HOUGHTON - The Mid-American Snowmobile Tournament of Expert Racers Circuit is headed back to Whealkate Bluff Saturday, and racers from all over the region want to be at the top of the heap at the top of the hill.
The Whealkate Bluff Winternationals begins at 8:30 a.m. in South Range as a select list of riders will challenge for a chance at "King of the Hill" titles in Pro Stock and Pro Mod classes and bids in the World Championships later this year in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
MASTERS president Skip Schulz believes this year's competition is shaping up to be the best in decades.
Matt Tingstad of Bessemer navigates around a gate during the 2008 snowmobile hillclimb at Copper Peak. This year’s event is at Whealkate Bluff in South Range and Tingstad is one of several contenders in the select field. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
"With the quality of drivers we have, this year there's going to be some classes where former King of the Hills that won't even place, much less qualify for Jackson, and that's going to be something that's going to be hard for these guys to swallow," he said.
The event is back in South Range after several years at Copper Peak north of Bessemer. Copper Peak is undergoing construction related to its ski flying hill, so MASTERS turned back to its roots. The event was originally run by the Range Snowmobile Club, but the bluff is now privately owned.
"The big difference between Whealkate and Copper Peak is that Copper Peak has more distance, it's steeper and longer, however, it doesn't have the snow that Whealkate has," Schulz said.
With the heavy snow on the hill, an emphasis will be put on good rear traction. Tighter gates will also put an increased importance on driver skill and maneuvering, as opposed to raw horsepower.
One former King of the Hill who is attempting to regain his spot atop the field is Wyler Miller of Pelkie. Miller fell four-tenths of a second short in the Pro Stock King of the Hill competition to Joe Van Kalker of Levering, Mich., ending a string of back-to-back King of the Hill crowns. He wants badly to get back to the top and is excited about the new venue.
"I've never been at Whealkate, and it's closer to home so more local people, so I hope we put on a show," Miller said.
Miller said he expects the new course to be narrower and have several challenges.
"It looks like there's two washouts at the top and right in the middle there's a hump, so if we have to go across that, it could be interesting."
Miller will have many rivals for those top places, including some drivers that qualified in their respective classes for last year's nationals, like Matt Tingstad of Bessemer and last year's Pro Mod King, Nick Gustafson of Roseau, Minn.
Also, previous King, Mike Fraki of Atlantic Mine is back in the field after winning titles in 1999 and 2000.
Drivers from four states make up the select field, but a healthy contingent of riders from Houghton, Baraga and Ontonagon counties will be looking to make a name for themselves.
Spectators are encouraged to arrive as early as possible, as parking is limited. Advance sales for $20 reserved parking passes will be at 6:30 tonight at the Range Snowmobile Clubhouse. Regular parking is $5 per vehicle and admission is $10 for everyone ages 7 and up. Concessions will be available.
Brandon Veale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.