June 27, 2004
St. Joe State Park
Park Hills, Missouri
6th of 13 in A Sportsman
For a couple of reasons, most notably a broken motorcycle, I was
unable to compete in either of the two St. Joe State Park hare
scramble races last year. The 2004 March of Dimes race, held at its
familiar spot in the non-public section of the park, was my first hare
scramble at St. Joe in over a year. The annual charity event often
welcomes in the dog days of summer, but on this day the skies were
sunny and the temperature moderate. I arrived in time to witness tiny
motorcycles and ATV’s flying around the youth course, most of which
circled in and out of the pit area on a semi-groomed sand track.

After registering under the shade of a tent large enough to hold a
wedding reception, I moved my truck next to the Sellers big rig just in
time to see young Michael retire from the pee wee race with what
appeared to be a seized engine. As Matt would discover the following
week, the little KTM 65’s bottom end had just a smidgen of play,
which in Stichnoth terminology equates to roughly a quarter-inch.

Matt and I suited up for a practice run through about 1/3 of the
course, which is all the club allows for the March of Dimes race.
These trails surrounded the staging area and were relatively tight.
Where the woods began was a moderately steep hill and a young guy
on a Honda CR80 stuck at the top. He politely asked for help, so I
obliged by coasting the little motorcycle backwards down the slope
and giving it a run up the hill. Surprisingly, the little bike had just
enough power to climb to the top with me aboard, thanks to a handful
of throttle and a slipping clutch.

The starting line was behind, rather than in front of, the staging area
this year. The inside of the A Sportsman line was on the uphill slope
of a sand flat, so I placed myself on the far right side where the
terrain was flatter. Ahead of us was a high sand hill where about a
hundred spectators were perched to view the start. The course would
take us just to the left of the sand hill and through a series of turns in
the open, then into the woods where the real racing would take place.
When the board dropped, my KX250 fired on the first kick and I held
the throttle wide open in second gear. To my amazement I actually
made it to the first corner near the front of the pack and entered the
woods in 4th place. Even in the singletrack the course was
moderately dusty, which was a sure sign the powdery sand areas
would be thick with dust. In this first section, the same trails from
practice, I passed one guy and got passed by another. When we
exited the woods near the staging area, I could see a huge cloud of
dust as we approached a fast, straight run through the sand. The
leaders had clean air through this section but I backed off and let the
dust clear out in time to see a sharp left-hand turn. More sand
whoops followed, then a long, fast pass across an old earthen dam. I
don’t often hold the throttle wide open for 15 seconds at a time, but
across the dam those seconds seemed like minutes. Another dust
cloud appeared at the end of the dam, where we braked hard for
another sharp left-hander.

A short, choppy pass through some rocky sand took us back into the
woods. I held my own through some fun trails and came upon #35
Kevin Ruckdeschell lying on the ground next to a power line tower.
He was clearly shaken as several of us asked if he was alright (he
was…a few minutes later). As I looked behind for one last glance at
Kevin, I saw #359 Slade Morlang on my tail. He passed me just before
we crossed a set of railroad tracks. A couple miles after that we came
out into the open and blasted through some sand whoops near the
end of the course. Gary Mittleberg got around me there and a hard-
charging #266 John McDaniel passed me just before the scoring
trailer.

Most hare scrambles courses contain their share of memorable
obstacles, but because of its past life as a lead mine St. Joe State
Park has more than most. The familiar concrete structure was there
as always, except this time we passed through two levels. I did my
best impersonation of a Supermotard’er on the concrete surfaces,
which is to say I over-clutched, over-spun, and generally overworked
myself trying to go fast through this short section. Whatever that old
structure was in its prime, it sure made for fun on a dirt bike. The
course had other unusual features, including a small bridge that we
passed under at the point of a right turn (go wide and say hello to Mr.
Concrete Wall).

On the second lap I caught up to #831 Ron Ribolzi in the A-
Intermediate class and followed his Honda for most of the lap. His
pace was about the same as mine, but I was content to let him lead.
The few opportunities to pass came and went quickly, but together we
both challenged each other in the same way Kevin Ruckdeschell and
I often do. We both finished the lap without incident, and I held my
6th position.

Lapped traffic and a broken handguard spoiler became troublesome
on the third lap. Passing in the dusty sand was a risky proposition
and the woods presented challenges in getting around slower riders.
In the first half of the lap I noticed my plastic handguard spoiler
flopping around the metal guard. Why I had the spoilers on my bike
in the first place was somewhat of a mystery, considering the only
other time I’d ever had them on a bike was at my first enduro in 1995.
In anticipation of a cold November morning in Indiana, I cut up a
gallon jug of Tide laundry soap and made a set of orange, wind-
blocking spoilers for my Suzuki RMX250. The black Moose spoilers on
my KX250 worked just fine during the previous race, but at St. Joe the
left one slid to the outer edge of the handlebar and whacked my wrist
with every moderate bump. I caught up to #22 Ralph Gerding at the
earthen dam and tried to get around him, but the KX didn’t have
enough speed to make the pass. Mercifully, the spoiler fell off after I
passed Ralph a couple minutes later in the woods.

Near the end of the third lap I whacked my right knee on a rock
planted firmly at the top edge of a deep rut. All I can say is, knee
guards are worth their weight in plastic. Without the guard, I might not
be walking. My pace slowed just enough for #38 Todd Corwin to
catch up to me early in the 4th and final lap. He put some distance on
me and finished more than a minute ahead. I held my 6th position
through most of the race and finished in that spot. Gary Mittleberg
took another A Sportsman class win, followed by #503 Steve Dean
and John McDaniel. The overall win went once again to Steve Leivan,
who appears unstoppable yet again this year.

After the race we were shocked and saddened by the news that #107
Jerry Hemann had been fatally injured in a crash about halfway into
the race. Jerry was a fast, experienced, and longtime MHSC racer
who will be missed by all who knew him. Godspeed, Jerry.


July 25, 2004
Florence, Missouri
2nd of 4 in A Sportsman
Karma has a way of catching up to me at Florence, that devilish place
where tolls are collected for past sins. After last year’s torturous hare
scramble, I felt I had prepaid at least one full year of impending
indiscretions, but I was wrong. The last of my Karma credits were
burned two weeks prior at the North American all-season paradise
known as Whistler, B.C., future host of Winter Olympic ski events in
2010, mountain biking Mecca and home to a mass of talent rivaling
that of the Las Vegas Supercross. Outside the boundaries of the
Whistler village, at a townie bar where most vacationers wouldn't dare
set foot, my two companions and I discovered that dancers at the
Tuesday night ballet wouldn't accept tips while performing (not even
U.S. dollars). Words of advice: if you grow impatient dangling bills in
front of a lady who’s not acknowledging you or your cash, just drop
the money on the stage and walk away. Trust me.

Payback for aggravating Whistler’s local dance troupe came on the
Florence practice lap. Matt and I made our way among the first
groups of riders to hit the trail and arrived a mile later at the first
crossing of the big creek that runs through the property. Most
weekends in July the creek is relatively dry, but three inches of rain
had raised the water level. About 50 feet across and two feet deep, I
plowed through the strong current and into the mouth of a smaller
creek. At that point were two sets of arrows, a blue set to the left that
took us out of the water and a red set to the right that continued
upstream in the smaller creek. I asked a guy on an ATV which color
arrows we should follow and he replied, “Both.” So I took off to the
right while the guys behind me waited for a less ambiguous response.
The next few miles were continuous jumping back and forth between
the pair of muddy ruts left by the ATV’s. Inside the woods I was by
myself, couldn't move fast enough to get out of first gear, and wasn’t
even sure I was on the correct trail. I stopped a guy on an ATV and
asked if I was on the right trail, and told me I was doing fine.

A few miles later the trail returned to the point of ambiguous arrows.
After 100 yards of so of riding parallel to the big creek, arrows pointed
to an opening in some tall weeds near the water. All I could see
through the weeds was an unclimbable bank about 100 feet away
and nothing but rushing water in between. With no arrows or
evidence of where I was supposed to go and no idea how deep the
water was, I waited around a few minutes until #18 Gary Wolf and
#250 Adam Ashcroft caught up. A willing test subject, Gary charged
into the water with Adam and I following close behind. The intended
route was to ride 30 yards downstream in a couple feet of water to a
large gravel island, then a couple hundred yards down the gravel
island to another crossing that would take us to the other side of the
creek.

Crossing from the island to the mainland was at a place where the
creek channel was much narrower, but the current was faster and it
was impossible to gauge the water’s depth. Again, Gary went in first.
The front end of his KTM immediately dived under the water,
resurfaced, and then the back end followed suit. Adam and I watched
this first in amazement (“He made it!”), then fear (“Oh crap, we gotta
do that, too!”). A course official suggested that we enter the creek a
few feet downstream from Gary’s point of crossing, where he assured
me it was shallower. I gave it a try.

It wasn't shallower.

The KX dived in the water and went about 5 feet before the engine
bogged abruptly and died. There I sat in the middle of the creek,
water up to my seat, engine full of water. My day appeared to be over.
I pushed the bike out of the water to the other side of the creek,
spewing expletives that would have made John Kerry’s wife look
tame, and sat for a minute to contemplate what just happened. By
this time several riders had arrived and the course officials sent them
downstream to another crossing, where it appeared they were all
successful in navigating the creek. Matt saw my situation and came
back several minutes later with a plug wrench. We turned the bike
upside down and pumped the water from the engine. After 15
minutes of kicking over the engine, it finally started. I’m not a big fan
of riding, much less racing, a bike that’s been submerged in water
until it’s properly serviced, but I hadn't come to Florence to be a
spectator. I fueled the bike, ate a sandwich, and headed for the
starting line.

Only three other guys were lined up next to me in the A Sportsman
class, but the four of us were each within the top 5 in series points in
our class (the fifth guy, Todd Corwin, was working the race). Gary
Mittleberg and Slade Morlang, winners of all but one race thus far in
the ’04 series, joined Kevin Ruckdeschell and I on our usual third row
starting position. Kevin jumped out to his customary holeshot while
Gary and I followed behind. With mud flying, the tear-off I’d taped
over my goggles had to be pulled about 20 seconds after the start.

The four of us switched positions several times in the first couple of
miles. So much swapping took place that I honestly can’t remember
who passed me when or where I passed the other guys, but it’s likely
that all four of us led at various times during the first lap. About
halfway into the lap I was in the third spot and caught up to Gary,
who seemed to be cruising a little in the mud but was showing me
some excellent lines. After a hard charge up a snotty hill, I tried for a
pass in an open field and edged by Gary as he cheered me on.
Screaming in my head were these words:
Holy crap, I just passed
Gary Mittleberg
!  Further along the trail I saw Slade picking up his
bike in a rutted section and was struggling to get back into a rhythm. I
got around him and took over the lead. More words passing through
my head:
Holy crap, I just passed Slade Morlang!  Although Gary and
Slade were right behind me when we passed under the scoring
trailer, I could now boast that I’d finally led a lap in the A Sportsman
class.

My lead didn't last much longer. Gary and Slade both got around me
on the second lap and I didn't see either one for the rest of the race.
The first crossing of the wide creek had been re-routed away from a
steep embankment we had to climb on the first lap. Instead, we made
a straight line into the mouth of the smaller creek that emptied into
the wide creek. The water at this junction was about as deep as I’m
comfortable riding, but the KX plowed through. I headed upstream,
trying to stay as close to land as possible and avoid any watery
surprises. Just before we exited this narrow creek, the established
line was far to the left side where a foot-wide patch of soil was barely
ridable next to small trees. This narrow line was the difference
between making it through the section and drowning the bike in seat-
deep water. As I pointed my front wheel toward the main rut, a guy
sitting idle in three feet of water was evidence of how important mere
inches would be in determining who finished and who didn't. From
then on, that narrow patch of soil next to the trees would be well-used.

The rest of the second lap was relatively uneventful, other than a
small bottleneck in a narrow creek that took us back near the staging
area. A guy in the Junior class got hung up in a rut and could only
watch as the big bikes used his rear wheel for traction. I was still
close enough to Gary to see him get by the guy cleanly and I decided
that the only way I’d keep Gary in sight was to find another way
around instead of waiting in line for others to go through. Plus, the kid
kept trying to get his bike out of the way but nobody was giving him
the time to do it. With each bike that ran over his wheel, he’d throw up
his hands in frustration and I felt sorry for him. My alternate line would
have worked if I hadn't got hung up on a rock ledge. Slade apparently
passed me there while I struggled with the ledge but I didn't see him.

On the third lap, more alternate lines were forming around many of
the tough spots. The big creek crossing was once again re-routed
and dead bikes littered the area where I’d seen the guy drown his
bike on the previous lap. I could only imagine the frustration of those
guys seeing that had they ridden 12 inches farther to the left, they
would have passed through with ease. Midway through the lap I came
upon Kevin with his bike on its side, trying to conceal the rock he was
using to beat his bunched-up chain back into place. He said I was
about a minute behind Slade. Again, I finished the lap in third place.

Lap four brought on more ruts and lots of guys struggling up hills. At
the big creek crossing, several course workers were pointing out the
best lines. I went where I was pointed but passed through water deep
enough to plug up the carburetor vent hoses. The engine stalled right
next to #21 Gary Wetherell on his KX250. Todd Corwin helped me
move out of the way and commented that most of the KX’s had
stalled in the deep water. Gary was still trying to restart when I fired
up my engine on the first kick. Just after that section was the tallest
hill in the course, which was fairly easy to climb on previous attempts
because the approach was long and straight. This time, however, a
bike was coasting down the hill for another attempt. I blazed my own
alternate path up the hill and made it slowly to the top, but the
marked trail wasn't in sight. Most hare scrambles require riders to stay
within 20 feet of the arrows, but sometimes Stichnoth Modified Rules
of Racing must take effect. When conditions are brutal and wide
alternate paths must be taken, Stichnoth Rules dictate that as long as
I can
see points that are within 20 feet from the arrows, I’m good.
Whether or not this rule was broken, who knows, but at the top of the
hill I eventually found the trail.

Near the end of the lap I saw #12 Aaron Shaw, best mud rider in
Missouri, fly past me in an open field. My watch indicated that there
was an outside chance that my fourth lap would be my last, but only
the AA race was over when I checked into the scoring lane. Slade’s
#359 was still visible on the LED screen, so I figured I wasn't too far
behind him. Somehow lap five was one of my faster laps of the day,
and I unknowingly passed Slade to take over the second place spot.
Gary’s lead over me was cut in half on the final lap, but his four-
minute cushion going into lap five was more than enough to take the
win. Gary, Slade, and I each garnered some overall points, finishing
9th, 13th, and 12th, respectively. Aaron Shaw took the overall win,
with Steve Leivan a couple minutes behind.
Park Hills, Missouri
Florence, Missouri