X-Games qualifier golden for local racer

Phil Vallem fills in for Bobby Hankins, earns trip to Winter X-Games

When Phil Vallem went to Steamboat Springs Saturday, his plan was to help run the hillcross race that day. Twenty-four hours later, he was celebrating a qualification for the Winter X-Games in 2004.

"I've been a professional snocross rider for five years so I always dreamed of going to the X-Games in that event," said the senior at the University of Northern Colorado who graduates in a week. "But now that I'm going in hillcross I couldn't be happier and I couldn't ask for a better team to ride for."

Vallem came to watch Craig's Bobby Hankins attempt to qualify for his second consecutive X-Games in the regional qualifier, but when Hankins wasn't up for it he asked Vallem to fill in.

"I just wasn't into it," said Hankins, who was injured at the X-Games and re-injured himself a couple of weeks later. "So I looked to him and asked if he wanted to ride for us."

Hankins manages the Action Motor Sports store in Craig and, along with Action Motorsports in Steamboat Springs, they put together a sanctioned X-Games qualifier for the region over the weekend. With the cooperation of Ski Corp in Steamboat, it was the first hillcross in the mountain's history.

"The hill is just awesome for the event," Hankins said. "Everybody was happy with the track and I hope it's something we can do again."

The mountain wasn't the only one experiencing a hillcross for the first time. Vallem hadn't ever raced in the event either.

"The biggest difference is the power of the machines," he said. "With our stock engine on snocross it isn't as powerful and it takes some getting used to."

There was a qualifying final on both Saturday and Sunday. The winner of each final earned a trip to Aspen.

On Saturday Vallem was still learning the ins and outs of his

new event.

Chris Burandt, who rides out of a shop in Kremmling and finished fifth in the '03 X-Games, won Saturday's final.

Sunday was Vallem's day.

"Everything clicked for us on Sunday," he said. "You have to be a lot more focused in Hillcross because it's a lot shorter of a race and after a day of riding, I learned that."

As he crossed the finish line, Vallem looked up and saw Hankins, the person Vallem watched at the first X-Games he attended in '99.

"I saw Bob and he was all smiles and pumped," Vallem said. "The X-Games are the biggest show in snowmobiling and it's awesome that I get to ride there."

Hankins was glad to see his replacement get the win.

"It's good to see a local guy get to go," he said. "It was nice to get an event close to home, too."

Vallem, who will be organizing the snocross circuit in Colorado next season, said that going to the X-Games in two events is still a possibility.

"There are several qualifiers in the fall I want to hit," he said. "I still consider myself a snocross rider."

As for Hankins, he has a couple of days to decide whether or not he wants to go to California to attempt to qualify for a return trip to Aspen

"It's still up in the air," he said. "Right now I'm deciding whether to give it a try or not."

Nearly 70 riders came for the event that took advantage of a ski mountain closed for the season. The races were World Snowmobile Association sanctioned and were one of two races for the region that are for X-Games qualifiers.

Local rider, Chris Brown, missed qualifying, finishing second in both finals.

David Pressgrove can be reached at 824-7031 or dpressgrove@craigdailypress.com

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