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Brian Nelson is Getting Ready for the I-500


(10/4/2010)

The name says it all

The image of Team Arctic's Brian Nelson skimming down a Northern Minnesota ditchline, chasing victory in the I-500 aboard an Arctic Cat el tigre Cross-Country Cat, has been confined to memory for the past three-plus decades.

This winter it's going to be a reality once again.

Having been bitten by the vintage bug at last year's Snowmobile Hall of Fame Ride with the Champs, Nelson wanted to build a Cross-Country Cat for the 2011 event. So last spring he went into accumulation mode, buying a few 1979 440s from which he’d build a beauty.

Brian Nelson with a few of his Arctic Cat CC Cats

Then word came that USCC was going to have a vintage class at the 2011 I-500.

Nelson kicked himself into overdrive.

I’ve had the great fortune to know and race with Brian for the past 17 years. And I’m here to tell you: if there’s someone in this sport whose approach to racing at their very best is greater and more detailed than Nelson’s, I haven’t yet met them.

So it was on this Sunday in October, I once again found myself at Nelson's race shop in Spicer, Minn., seeing the preparations of a snowmobile racing legend and hearing incredible stories about racing in cross-country during it's first hayday.

Inside Nelson's race shop

There is only one other person in whole world who knows as much about the famed 1978-79 Cross-Country Cats as Nelson: his friend and mechanic from that period, Hubert Fixsen.

Brian Nelson (l) and Hubert Fixsen

These two guys were hired by Arctic Cat to turn the CC Cat into a race winner. Their success in this endeavor is well documented, with Nelson winning the I-500 aboard a kitted 340cc model in 1978. The duo brought many key innovations to the machine, focusing mainly on suspension performance and handling. These two knew every bolt and rivet on these machines.

Now 57, Nelson commands a memory of these sleds that vaporizes the 32-year span. When disassembling a skidframe during the day, I grabbed a half-inch aluminum spacer from the idler wheel shaft, showed it to Brian and tested if he knew what it was. He didn’t even pause before answering.

Amazingly, one of the seven sleds Brian bought last spring was actually one of his very race sleds from the 1979 season. He first noticed some bulkhead grinding on the sled that was consistent with his sled prep from back in the day. Then he noticed four holes on the side of the bellypan that held a manufacturer’s plate, so he knew it had to be a factory sled. The kicker came when he removed the vinyl seat cover, exposing the brown-bag-wrapped foam.

Back in the day, Nelson always wrapped his seat foam with these brown bags that were in abundance at Arctic Cat, to prevent water from getting into the foam.

Nelson and his original bag-wrapped seat foam

When he saw the bag-wrapped foam, he knew it was one of his race sleds from three decades earlier.

As a testament to his preparation in ’79, the seat foam was still perfect. The other six seat foams ranged from barely usable to nearly-destroyed.

 

Mmmmm....yummy!

Nelson’s approach to racing has always been one of absolute professionalism. And his rebuilding of three ’79 CC Cats will incorporate some modern elements, such as Fox Gas Shox, new tracks and more durable steering components.

Why three sleds for the coming season? Nelson wants to test different set-ups in each sled, he has enough parts and he wants to support the USCC event. So come I-500 raceday, Nelson will be joined by longtime friend Joey Hallstrom and myself on this trio of Cats.

Personally, my only goal in the race is to beat Joey. And yesterday at the shop, I performed a few "tweaks" to Joey's sled to ensure that I'll beat him.

 

Nelson and one of the 440cc engines

The motors have come out, cranks checked and freshened up as needed. Nelson likes to have himself and his race sleds ready for snow by mid-November, so that when the white stuff falls, the riding can begin.

 

Was this Arctic Cat CC Cat discovered in a crate?

Two of three race sleds were completely stripped, sand-blasted and repainted. This baby looks like it just rolled off the production line.

 

Cutting windows on a track

One of the difficulties in racing 30-plus-year old sled is getting parts. Finding original tracks is next to impossible. So new tracks are used instead, but sometimes require modification to work with original suspension. Here Nelson takes a break from cutting track windows to fit the original skidframe.

 

Working on the linkage rear suspension

Working on the linkage rear suspension that he and Fixsen designed.

 

Lovely Arctic Cat Cross-Country Cat

If Brian's race shop could tell stories, they would all be about long hours and attention to detail. When Brian tells stories, he recollects the details as if it happened five minutes ago. Yesterday I heard a great story about the final leg of his '78 win, battling with Ron Reimer to the thrilling end. When I return to Nelson's shop in a couple weeks, I'll bring my video camera and capture his retelling for future posting.

 

Nelson and a couple of his soon-to-be-ready racers

In addition to prepping three sleds, Nelson lost 37 lbs. over the past six months to get his body into the kind of shape needed to race 170 miles in a day. He's fit, trim and sharp as ever. I know I won't be able to run with him, but like I said... my goal is to beat Hallstrom. Heh-heh-heh!

Nelson's ultimate goal with this project is to spur interest in the race and do his best. He's been in touch with several of his fellow racers from back in the day, and would love nothing more than to share some new experiences with these guys and everyone else who's planning to line up in TRF for the start of what will be a historic I-500 cross-country.

He (and I) hope to see you there. In the meanwhile, Brian's getting back to the task at hand...

Nelson at the shop



Comments (20):

Tom Rowland says:
10/4/2010 2:44:00 PM

Great story. As a spectator (me), this event should be about as good as it gets. I'm making my reservations now. Brian has lost 37 pounds...impressive. Sooo, John...what have you been doing to prepare yourself?
John Sandberg says:
10/4/2010 4:45:00 PM

Tom: I get stronger simply by hanging around strongmen like Nelson. I've lost 25 lbs. and I can finally bench press half my weight. Again, I reiterate... the goal is to beat Joey.
Jim Dimmerman says:
10/4/2010 8:02:00 PM

Brian and Hubbert worked directly across from me in the Arctic race shop.
Talk about two guys totally focused on building an endurance race machine.
They left NOTHING for chance or luck... It looks like deja vu 30 years later..I,am glad he was a cross country driver and not an oval driver otherwise I may have had to resort to sabatoge just like you John..Heh.heh heh......
Tom Rowland says:
10/4/2010 9:18:00 PM

Is Hubert involved at all in this current race effort?
John Zanon says:
10/4/2010 9:35:00 PM

Just got home from our local monthly snowmobile club meeting and checked out the news. I love to read stories about the past...great job John!
Bob Lyberg says:
10/5/2010 10:12:00 AM

This is pretty exciting stuff! I remember getting out of grade school in Hallock during the Glory Days and watching them come through town. I have to hand it to Pat and participants for generating so much excitement!
Jamie says:
10/5/2010 11:31:00 AM

My dad has a 1979 Cross Country ElTigre. It is in nice shape and he rode it a few times last year. I told him about the renewed interest in these machines and he said he would sell it if somebody was looking for a race sled. If your interested you can reach us at 1-800-553-5573. We are in Southern Wisconsin.
John Sandberg says:
10/5/2010 11:34:00 AM

Tom: No, Hubert isn't involved w/Brian this time around.
John Sandberg says:
10/5/2010 11:42:00 AM

RE: Dimmerman's comment: How cool would it have been to be a fly on the wall of the Team Arctic Race Shop circa 1978?!? Dimmerman, Coltom, Elsner, Thompson, Nelson, Fixsen, Boman...
John Sandberg says:
10/5/2010 11:45:00 AM

Also, anyone reading about the vintage class in this year's I-500 and considering doing it themselves... all I can say is that every time I've done that race, it's been the most fun I had on a sled that season (and pretty much ever). The vintage class is geared even more to us regular guys than it is the legends. Plus, it will be one of the few chances we'll ever have to race alongside these guys. It's going to be a blast!
Todd Ulschmid says:
10/6/2010 9:01:00 AM

Wow! Great story! All I can write is this: The competition better bring there "A+ game" to run with you cats! Awesome job. With new tracks(with real lugs) and FOX shocks.... These kitties are going to rip and have a way better ride than back in the day! Any word on who else is running this race? Chester Bowman? John Carlson? Bob Enns? Archie Simonson?
Don Amber says:
10/6/2010 2:03:00 PM

John, great story about a great man!! I too am prepping a 78 John Deere Cross Country but my racing days are over. It's riding time for me. I'm turning 65 in a few days and can't afford a broken hip LOL. I have retired my #9 340/S and look forward to riding the Cross Country at HOF in February. Todd, I can tell you that Jon Carlson is building a sled for the I-500 Vintage Race. I think?? Archie Simonson might be also. Don
Joe Rainville says:
10/6/2010 6:37:00 PM

John,

Great artical on Brian. I've had the good fortune to ride with Brian on two vintage challenges, and we Deere collectors could listen to his racing stories all day.

Not looking forward to racing against him though! To answer a few questions, Jon Carlson is going to race a Deere, as should Doug Oster and possably Bob Enns. I hear Archie is going to be there also. It will an honor to get smoked by these guys.

-"John Deere Joe" Rainville
Racing a 1980 Liquifire in the I-500
rusty eichorn says:
10/8/2010 8:31:00 AM

soon, very soon, my phone will ring, and it will be arctic cat asking ME to help get the band back together. no enclosed trailers this time around either. i'll be racing out of the back of a half ton.
steve sherwood says:
10/8/2010 4:30:00 PM

I know where I will be that day- and would enjoy seeing Rusty Eichiorn on his TXC and would really get a kick if some of the other old Heartland racers would join in.
Brian is the king and it would be an honor for some of the young guns and even us old guys to ride with him.
"Vintage on a vintage" -can't wait
Brad says:
10/8/2010 8:14:00 PM

I would love to race, maybe I can find a John Deere Liquifier to run, I mean beat Joey with :)
Bill Schiltz says:
10/28/2010 10:55:00 AM

John, I'm glad to see you have moved up from the 71 Lynx to the big horsepower 79 Cross Country. Give me a call sometime and we can tales.
Pluedy says:
11/15/2010 10:13:00 PM

Sand...nice story. Any idea how many entries there might be for the vintage class? More than you three, I hope.
maurice poudrier says:
12/2/2010 7:34:00 PM

just reading the articles, bring back way too many memories, since 1963 thru today, cats are still with me , still have my shop...use to tell my customers..."if its not black ..bring it back
Vern Simon says:
12/16/2016 6:37:00 PM

Great reads!!! I 500. The race of races.! Building a Mercury. To give the. Cats n Deeres. Something to follow!! Did I forget Polaris lol!!

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