JOPLIN – The football field near what was once Joplin-Inverness High School is unused most of the year. For one day in June, however, the crowds return to watch a much different sport than was once contested there.The Juvat Sled Jam, held for the third year, pits pre-1980 snowmobiles with no engine modifications against each other.The event is fast becoming a Joplin tradition. Most of the sleds were manufactured in the 1970s. Their paint is dull, duct tape covers their seats, bungee cords hold them together."Most of them come out of old barns," said Shay Richter, a club member and guy-in-charge of the sled jam. "You can find them on Craigslist sometimes. A lot come from the dump and get resurrected."
Richter stepped away from organizing logistics of the races Saturday afternoon to change into a green Luigi costume. His partner, Cody Jurenka, dressed in red as Mario. Classic rock music played from the crow's nest, a "Bulldog Field" sign on the front. Barbecue fare was served during the afternoon and tickets for a brand-new snowmobile were on sale.
Joplin, a town that tallied 157 souls in the 2010 census, sits in Liberty County just north of Highway 2, the east-west artery of northern Montana known as the Hi-Line. Residents credit Syrian immigrant Joseph E. Rehal with the town's founding before the Great Northern Railway established a station house around the turn of the 20th century, according to the book "Montana Place Names: From Alzada to Zortman." Today, the town that sits amidst the Hi-Line's seemingly endless wheat and barley fields, welcomes visitors with a sign boasting that Joplin is "the biggest little town on earth." The nearest "big" town is Havre, about 50 miles away, with a population of about 9,700, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. On a Saturday in June over Father's Day weekend, Joplin celebrates by holding a car show and festival called Art in the Park. The verdant Joplin Memorial Park is full of arts and craft vendors, classic cars, a band playing ZZ Top covers and the 17 old-school snowmobiles that have a date with the Sled Races that take place early in the evening. “It defines the Hi-Line... You just have to check it out.” Derek Fraser Shawna Osburn sat perched on one of the sleds. Her dad was competing that day. Was he going to win? Shawna shrugs. "It goes pretty fast," she said.
Around 3:30 on a sunny afternoon with temperatures in the mid-70s and a light breeze, the drivers of those snowmobiles took off, driving their sleds across the dusty gravel roads of Joplin to the football field a block away to the starting line on one end of the football field, its goal posts removed. As the afternoon wore on, between 200 and 250 people of all ages arrived at the field, located along Rehal Street. They parked their trucks and SUVs along the field, pulling down the tailgates to have a seat while they watched.
These snowmobiles look positively ancient next to newer models, which are bigger but made of lighter materials. The pre-1980 models weigh in around 400 pounds and have top speeds of 35 to 40 miles per hour. Newer models weigh around 400 pounds and can run between 55 and 70 mph, Richter said. Teams of two race their sleds, and while the competition is fierce, nobody is taking themselves too seriously. Costumes are almost a requirement, and there's an air more of fun than competition. The National Anthem is performed on a lip trumpet.
Jeremy May (left) gets ready to hit the gas before Lily Barone drops the flags as his teammate Jerimiah Johnson looks on at the Joplin Sled Jam on June 20. 2015 in Joplin, Mont. Dressed in Wonder Bread and Old Spice jumpsuits, Craig Miller and Cory Decker channeled the film "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." The pair ran a 1978 Arctic Cat Pantera 5000 covered, racecar style, in those brands. "We're a pretty entertaining bunch of guys," Miller said when asked why he thought the turnout was so good. "Joplin's dead most of the time. This is a big community event." Joplin's median age is 64.4 years, according to the 2010 census, but many participants are in their 20s and 30s, with a few women throwing their hats in. At least one team member must have or have had a 292 telephone prefix, which corresponds to the Joplin area. Derek Fraser and Quinn Fossen got into the Joplin mood, wearing basketball uniforms from the late 1970s and wigs that harkened back to the more flamboyant hairstyles of the era. Fraser hails from Chester, 10 miles west of Joplin. Fossen is a graduate of Joplin-Inverness High School, which consolidated in 2005 with Chester to form Chester-Joplin-Inverness, a move that closed the high school in Joplin and left the football field unused.
The Hi-Line boys had their own way of describing the event and its popularity. "It's just a bunch of locals having fun," Fossen said. "It defines the Hi-Line," Fraser added. Why is that? "You just have to check it out," Fraser grinned. Fueled by "beverages and horsepower," in the words of Fraser, the event has its own moxie. At the sign of a flag, heats of two to four sleds take off at the starting line, kicking up dust on the dry grass. It's a sprint down the field — with some sleds struggling to move at all. Announcer Zeb Engstrom played Taps as one of the sleds is dragged back to the starting line. Some of the sleds don't turn well; the ones that turn at all do so on a wide radius. Once the sprint is over, some of the riders hop off, pick up the back of the sled and swing it the other direction. In one heat, Fraser glides to an easy victory, sitting low in his sled, a helmet over his wig, the short shorts of his basketball uniform exposing bright white legs. "He must have shaved his legs," Engstrom quipped about his speed. Laura-Dawn Moog, of Great Falls, sat with her family and friends, wearing bright green shirts to cheer on the team of Zach Zanto and Cale Bjornstad. Moog, Bjornstad's sister, was hooked on the event after coming last year. "It's just fun," she said. "This is the small-town football field we used to play on."
Fossen and Derek Fraser of team Liv'r Die Trying inspect their sled before the third annual Joplin Sled Jam in Joplin on June 20, 2015.
Her kids love it. They asked multiple times in the past year if they were going to watch the snowmobiles race again.For Moog, the event is indicative of small-town life. "Are they going to do this in Great Falls? Not a chance," she said. Moog's son, Grayson, was impressed too. He stood in the back of a pickup and watched as Richter, legs
too long for his Luigi costume, whizzed by, cresting a small hill then pointing his legs in the air while staying seated. "That guy was awesome!" Grayson exclaimed.
Wearing uniforms that look like hot dogs in buns, Zanto and Bjornstad made a good showing during the races, riding a 1980 Polaris they found on Craiglist.In their second year participating, they were backed up by that robust, green cheering section. But winning wasn't high on their minds. "It's just having a good time," said Zanto. "It's Father's Day weekend," Bjornstad added, "and it's nice to get out to snowmobile in the summer."