we had a clear route, but the trooper didn’t know my motor had gone bad and he just kept going,” Howe said.
Howe passed a man who was a snowmobile fan and happened to be a local Evinrude marine dealer. The man lent him some outboard engine motor oil, which he mixed in, and then shot directly into the little 372 CC JLO engine through the spark plug sockets.
“It ran, barely, but it was enough to get to the (last stage) line at St. Cloud, which is where it died,” Howe recalled.
Howe lost his lead and fell behind by several places, and he recalled spending the entire night nursing the little Colt back to life, with a mixture of oils, fuels, sloshing the whole sled around and some mechanical wizardry.
“We finally got it running OK,” he said. “So we put it on the stand, tied up the throttle and let it run all night. By morning it was back in shape!”
His revived Colt had a spring in its step for the final leg, and as he ran the edge of the roadways, he eventually passed all of the riders who had taken advantage of his previous engine issues.
“I think I was the first-ever snowmobiler to ride the ditch of (Interstate) 694!” Howe joked, adding that he had a 23-minute lead by the time he neared the end in St. Paul.
“Then I ran out of gas right before the finish line! I ended up winning by just a few minutes.”
His finish time was 13 hours, 37 minutes and 54 seconds, which earned him a $500 cash prize, a huge trophy - that he still shows today - and a place in history.
Howe’s winning and ability to overcome adversity earned him a commendation letter from the original race director, John Geisler.
“The time, energy and effort you took was tremendous,” Geisler wrote. “You have made an idea an international event!”
Herb Howe would stay involved in the big race and its various incarnations for the better part of three decades, running in it for 10 years, but never winning again.
The fact that he stayed involved was not lost on his efforts the next year, where he almost lost it all.
“Yeah, that was a bad one,” he said.
Howe was seriously injured in the 1967 race after colliding with a car that turned directly in front of him, yet he still came back to race again, year after year. He eventually retired from racing, but stayed actively involved in other aspects of the race, eventually becoming race director.
But the fact that he is the first winner, the man who whose name is set as the original, is something he will always be known for and will follow him forever.
He speaks fondly of his friends and fellow racers, noting that Jim Langley, who was along with him for the first I-500 race, finished less than a half-hour behind him that day, coming in third.
“We really had a great time, but it was a real test,” Howe said as he gave Clyde the dog a bite from his lunch. “It was such a fun group and we made do with what we had. Compared to today’s sleds, well, it’s like night and day!”
He also noted that it wasn’t only the technology that was different, it was what they wore.
“For that first race, I pretty much had on a Sears and Roebuck work suit, with a thin little lining inside,” he said. “I didn’t get a real snowmobile suit until the next year, and then when I got injured in that (1967) accident, the doctors wanted to cut it open! I told ‘em ‘no way! Let me take it off first!’ They let me slowly, carefully take it off, but they weren’t too happy with me.”
Howe laughs a little as he recalls the look on the faces of the medical team that had to wait.
He shakes his head and takes a bite of his lunch. The last bite does not go unnoticed, as Clyde the dog jumps up on his elderly owner, asking for more lunch. Howe gives him a tussle and a piece of bread.
“It was a whole different world then,” he said. “But man. it was cold!”