The Society of Midwest Contesters


This article, titled “Midwest “Antz” Invade Contests!” was written by Paula Uscian, K9IR and originally appeared in the September/October 2003 issue of NCJ magazine. 

Air travelers refer to the part of their journey over the midwestern US as “The Big Flyover.” Radio waves, especially the DX variety, also have treated the heartland this way since Marconi’s first transmission. Within this bleak RF environment, however, several outstanding radio contest operators have been nurtured. NT1N (ex-NU9R), K4JA (ex-KS9K) and W4AN (ex-KM9P) each developed successful contest skills operating from the Midwest before moving to the relatively easier pickings available from being closer to either coast.

Many hardy souls, however, continue to contest from the central states. In early 1985, a group of them formed the Society of Midwest Contesters (SMC) “with the goal of uniting Midwest contesters into a competitive group, and to further the idea of radiosporting in the Midwest…. The intent is to make the society competitive with the best big clubs in America,” wrote Steve Dubberstein, K9WO (then NA9D), the club’s first president, in the June 1985 newsletter. Steve named the newsletter The Black Hole and explained “those who have contested from the Midwest realize that we have not been blessed with the same propagation as our fellow citizens in other parts of the country. At times, it is actually like being in a ‘black hole’ of propagation. Being at somewhat of a disadvantage is no excuse; however, and we must try that much harder in order to do better than those elsewhere. Hopefully, the name of the newsletter will be a constant reminder of this.”

By September 1985, the club had 51 members from Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, and gained ARRL affiliation. K9WO set as one of the first goals “to submit more than 50 entries in the SS for the Society. By doing this we will appear ‘out of the blue’ in the UNLIMITED category— an impressive move, to say the least.” Impressive and ambitious, as it would require nearly every club member at the time to participate. The membership responded by winning the ARRL Sweepstakes Unlimited class in both 1985 and 1986.

A Star is Born
Paul Gentry, K9PG, recognized it later as one of those life-defining moments, the spring day in 1981 when his father brought home a CB radio. Five years later, after running down the car’s battery talking for nearly six hours to every “good buddy” from Channels 1 to 23, Paul became licensed as KA9VAK. By 1987, he had upgraded to Technician, and met Scott Pederson, N9FZO (now KI5DR), and his roommate Dave Patton, then NU9R, while at college. K9PG acknowledging the SMC Recognition Award.

In October 1988, Dave invited Paul and Scot t on a contester’s road tr ip to Hannibal, Missouri, to operate CQ WW SSB from the home of CQ Contest Hall of Fame member Lew Gordon, K4VX.

Paul didn’t make any contacts on that visit, but returned twice more to operate before running the 1989 ARRL 10 Meter contest from K4VX as Single-Operator SSB. Motivated by the contesting bug, Paul had upgraded by then to Amateur Extra and joined SMC.

The St Charles Epiphany
Over the years, SMC members had continued to promote contesting, often assembling teams to win NAQP or Sprints. By 2000, membership had grown to 120. The club’s early Sweepstakes successes, however, had not been duplicated. It was against this backdrop that Paul became SMC president in 2000. For a time, K9PG’s e-mails had ended with the line “People said I couldn’t do it…so I did it.” Never was this attitude more evident than in August 2000 at an SMC dinner in St Charles, Illinois, when the subject of Sweepstakes came up. As Paul describes the moment, “I got this crazy idea in my head for the SMC to go for the Unlimited title. I remember K9NW looking at me l ike I was crazy…then someone else said that it’s impossible…can’t be done. That was all the motivation that I needed.”

Paul proceeded to spend at least four hours a day, seven days a week, for the next two months spreading the word about SMC, signing up new members, sending out and answering literally thousands of e-mails, and generally getting everyone pumped up to win Sweepstakes. Membership tripled to over 300 members.

The result was what Paul described as his “most memorable moment in contesting” when he received on behalf of SMC the 2000 Sweepstakes championship gavel at the following year’s Dayton Contest forum.The club not only won Sweepstakes Unlimited that year; it broke the 1997 Unlimited Club score record held by the Potomac Valley Radio Club (PVRC).

SMC’s 2000 Sweepstakes win surprised the contest world and the club’s score nudged out the nearest contender, the Nor thern California Contest Club (NCCC), by less than 500,000 points. Both NCCC and PVRC pledged to topple SMC in 2001. K9PG and the gang were just as determined to show their previous win was no fluke. A galvanized SMC membership joined Paul to further augment their ranks and participation level. The result was a repeat Sweepstakes win, this time by a convincing margin of over 4 million points.

The ARRLWeb summary of the 2001 competition, however, rained a bit on the SMC parade when i t stated “Club competitions in contests are a bit like political leadership conventions: the competitor who sells the most party memberships wins. So it should surprise nobody that the Society of Midwest Contesters (SMC), emerged victorious” with 342 entries, versus 159 from NCCC, the nearest competitor. The article characterized the 2001 results as “quantity vs. quality,” and noted the call signs of several prominent NCCC contest operators while ment ioning not one f rom SMC (see www.arrl.org/members-only/contests/ results/2001/SS-PH/clubs.html).

This commentary prompted SMC member Mike Kasrich, AJ9C, to compare the club’s outstanding member participation to an army of ants—or “antz” as he phrased it. “Antz!” became the rallying cry for the next year’s effort, and graced e-mails and a limited-edition pin in a show of club solidarity. Given concerns over the future of Amateur Radio, SMC should have been applauded, if not rewarded, for successfully encouraging greater contest participation and overall interest in the hobby.

The momentum from the previous years’ wins, plus some lingering irritation over the League’s comments, propelled SMC’s planning effor ts for the 2002 Sweepstakes such that K9PG no longer had to spearhead the effort. To encourage increased participation and QSOs per log, many SMC members recruited new members, encouraged their colleagues to pledge contest QSO goals on the club Web site, and offered prizes for the highest mode scores and largest percentage increases over last year’s score. The heat was on, as PVRC and NCCC vowed that this was the year theywould take back the gavel. The result was a third consecutive SMC victory by an even greater margin. Again, the ARRLWeb commented, “That SMC has such a large lead (22.4 million points to 15.6 million) is in no small way related to the lead it has in contesters (387 vs 183). But on an average basis, Mad River [Radio Club] comes out on top, with 103.5k points per team club member vs. 57.8k for SMC…. Just like party leadership conventions, it’s the club with the most points, SMC, that wins, regardless of membership.” (see www.arrl.org/members-only/contests/ resul ts/2002/Nov-Phone-SS/ index. html).

K9PG addressed this debate by first recalculating SMC’s score using only the top SMC CW and SSB logs up to the same number of logs submitted by NCCC and PVRC for each mode. The results didn’t change—SMC remained the winner. Paul then recalculated scores based on the required number of logs to enter the Sweepstakes club Unlimited category. Using the top 50 logs from each mode (100 total), SMC scores again topped both NCCC and PVRC. Only calculations using 25 logs per mode (50 total) put NCCC on top, but as Paul noted “in my mind that doesn’t mean much since 50 logs puts you in the medium category, and that’s not what we’re competing in.” Case closed.

How’d They Do It?
For K9PG, it’s all about having fun. He takes his inspiration from a comment by Bill Fisher, W4AN: “Imagine how many more people we would have to work if each one of us got just one other person involved in contesting!” That statement is at the core of Paul’s success in resuscitating SMC.

Numerous club members mention his tireless efforts at recruiting new participants to the contest ranks. Paul has convinced people from all walks of amateur life—DXers, VHFers, rag chewers—to give contesting a try.

For example, Clay Melhorn, N9IO, is a self-described “dyed in the wool rag chewer and occasional DXer.” In 1999, he and his daughter Crystal, W9IOU, worked multi-op as their first effort in Sweepstakes Phone. Paul saw the published results, contacted N9IO and invited his family to submit the next logs as SMC members. Clay, his wife and kids have competed in Sweepstakes since then, encouraged by SMC camaraderie in which “The big guns are more than willing to share their tips and secrets, to the benefit of the group.” Even more important, K9PG brings a personal touch. Sam Effinger, K9SD, observes that “Paul talks to almost everyone. That makes it personal, not just a generic e-mail, and encouraged us to help each other. We enjoy a feeling of being a par t of something, with no ‘cliques’ but everyone working as part of a team. If you have wires and 100 watts, you are just as important as any Big Gun. Paul made it fun.”

This reaching out to each individual doesn’t stop once the contest starts. Chuck, KI9A, notes that “During a contest, [Paul] will stop me several times during the weekend,…ask how I am doing, [and] suggest I need more mults, QSOs, different band, etc. He has no doubt made me a better contester.” “[Paul] always has time to say ‘Hi Gary’ when I work him in a contest” recalls Gary Hext, K4UU.

Brian Maves, K9QQ/KH6, emphasizes a key characteristic of SMC that Paul’s leadership has reinforced. “From the first year, we always stressed that we were a club for all contesters, not a ‘big gun’ or ‘prestige’ oriented club. Everyone has always felt comfortable as part of the group and we’ve successfully avoided developing rifts and some of the other self-destructive behavior that tends to ruin clubs.” K9QQ/KH6 also points out how the Internet and e-mail have helped. “Even though we’re geographically spread out, it allows us to come together as a group and keep everybody involved and informed.” Hardly a day goes by without an e-mail posting on the SMC reflector, regardless of any scheduled contest.

Added to that is Paul’s motto that “Every QSO counts,” which motivates members like Mike Brown, K9MI, to “fire up the rig and get as many Qs in as I can.” Relentless recruiting, infectious enthusiasm, the personal touch, an inclusive membership that recognizes each member’s contribution is vital to the team, sharing ideas, taking advantage of enabling technologies and most of all keeping it fun—these are the elements that K9PG has brought, encouraged or leveraged to rebuild a successful contest club. Regular in-person gatherings at hamfests and an outstanding hospitality suite at Dayton also have helped sustain the buzz. And don’t forget those antz! It also is worth observing what Paul and SMC haven’t done to rejuvenate the club. No newsletters have been issued for the last few years, and the “President’s Corner” on the Web site is blank. Dues requirements resemble Montana speed laws— whatever one feels is appropriate. Paul is as modest as his colleagues are effusive, however, regarding what he has done for SMC and how much they appreciate it. He views his efforts as nothing anyone else couldn’t have done.

What’s Next?
For SMC, a Sweepstakes four-peat is the obvious goal. Ratcheting their game a notch would be to capture Sweepstakes and the ARRL 160- and 10-Meter competitions in the same season. Propagation on the “Gentleman’s Band” actually favors the heartland, and SMC has won this contest in the past. Ten meters is another story, however, and would require the score doubling that results from mixed mode participation to nail the hat trick. Unfortunately, the physics of the Black Hole won’t allow for a serious club run at a CQ WW title.

SMC membership is over 500, and K9PG sees no reason why it can’t double in the next year. With many members sharing the tasks of keeping the club strong and competitive, Paul has no concerns SMC has grown too reliant on his contributions.

In the midst of his intense activity on behalf of SMC, Paul won both the 2003 ARRL DX Phone and CW contests operating as WP3R in the Single Operator-All Band-High Power category. He also appears to have set a new world record in March with 460 phone QSOs in one hour, breaking the previous mark of 457 set by N5TJ in the 1993 CQ WW Phone contest. His next goal—a single op CQ WW win. K9PG has been successful in both team and solo contest operations, but as reflected in his work with SMC, Paul most enjoys the team aspects of working with friends in multi-operator contesting. And the contest achievement of which he’s most proud is organizing the effort to lead SMC to its surprise Unlimited title in the 2000 Sweepstakes.