X-treme sport draws competitors to Aspen

Craig resident competes in X-games

ASPEN -- The action died fast after the hillcross races at the 2003 Winter X-Games in Aspen Tuesday.

For more than five hours, snowmobile riders drag-raced their machines to the top of a hill that loomed over the starting line. Beyond the first hill of the course, which is all that can be seen from the starting line, the racers jockeyed for position through a series of jumps and bumps.

A team from Craig propelled its rider, Phil Vallem, to a respectable 11th-place finish among 28 of the sport's top competitors.

But after the last riders sped up the hill, leaving trenches in the snow where the tracks on their sleds had kicked up arching rooster-tails of powder, the climax of the championship faded into a simple Aspen afternoon.

Droves of spectators, wearing brand-name snow gear dispersed. Pit crews with 10 or 12 members packed up their gasoline, their tools, their riders and their sleds and sped out of sight.

Cameramen disappeared. The ESPN roadies were left to pack up miles of cable and equipment that had been housed in a temporary scaffolding studio. Mon-itors labeled "line cut," "scoring" and "jumbo" sat in the snow while the staff loaded snowmobiles with cables.

The sentries that had stood all day at their posts were no longer were checking the credentials of the press, the VIPs and the pit crews.

The half-pipe competition had ended before the hillcross. All that was left was the giant television screen, which played a loop of highlights. And below the competition area, some visitors still milled about the Taco Bell and Sony PlaysStation booths.

The press tent was full of reporters lined up at folding tables, filing stories from laptops plugged into phone lines and power strips that had been laid everywhere.

Even farther away, on a road below the snocross track, uniformed pit crews were shelving the machines that had roared up the hillcross track all day. Teams of people from Arctic Cat, Polaris and other sponsors walked in and out of giant semis. They loaded tools and equipment onto the giant trailers, which were outfitted with polished chrome flashing, custom paint jobs and double-door rear entrances. Rows of toolboxes were stacked near the side door of one trailer.

"They have everything you need to take a sled apart and put it back together," said one man who worked aboard the Amsoil Racing trailer.

Down the road from the factory teams and their trailers, Craig rider Phil Vallem and his Action Motorsports team had parked their red Polaris snowmobile behind a modest utility trailer that was behind a pickup. According to the team manager Bobby Hankins, the machine hadn't performed well. Hankins is a manager at Action Motorsports in Craig, which sponsored Vallem at the X-Games.

"We weren't really happy with the machine," Hankins said. "We developed issues with the engine. It's just not pulling all the way through like it should."

The machine had just pulled Vallem into an 11th-place finish among some of the world's best riders, and most of them were backed by stout factory support.

"It's a huge difference," Hankins said, about the disparity between the factory and the private teams. "We were definitely the top privateer team. But we have to run a business and Phil has to run his business."

What the Craig team lacked, Hankins said, was time.

Because they were busy, the Action Motorsports team only just began tweaking the sled four days ago. It didn't leave a whole lot of time to tune the machine for the X-Games.

Mechanic Brett Grandbouche said Vallem had perhaps ridden 30 miles on the machine. But ideally, Grandbouche would like a month or more to dial in the machine's performance.

He made some adjustments on the fly, during the competition. After Vallem qualified for the semifinals, Grandbouche adjusted the fuel mixture. He noticed a whitish color on a spark plug, which indicated the fuel mix was too lean.

At the semifinal starting race minutes later, Vallem bolted up the right side of the course's main hill and he was in a position to be a contender. But the rooster tail from a nearby rider blasted his sled and hit the kill-switch on the machines handlebars.

"It's like getting hit with a bunch of golf balls," Vallem said.

Vallem had to restart his sled in the middle of the race, and it set him back enough to crowd him out of the final race.

"All I would have had to do is ride that one out and I would have made finals," Vallem said. He didn't qualify for the finals, but it looked like the machine was coming around.

Still, Hankins said there are some unresolved issues with the machine.

But he didn't look or act devastated. He seemed to be enjoying himself.

He was smiling after every race, even the one that put Vallem out of the running. Vallem rolled into the pit area and there was Hankins, grinning and ready to talk. Hankins at one point helped another team tear apart the back end of a machine to replace the skid frame.

Vallem plans to retire from racing after six years racing snocross.

"This is probably the last time I'll race," Vallem said. "I was pretty well done last year, but Bobby asked me to ride for Action."

He said he plans to focus on running his business.

Vallem owns Warrior Snocross and Freestyle, which manages the snowmobile racing circuit in Colorado.

The big-name sponsors and the high visibility are good for that business, Vallem said.

"It's positive for me," Vallem said. "It means that snowmobiling is growing fast and hopefully my business will grow, too."

Hankins didn't expect the Action team to take the X-Games by storm. But competing keeps him and his crew sharp, Hankins said.

"It keeps us honest. You gotta work hard to compete. We like to see how we stack up against them, coming from a small town," Hankins said. "It's hard to come out and race against the best guys in the country without factory backing."

But Hankins said he can use what he's learned on the racing circuit and bring it back to his customers: snowmobile riders in Craig.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com

Commenting has been disabled for this item.