Burning Man for Speed Freaks

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Burning Man for Speed Freaks

One of the best known residents in the state of alaska is a heavy-equipment salesman from Fairbanks with a slight lisp and photo-gray glasses named Howie Thies. Everyone seems to know Howie because what Howie likes to do even more than sell D-9 Caterpillars is to create community spectacles. He's a sort of Barnum of the taiga: Golf tournaments. Basketball tournaments. The annual release of 6,000 rubber ducks into the Chena River through downtown. His favorite spectacle, however, which is also his largest, takes place each April three hours south of town in the unpeopled Hoodoo Mountains of the Alaska Range. Reduced to its elements, it involves one skier or boarder, one snowmobile, two mountains, interstate speeds, and a tapeworm appetite for self-abuse-and it all starts atop a peak known as The Tit. It is the Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic. It is the most unusual ski race in the world.

Since Howie coinvented it on a bar stool 17 years ago, Arctic Man has continually grown in popularity from an inaugural 300 (both competitors and fans) to almost 13,000, and the total purse regularly pushes $55,000. The faithful like to say that for three days each year, a spot of permafrost in the wilderness becomes the fourth largest city in Alaska. Sometimes, these residents cause avalanches with their sleds or drive into cracks in glaciers and disappear. At night they sit before a thousand campfires and grill wild animals and drink heroic quantities of Hamm's, oblivious to the mercury's freefall, until after the Northern Lights retire. It's Alaska's largest and oddest tailgate party, set to the flatulent soundtrack of the two-stroke engine. At this tailgate, however, nobody worries about running out of ice.

Two days before the race, i tag along with Howie and his assistant, Mike Leary-natch, all of us on snowmachines-to put the finishing touches on the course and watch the racers practice. Up on The Tit, a skier pushes past the starting wand, balls into an eggshell crouch, and, without the benefit of poles, plunges 1,700 feet to the base of a small canyon. There, in perfect sync, a snowmachine pulls alongside dragging something like a modified water-ski tow rope. The racer grabs. His teammate pinches the throttle. The sled makes an angry sound. All three bolt 1,200 feet up a second hill, first through the rocks and serpentine twists of the canyon and then over the hill's flat top called, appropriately enough, First Aid. The record speed that a snowmachine has dragged a skier atop First Aid is 88.3 miles an hour (clocked by an Anchorage Chevy dealer with a radar gun). At the far end, the sled peels off to the right, the hill drops away, and the skier tucks 1,200 feet down to the finish line.

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"There's not a lot of technique," Howie is telling me. "Just tuck and go fast." At the hookup, where the towers meet the towed, racers wait for their next turn wearing 240-centimeter speed skis, clamshell helmets, boot farings to reduce drag, and rubber suits that fit like grape skins.

Darren Powell, an Aussie, chin stubbled with red hair and a pirate's gold hoop in one ear, pulls on a Marlboro and squints at the competition. "There's some real goodies here," he says. Darren is the fastest snowboarder on earth. I know this because his world record-201.907 kilometers per hour-is stenciled on his board, which is seven feet long. He invites me to drop by his RV and thumbs towards his partner, Cliff Terwilliger, a sought-after driver. "We got a shitload of moose-that Cliff killed himself."

To understand arctic man, you must first understand a few things about Alaska. It is a state of 571,000 square miles and just 621,000 people, about half of whom live in or around Anchorage. The sheer splay of the landscape, its man-killing topography and weather, and the lack of proximate human aid have bred into the people a famed independence and an equally well-known oddness, but also a greater comfort living in extremis. Such aifestyle frequently incorporates snowmachines. (Alaskans never, ever call them snowmobiles.) And sometimes the difference between a good time and a cold death is a strong thumb on the throttle.

The domination of the machine is total at Arctic Man-it would be wrong to think that skiers are held in highest esteem. Mostly, they are a curiosity to be benignly tolerated by the legions of snowmachiners here. Even the official rules are largely mum on the skier's role. Instead, the rule book spends most of its several pages addressing what cannot be done to a snowmachine, a list that includes blueprinting, deburring, port matching, pressure charging, shortening spindles, grinding carbide angles to less than 60 degrees, clutch machining to accommodate helixes, adding cleats, or lubricating the slide rail. "Sprockets," however, "may be trued round." After the competition, while the victorious humans drink champagne, their sleds are randomly checked for adulteration, as a sprinter who wins the gold medal is handed a Dixie cup to fill.

Sure, winning here requires an outsized haleness, a masochist's tolerance for pain. The helmet of 1994 champion Brian Saupe, a former extreme skier, declares, "It takes a big man to cry, but it takes an Arctic Man to laugh at that man." Racers must crouch down through a course that's five and a half miles long, more than twice as far as a conventional downhill course, for at least four and a half minutes. Their thighs fill with lactic acid that burns like poison. They are blasted by a hurricane of ice chunks from the churning snowmachine. When a skier falls at a velocity surpassing the national speed limit, seven or eight cartwheels are not uncommon. Some cross the finish line with a 40-mile-per-hour quad-failing crumple, without any final, speed-scrubbing flourish of a turn.

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But for all this, the race itself is extremely incidental. Alaska has no Super Bowl, no Nascar event, no college football rivalry as an excuse for a party. Arctic Man is all of these in one-and the season's last chance to drive powerful machines fast across big mountains before the April snowpack melts. It has been called spring break for slednecks. It is a slice of the Alaskan zeitgeist, a cultural happening. "This," a motorhead named Mike Hayes tells me, "is the Woodstock of snowmachining."

For 360 days a year, the place that becomes Arctic Man is a deserted 300-acre gravel pad-demarcated by a Richardson Highway odometer reading-that was once a camp for Trans Alaska Pipeline construction crews. It's nearly empty when photographer Chris Figenshau and I arrive, but we're soon followed by a mastodon herd of RVs that roll in and circle like pioneers in covered wagons. They have names like Chieftain, Warrior, Brave, Apache, Cadet, Squirer, and Commander. I see Sunsets, Sunrises, Sun Lines, Sundancers, Sun Sports, Sun Flyers, and Suncrests. The nicest versions expand when a button is pushed. In Fairbanks, Chris and I have rented a 12-year-old Jamboree. Our RV does not expand. It is cream-colored on the outside and has brown cabinets, brown carpet, nougat upholstery. It's a massive rolling Milky Way. Howie and his family sleep in an RV that he has converted from a mobile mammogram clinic. It has pink and mauve racing stripes.

There is a certain pride in excess in almost everything here. It's as if someone has dared them to see how much of home they can transplant to the wild. Every courtyard has requisite barbeque grills, lawn chairs, cases of beer. Someone has laid out a green patch of plastic grass. For several years, one attendee has brought a cement mixer to stir pancake batter in the morning and margaritas in the afternoon. Next to us, a compound of 18 men has dragged in a pantry trailer filled with 20 dozen eggs, 45 pounds of ribs, several kegs of beer, a case each of tequila and vodka, and a gas-powered margarita blender attached to a squeeze throttle on a BMX handlebar that reads, "Most Horsepower in its Class." "It's always nice," says Ted Couture, who's wearing a chef's toque and white jacket, "to have a few things the nextguy don't have." The speakers atop the RV blare Whitesnake. Someone hands me a plate.

Another group's pickup truck arrives, towing a wood-fired hot tub that's soon splashing with pretty young girls in bikinis. Men stop to watch, but the water is so hot and the night so cold all they can see is steam.

At the edge of the rv neighborhood springs the impromptu downtown: a merchandise tent, a medical tent, a tent housing a radio station, and a beer tent that opens at 10 a.m. The beer tent is large enough for a decent game of touch football. Behind it is a smaller tent that's used for a temporary jail by the Alaska State Troopers to house people who drink and sled.

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After the beer tent, the most popular tent is the merchandise tent. For sale: fur pelts and knockoff Oakley sunglasses and piles of Arctic Man clothing, including a jacket for $120 featuring a skier tracing his way down the front of a naked woman-which Howie says the National Organization for Women has tried to stop him from selling. For $25, I see a matching black bra and panties with Arctic Man tachometers over the nipples, like pasties. In the parking lot, a bearded man sells turkey legs out of a red trailer. People walk around the tent holding the steaming drumsticks like Neanderthals, wearing mullets or goatees or prospector mustaches that curl like banisters at the ends.

At all times the sound is incredible. When a town of snowmachines starts its engines on an unshattered wilderness morning, it sounds like a thousand sheets of burlap tearing. During the day as the slednecks write glyphs on the distant hillsides with their machines, the noise is a distant argument of chainsaws. At night, several thousand returning two-stroke engines are joined by the grumble of RVs, Honda generators, pickups, ATVs, and motorbikes. The whole thing grows into a coughing, buzzing, braap-braaaap-ing symphony of internal combustion that's without caesura even at night. A reporter for the Anchorage Daily News once wrote that Arctic Man is like four days on the infield of the Indy 500-except that all of the fans are driving Formula One racecars. The noise becomes white, almost soothing. I learn to miss it.

On race morning, the sky is the color of old jeans, a pale Arctic blue. A Blackhawk, here to fly the dead and injured to Fairbanks, hammers over camp, shakes the RV nation, and settles to earth. The pilot stands in the chopper's hot exhaust, rubbing his hands. A sign in the merchandise tent informs shoppers that the Arctic Man panties have sold out. It says, We will take orders. Spectators begin to motor up to the finish line, one group dragging a couch with cushions the color of old lettuce that they have taken from the town dump in North Pole. Later, the sofa will appear atop a bonfire.

The first male skier on the course is Brian Saupe, with his driver, Steve Spence. Atop First Aid, Saupe is moving fast and clean behind Spence's Polaris, as much as three seconds ahead of the eventual winners. At the release, something goes very wrong. Here, the best racers swing wide like water skiers outside the wake-to get the most pull-and slingshot past their snow-machines, letting go at the last possible moment and carrying their speed as the course sweeps right and descends to the finish. But Saupe is too far left as he leaves First Aid. He flies off course and lands in a pile of frozen avalanche rubble. He steers back to the groomed course but is now leaning so far back that the toepiece of his ski binding rips off the ski. Three hundred yards from the finish, Saupe is a ragdoll shot from a howitzer.

[""]

Howie, in his race director's jacket, watches from the finish line. "Hey," he says, "I think we've got a broken back or somethin'." Saupe is brought down in a rescue sled. A paramedic cuts off his speed suit. His backin its Class." "It's always nice," says Ted Couture, who's wearing a chef's toque and white jacket, "to have a few things the nextguy don't have." The speakers atop the RV blare Whitesnake. Someone hands me a plate.

Another group's pickup truck arrives, towing a wood-fired hot tub that's soon splashing with pretty young girls in bikinis. Men stop to watch, but the water is so hot and the night so cold all they can see is steam.

At the edge of the rv neighborhood springs the impromptu downtown: a merchandise tent, a medical tent, a tent housing a radio station, and a beer tent that opens at 10 a.m. The beer tent is large enough for a decent game of touch football. Behind it is a smaller tent that's used for a temporary jail by the Alaska State Troopers to house people who drink and sled.

[""]

After the beer tent, the most popular tent is the merchandise tent. For sale: fur pelts and knockoff Oakley sunglasses and piles of Arctic Man clothing, including a jacket for $120 featuring a skier tracing his way down the front of a naked woman-which Howie says the National Organization for Women has tried to stop him from selling. For $25, I see a matching black bra and panties with Arctic Man tachometers over the nipples, like pasties. In the parking lot, a bearded man sells turkey legs out of a red trailer. People walk around the tent holding the steaming drumsticks like Neanderthals, wearing mullets or goatees or prospector mustaches that curl like banisters at the ends.

At all times the sound is incredible. When a town of snowmachines starts its engines on an unshattered wilderness morning, it sounds like a thousand sheets of burlap tearing. During the day as the slednecks write glyphs on the distant hillsides with their machines, the noise is a distant argument of chainsaws. At night, several thousand returning two-stroke engines are joined by the grumble of RVs, Honda generators, pickups, ATVs, and motorbikes. The whole thing grows into a coughing, buzzing, braap-braaaap-ing symphony of internal combustion that's without caesura even at night. A reporter for the Anchorage Daily News once wrote that Arctic Man is like four days on the infield of the Indy 500-except that all of the fans are driving Formula One racecars. The noise becomes white, almost soothing. I learn to miss it.

On race morning, the sky is the color of old jeans, a pale Arctic blue. A Blackhawk, here to fly the dead and injured to Fairbanks, hammers over camp, shakes the RV nation, and settles to earth. The pilot stands in the chopper's hot exhaust, rubbing his hands. A sign in the merchandise tent informs shoppers that the Arctic Man panties have sold out. It says, We will take orders. Spectators begin to motor up to the finish line, one group dragging a couch with cushions the color of old lettuce that they have taken from the town dump in North Pole. Later, the sofa will appear atop a bonfire.

The first male skier on the course is Brian Saupe, with his driver, Steve Spence. Atop First Aid, Saupe is moving fast and clean behind Spence's Polaris, as much as three seconds ahead of the eventual winners. At the release, something goes very wrong. Here, the best racers swing wide like water skiers outside the wake-to get the most pull-and slingshot past their snow-machines, letting go at the last possible moment and carrying their speed as the course sweeps right and descends to the finish. But Saupe is too far left as he leaves First Aid. He flies off course and lands in a pile of frozen avalanche rubble. He steers back to the groomed course but is now leaning so far back that the toepiece of his ski binding rips off the ski. Three hundred yards from the finish, Saupe is a ragdoll shot from a howitzer.

[""]

Howie, in his race director's jacket, watches from the finish line. "Hey," he says, "I think we've got a broken back or somethin'." Saupe is brought down in a rescue sled. A paramedic cuts off his speed suit. His back is purpling.

Accidents and injuries are not uncommon among racers-or attendees. Deaths are not unheard of. In 1997, an Anchorage man was motoring up a narrow ridge when a cornice beneath him broke and he fell 1,300 feet. Two years ago, a man from Fairbanks who had been drinking throttled his sled into the back of a trailer in camp. The next morning, another Fairbanks man swam out of an avalanche, assured troopers he would be more careful, and then died in another slide a few hours later.

The racers continue to come down in pieces. Howie alternates between hugging the winners of the female division and directing the mounting needs for triage. Seven of the first 10 men crash and do not finish the race. Howie puts his arms around a tall, blonde boy who cannot stand upright and helps him into a tent. A speed ski careens down the course and into the crowd. Its owner is nowhere in sight. Darren Powell, the Aussie, hits a roller on First Aid and cartwheels eight times. A Blackhawk arrives to take away Saupe. In Fairbanks, doctors will tell him he has re-aggravated an ankle injury and perhaps fractured two vertebrae between his shoulder blades. They will say "perhaps" because the new cracks are hard to see among all of the old ones.

At day's end, about an average number of teams finish the race-which is 18 of 55. The top three men's teams in the skiing division are separated by 14 hundredths of a second. Sacha Gros, a member of the U.S. Ski Team, wins in 4:37:36 with driver Ty Johnson and collects $26,000. The slowest pair to actually finish pulls in at 9:28.69.

By the time the last snowboarders come down the course to the finish line, the crowd that had earlier been just a few dozen has swelled to several hundred, maybe more. People in leather suits and puffy jackets colored like checkered flags straddle their sleds in the sunshine. They drink Old Milwaukee and eat "smokey dogs" sold by a North Pole snowmachine club that has dragged a barbecue to the finish. People open up their cowlings to discuss the innards of their sleds. Each time a racer crosses the finish line they look up from their beers and their carburetors. Their applause is polite.

"If this thing had, like, a beer holder, I would buy it," says a girl in pigtails with a giant tattoo of the Bacardi bat on her neck as she climbs astride a $9,000 Polaris that is as big as a bull. The race has already been forgotten. I see a drunk, toothless grandmother astride a midnight blue Yamaha 700 SRX Triple wearing a sweatshirt that says, I am the queen bitch of the fucking universe! I see a man dressed in a Bigfoot costume and another drive past with an inflatable sheep. Everyone is watching snowmachiners catch air off the canyon walls. As I turn to leave, a sled that's bucked its rider skitters into the crowd. People jump out of the way, trying not to spill their beers.

After midnight, the Northern Lights appear in braids of green that unribbon and shudder and tie themselves again. We bundle up and tumble from the RV to watch. Chris's friend, a native Alaskan who's caught up with us, says his people believe the lights are the souls of the dead adrift over the earth. Sometimes, I've read, you can hear them.Instead, I catch strains of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" playing in the beer tent, the cough of a thousand generators, and the braap-braaap of a snowmachine driving over gravel, throwing sparks. Somewhere in the night, a cheer goes up."I think," says Chris, "the wet T-shirt contest has started."

back is purpling.

Accidents and injuries are not uncommon among racers-or attendees. Deaths are not unheard of. In 1997, an Anchorage man was motoring up a narrow ridge when a cornice beneath him broke and he fell 1,300 feet. Two years ago, a man from Fairbanks who had been drinking throttled his sled into the back of a trailer in camp. The next morning, another Fairbanks man swam out of an avalanche, assured troopers he would be more carefful, and then died in another slide a few hours later.

The racers continue to come down in pieces. Howie alternates between hugging the winners of the female division and directing the mounting needs for triage. Seven of the first 10 men crash and do not finish the race. Howie puts his arms around a tall, blonde boy who cannot stand upright and helps him into a tent. A speed ski careens down the course and into the crowd. Its owner is nowhere in sight. Darren Powell, the Aussie, hits a roller on First Aid and cartwheels eight times. A Blackhawk arrives to take away Saupe. In Fairbanks, doctors will tell him he has re-aggravated an ankle injury and perhaps fractured two vertebrae between his shoulder blades. They will say "perhaps" because the new cracks are hard to see among all of the old ones.

At day's end, about an average number of teams finish the race-which is 18 of 55. The top three men's teams in the skiing division are separated by 14 hundredths of a second. Sacha Gros, a member of the U.S. Ski Team, wins in 4:37:36 with driver Ty Johnson and collects $26,000. The slowest pair to actually finish pulls in at 9:28.69.

By the time the last snowboarders come down the course to the finish line, the crowd that had earlier been just a few dozen has swelled to several hundred, maybe more. People in leather suits and puffy jackets colored like checkered flags straddle their sleds in the sunshine. They drink Old Milwaukee and eat "smokey dogs" sold by a North Pole snowmachine club that has dragged a barbecue to the finish. People open up their cowlings to discuss the innards of their sleds. Each time a racer crosses the finish line they look up from their beers and their carburetors. Their applause is polite.

"If this thing had, like, a beer holder, I would buy it," says a girl in pigtails with a giant tattoo of the Bacardi bat on her neck as she climbs astride a $9,000 Polaris that is as big as a bull. The race has already been forgotten. I see a drunk, toothless grandmother astride a midnight blue Yamaha 700 SRX Triple wearing a sweatshirt that says, I am the queen bitch of the fucking universe! I see a man dressed in a Bigfoot costume and another drive past with an inflatable sheep. Everyone is watching snowmachiners catch air off the canyon walls. As I turn to leave, a sled that's bucked its rider skitters into the crowd. People jump out of the way, trying not to spill their beers.

After midnight, the Northern Lights appear in braids of green that unribbon and shudder and tie themselves again. We bundle up and tumble from the RV to watch. Chris's friend, a native Alaskan who's caught up with us, says his people believe the lights are the souls of the dead adrift over the earth. Sometimes, I've read, you can hear them.Instead, I catch strains of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" playing in the beer tent, the cough of a thousand generators, and the braap-braaap of a snowmachine driving over gravel, throwing sparks. Somewhere in the night, a cheer goes up."I think," says Chris, "the wet T-shirt contest has started."

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