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Snowmobile race from Winnipeg to Willmar 'gaining traction'

WILLMAR — The way things are going, Brian Nelson can’t back out.

The idea of a U.S. cross-country I-500 snowmobile race from Winnipeg to Willmar in mid-February 2015 just keeps “gaining traction,” in the words of the 1971 Willmar High School graduate.

The response has been “phenomenal,” said Nelson, owner/manager of the eight-stop USXC circuit that stopped in his hometown for a second straight year last weekend.

Inquiries have come from Europe, even Russia.

Wisconsin native and Minnesota State Mankato grad Cameron Koopman has been hired to coordinate the nearly 600-mile route.

In the past, one of the major hurdles facing a revival of this storied race was getting dozens of cities, counties, law enforcement agencies, snowmobile clubs and others — let alone two countries — moving in one direction.

Nelson estimates upwards of 300 entries aiming for the finish here on Feb. 15 next year.

The original I-500, which Nelson won in 1976 (on a John Deere) and again in ’78 (Arctic Cat), ran continuously from 1966 to 1980 and tied into the St. Paul Winter Carnival. So punishing was the trail on machine and driver, Nelson would finish just four of 11 attempts yet still is considered one of the premier racers of the era.

Several versions would follow, including the Jeep 500 from Thunder Bay to St. Paul. The newest incarnation, with a $10,000 first prize, has three 150-mile point-to-point ditch and river runs out of the Seven Clans Casino near Thief River Falls.

Nelson has said the Twin Cities have become an impractical option, so the 2015 race would involve a four-day trek from the Manitoba capital city to the county seat of Kandiyohi County.

This week, after three ice races, the circuit returns to the rugged land and mogul racing at the Oslo 100, north of East Grand Forks on the Red River.

This is the kind of ditch-and-field racing the majority of drivers prefer, Nelson said.

Still, Saturday’s Willmar Lakes Area 100 drew 179 entries. That’s about 40 fewer than the northern races get but considered OK considering most of the sleds are based in northern Minnesota. Willmar is the only stop south of Detroit Lakes.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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