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Willmar notebook: Wild thing: Winnipeg to Willmar race in the works

Tribune photo by Rand Middleton USXC Snowmobile Racing, based in Spicer, sparkled when it came to scheduling, announcing and scoring eight races from this trailer shown on Upper Foot Lake during the Willmar Area Lakes 100.

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 of 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 less 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.

Nelson would like to bring back ditch running to the Lakes Area, where it existed for a time in the 1980s.

He’s mapped out a 20-mile loop from the south city limits to County Road 8 and then around Lake Wakanda.

Whether it is cross country loops or the mighty I-500, Nelson knows from experience it takes the cooperation of snowmobile clubs, trail associations, businesses, chambers and travel bureaus to make it work.

The challenge, any promoter will tell you, is getting everyone pulling in the same direction.

A baseball life

Rube Nathe — now there’s a baseball name for you. It fits with characters from a John R., Tunis novel, like Spike Russell, Jocko Klein or “Bones” Hathaway.

Nathe is shading age 70. In 1958, as an eighth-grader, he sat on the bench for the New Munich town team. The next year he played.

In 1963, a year after graduating from nearby Melrose, Rueben joined more than 100 other hopefuls at a tryout at Met Stadium. The Twins signed five to minor league contracts. The hard-throwing 19-year-old right-hander was one.

The training camp was at the Twins’ winter home in Orlando.

“My claim to fame is that I struck out Billy Martin,” Rube told me this week. “I was wild. He didn’t want to walk. I was supposed to throw strikes but couldn’t.”

The kid from Stearns County played in the Florida State League then got sent to Wytheville (Va.) Twins in the Appalachian Rookie League. The roster included future Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel and major league slugger Reggie Smith. The Wytheville manager had a Tunis-like handle of Adelbert Norwood. Nathe, the Web reveals, pitched in two games (0-1) and was sent home, his brush with pro ball over.

But his life in baseball had a long way to go. He would play town ball and service ball while in the Navy and in the 1980s became manager/coach of both the Litchfield Blues and the American Legion team, the latter responsibility turned over to Eddie Estrada in 2009. For just short of 50 years, his wife Caroline, who grew up in Spring Hill not far from New Munich, has been his scorekeeper.

Rube and Caroline attended the first induction of the West Central Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame last Friday. Rueben is one of seven in the first class presented by the Kandiyohi County Historical Society and Stinger Baseball.

“I don’t know why I got picked,” he told me that night, “but I’m honored.”

A long-time serving American Legion baseball district director he now looks forward to Litchfield American Legion Post 104 hosting the 2014 Division I Zone Tournament at Optimist Park in late July.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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