Seven years ago Steven Slivinski was racing at a regional snocross event in his hometown of Gaylord, Mich., when he crash-landed his snowmobile.
"I landed stiff-legged, and my knee went backwards," Slivinski said. "It was a little painful. I still wanted to race, but they wouldn't let me. My cousin is a knee doctor, and I went to see her the next day, and she said, 'I don't want to see you on a snowmobile the rest of the year.' And that day I was back on my snowmobile riding."
Unfortunately for Slivinski, he tore up muscles in his right knee and bruised the kneebone, and that signaled the beginning of the end of his racing career.
Slivinski, 30, is doing the next best thing by being involved in the sport as the lead groomer operator for the Amsoil Championship Snocross series. The series kicks off Friday with the 27th annual Amsoil Duluth National Snocross at Spirit Mountain.
As a former racer, Slivinski knows what the riders want.
"It helps out a lot," Slivinski said. "They want a flow to the track. Sometimes they'll bring people in to run the groomer, but they don't get the flow of the track, what's good and what's not good."
And conditions are really good this year.
"Awesome," Slivinski confirmed.
Folks around Duluth have been asking themselves for more than a month now, "What happened to fall?" But that weather has been great for snocross. No questions about whether or not the event will go on this year. In fact, Slivinski said there is even more snow at Spirit Mountain than last year, and last year was a good year. Opening day for Spirit Mountain's 45th season of skiing is Friday, meaning there will be a lot of people on the hill this weekend.
"We've got lots of snow, and it's going to be an awesome track," Slivinski said. "They made a lot of snow up there. Last year there were just a couple little spots on the track that got a little thin, but that happens at every race track we go to. There shouldn't be any issues at all this weekend."
Friday's temperature could hit 40, and there's a chance of showers, but outside of a monsoon the track should hold up well. The bigger concern could be fog, which has affected the event in previous years.
"If we get a little drizzle, it's not going to hurt it at all," Slivinski said.
Slivinski does the bulk of the track grooming up until Friday morning, when another groomer arrives to assist him. Slivinski started working on the track Monday morning, and it was already 75 percent done by Tuesday night.
"They just tell where they want the starting line and where they want the finishing line, and pretty much the rest is all up to me," he said. "You get a little creative. You've got to."
The track once again will start at the bottom, with a staging area just beyond Turns 1-2. Riders shoot up the hill along the back straightaway at the start and then wind their way to the front straightaway in front of the main chalet. Last year the finish line was more in a corner, but this year it will be moved back toward the main chalet, so the high-flying finishes and celebrations fans have become accustomed to will be mostly front and center.
"Racers felt like they were turning into a corner to get to last year's finish line," Slivinski said.
Slivinski will work each day from about 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. this week, and 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. this weekend. That's a long week, but one Slivinski enjoys. If he can no longer race due to bad knees, this is the next best thing.
"I love it, I swear I do," he said.
27TH ANNUAL AMSOIL DULUTH NATIONAL SNOCROSS
What: World's largest three-day snowmobile race
Where: Spirit Mountain
Forecast: Temperatures are expected to climb into the upper 30s for Friday with a chance of evening showers, but the weekend looks ideal
Tickets: Adult tickets are $40-$43 per day or $75 for all three days, $35 and $55 for youth age 6-12, free for 5 and under
Shuttle service: From Proctor fairgrounds for $10 per car; from Powerhouse Bar for $7 per person, $15 for the weekend