Since we seem to be stuck in a winter time warp here on the Old Mission Peninsula, let’s take a look back to 1970, when Don Brown, 26, drove his Chaparral snowmobile to a successful first place finish at the second annual International 500 (I-500) snowmobile race at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
Don and his family are well known to longtime Old Mission Peninsula residents. His dad, Ed Brown, was a schoolbus driver for Old Mission Peninsula School, and his mom, Jo, was a cook at the school. My husband Tim and I bought the property we now live on from the Browns in the 1990s.
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According to a story written by James L. Thomas in the Traverse City Record-Eagle dated Feb. 9, 1970, “The first place award of $3,500 plus approximately $900 in lap money became Brown’s at 11:12 p.m. Saturday when he took the checkered flag on the 500th lap, 17 laps ahead of the second place machine.”
“The race got started at 10:18 a.m. Saturday,” wrote Thomas, “and Brown’s Chaparral, No. 40, first appeared on the ‘top ten’ position board at 185 laps in 7th position. As the roaring machines sped around the one mile oval track hour after hour, No. 40 continued to rise in the standings.
“At lap 288, a snowmobile bounced hard on the badly corroded south turn of the track, lost its gas cap, and raw gasoline poured over the machine and driver, setting both afire. The situation was pretty ‘hairy’ for a few moments, but the fire was quickly put out and James Mauer, of Racine, Wisconsin, the driver, had a mildly burned nose and lower lip. Race Diretor Norm Brown, however, decided that the warm weather had deteriorated the track to a dangerous degree and the race was stopped. At this time, Brown’s machine was in fourth position.
“Heavy equipment took one hour and twenty minutes to remove the bumps and ridges off the turns and scrape down the mud on the straightaways. At the end of this time, the temperature dropped quickly below the freezing point to solidify the oval and provide a well dressed track for the remainder of the race.
“Again underway, lap speeds began to increase to the 60 mph mark due to the new track surface, and leading positions changed constantly. At the 298 lap mark, Brown’s machine made a pit stop to install a new clutch and drive belt. Finally, Don was back on the track with the high whine of his 793 cc Hirth engine being heard by the crowd. He had dropped two positions during the repair delay and was now running sixth. Around and round roared the big Chaparral, sliding off the turns and slipping past the competitors on the straights, heading for the next turn.
“It was dark now, and binoculars were needed to kep track of the position board. Number 40 began to climb in the standings again, and was soon fourth, then third, then at lap 313 moved into first place.
“No one had been able to hold onto the lead for more than twenty-five laps all day. With pit stop times averaging 35 seconds (one stop was clocked at 23 seconds), and Brown’s alternate drivers Bill Gunsell and Steve Holcomb keeping the lap speeds high, Chaparral No. 40 began to widen the gap.
“By the 400th lap, No. 40 had a ten-lap lead over No. 13, Ken Milles of Rudyard, Michigan. At 450 miles, the lead had extended to 14 laps, and at 11:12 p.m., under the glare of flash bulbs and flood lamps, Brown ripped over the finish line with the checkered victory flag being waved at him. It was a great victory for Don Brown and his crew from West Bay Distributors and owner Dick Galla.”
Here are a couple more photos of the Chaparral team.
I am so honored that you would write such a nice tribute to me!!!! I will be at the track on Saturday to ride that winning sled in a parade LAP AT 9:OO a.m. – WHAT A THRILL!
ALL OF THIS WOULD NOT BE POSSIBLE if my NEPHEW, Steve DuCheney had not taken it upon himself to replicate my winning sled. The original sled was given to the I-500 museum and was stolen at some time later. Steve’s dedication and hard work brought that winning sled back to life, right down to all of the decals.
I would like to thank every one who helped make this happen!!!
GRATEFUL DON BROWN
Thanks so much for the note, Don! What a thrill that you’ll be doing that lap on Saturday! It’s just amazing to me that this story has come full circle after nearly 50 years.
Tim isn’t too cold-weather hardy these days – otherwise we’d be there! Hopefully someone will do video or take some photos I can add to the story after Saturday.
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