The Flying Finn returns: 15th Duluth National Snocross
Toni Haikonen was eating at the Outback Steakhouse in Duluth Tuesday night when a nearby patron overheard the name. "Toni? You're Toni?" she asked. Indeed, it was, even if her personal inquiry turned out not to be true. With Haikonen, "The Flying...
Toni Haikonen was eating at the Outback Steakhouse in Duluth Tuesday night when a nearby patron overheard the name.
"Toni? You're Toni?" she asked.
Indeed, it was, even if her personal inquiry turned out not to be true. With Haikonen, "The Flying Finn,'' the first to popularize the art of soaring through the air on a snowmobile, his reputation precedes him.
Haikonen, the Finland-born snowmobile legend who now resides in balmy Tampa, Fla., is back in town for the 15th annual Duluth National Snocross Friday through Sunday at Spirit Mountain.
It's his first year back since racing the event in 2002, and Wednesday he was busy reacquainting himself with event founders Terry Mattson and Craig Hansen at the Visit Duluth office in downtown Duluth, telling jokes and reminiscing like old friends do.
"I had my 20 years racing and I really enjoyed it,'' said Haikonen, a five-time Duluth National Pro champion. "I miss coming here and seeing these guys and other people at the track. I wouldn't mind being back for the fun, but just my location isn't very good for snowmobiling.''
Haikonen still has the trademark accent and affable personality that added to his superstar persona in the 1990s. When he was asked his age, he said, "19."
The reality is that Haikonen is 35 and age gradually takes a toll, even on the great ones. Haikonen hoped to race this weekend and is in good shape, but his right knee started swelling two weeks ago, likely thwarting his plans.
"I hurt myself lots of times when I raced, so when it gets cold, I kind of get stiff,'' Haikonen said. "I don't have those problems down south. I feel like I'm young again.''
Haikonen said snocross, which utilizes an oval track littered with moguls and high-flying jumps, dates to the 1950s in Finland, but was still in its infancy in the United States when he competed in his first Duluth National Snocross with limited results using a makeshift racing machine.
Haikonen was ahead of the times, even if his Ski-Doo snowmobile wasn't.
"Ski-Doo didn't have a snocross racing program at that time,'' said Hansen, who jokingly called Haikonen an idiot for racing Ski-Doo at that time. "He was riding a sled that wasn't intended to be raced like that.''
That didn't stop Haikonen from winning three straight Duluth National Pro Open titles from 1994 to 1996. Ski-Doo and Duluth National organizers hyped Haikonen, making posters and promotional flyers showing The Flying Finn soaring through the air, often with the ground nowhere in sight.
A star was born.
"In the beginning, a lot of people didn't appreciate what these guys were capable of doing, but Toni helped change all that,'' Mattson said. "Having Toni was like giving snocross a legal dose of steroid therapy. We were really able to pump things up.
"Toni's style single-handedly changed how racers attacked the sport. Everybody else was just punishing and pounding through the bumps. They were coming off the ground, but with Toni, it was the first time you saw snowmobiles fly across the United States.''
Haikonen's success correlated with that of the World PowerSports Association, formerly the World Snowmobile Association, as well as the Duluth National Snocross, which saw its crowds grow from 7,000 the first year in 1992 to consistently more than 30,000 over three days when the weather cooperates.
Haikonen took the 2001 season off. His final year was 2002, and at the season's final race at Lake Geneva, Wis., his sled broke down in qualifying and he left before the last final was completed. With his snowpants still on, he headed toward Tampa, where his wife, Vedrana, and their four children reside.
Haikonen, who Sno-X Magazine named its second-greatest snocross racer of all time, hasn't been on a sled since.
"I always had a strict plan on my career,'' Haikonen said. "I was going to retire at age 30, and I ended up retiring at age 31 because I took a year off. That was my excuse.
"My wish was always that I would go retire somewhere with a sunny beach, and my wish came true. I didn't exactly retire but I retired from racing. I think I froze my butt off long enough.''
While Haikonen is out of the sport, his tracks remain in it. Mattson said that will never change. Haikonen's name will go on, whether in Finland, or at an Outback Steakhouse in Duluth.
"If you ever mention the name Toni in the world of snowmobiles, anywhere, people will know who you're talking about,'' Mattson said. "Before Toni, that riding style had never been seen in this part of the world and jaws dropped. With his big smile and his broken English, he very soon became a hero who nobody will ever forget.''
Snocross organizers have moved Pro Stock qualifying to Friday, with the Pro Stock and Pro Open finals to be held Saturday, unlike the traditional Sunday grand finale. Sunday, instead, will have support-class racing as well as Winter X-Games qualifying.
The move was made to ensure quality snow for Saturday's made-for-TV showcase events.
"By Sunday, the track could get a little brown and that's something you don't want to see on the television screen. You want winter to look like winter,'' said Terry Mattson, executive director of Visit Duluth and one of the event's co-founders. "We just want the fans to be aware of the schedule change so they're not disappointed; maybe Sunday was the only day they were going to come out because they wanted to see the pros. The theme is 'get there early' this year.
"Saturday's going to be insane.''