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
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
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