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The Duluth Report: Observations on the 2016 Snocross Opener


(12/2/2015)

As it has been for the past 23 years, Spirit Mountain hosted the season-opening Thanksgiving snocross in grand fashion, with a who's-who of racers, fans and industry people showing up to see what's new in the highest profile form of snowmobile competition.

I've been to every one of those events, a couple as a wanna-be racer and the rest as a wanna-be journalist. I've seen the ebbs and flows of excitement, attendance, craziness and weirdness that have come to define this always interesting weekend.

Here are my observations on year #24:

 

Duluth Spirit National Snocross 2015. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

The obligatory shot of the pits give a perspective on the sport, or at least how much gear it can haul around to the eight different venues that comprise the 2015-16 ISOC National Series.

My view: ISOC has done a really good job the last few years with the races, the accessibility (Live Stream viewing is pretty awesome) and the comprehensive marketing.

Yes there is some wonkiness (inverted starting orders, for example), but most of what ISOC is pushing is worth getting addicted to.

 

Duluth Spirit National Snocross 2015. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Duluth Spirit National Snocross 2015. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

There was a HOLY MESS of people who spectated at Duluth this year. Like record-breaking numbers!

How many? I spent a couple minutes trying to count everyone in the stands but eventually gave up when some drunk guy in a 1994 Polaris jacket interrupted me by asking if I knew a good place to buy Pro-5 pipes for an Indy XLT Triple.

Spirit Mountain sets the prices for this event and they certainly made a handsome profit this year. A friend of mine went with his son for the day on Saturday. Cost for tickets, pit passes, a couple hamburgers and a few drinks: $150. To some that will sound like a small ransom while to others it will seem a great value for nearly 12 hours of race entertainment.

 

Team Arctic Cat's Brian Dick. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Among the fans at Duluth this and every year is this sly smiling hombre, Brian Dick. As the lead Arctic Cat engineer for the ZR6000R race sleds (as well as all trail performance machines), Brian has a keen interest in what happens at ALL the races, and especially the first one or two.

When I asked him on Saturday what he'd learned so far during the weekend, he replied: "Our sled is working pretty good. We're getting good holeshots, which I think we can attribute to the new track and the holeshot device. Nothing is breaking, which is good. Looks like all the brands are pretty competitive."

 

Arctic Cat's Roger Skime with Tom Lawrence. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Two other been-around-since-the-invention-of-snow guys that I talked with at Duluth were Roger Skime (left) and Tom Lawrence, race team manager at Ski-Doo. Lawrence has spent a lifetime in the snowmobile industry, including at Arctic Cat, Black Magic, ISOC and more.

While these guys are competitors on the track, they're longstanding friends off of it. Both were enthused about the crowd and the performance of their own brand's machines.

When I snapped this shot, Tom was telling Roger the finishing order of the previous final. Roger has taken notes about this kind of stuff since the first Eagle River Derby in 1964.

 

Blair Morgan, snocross Superman. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

I'm happy to see all my friends at Duluth, but I was most happy to see this guy, Blair Morgan.

It had been seven years since Blair attended a national snocross race. He was at Duluth sporting the colors of his "other" brand, Ski-Doo, who tapped him to help coach Tim Tremblay this season. Blair was the only racer who could ever race as an equal to Tucker, so they are hoping he can impart some sage advice to Tremblay.

Regardless of his intentions, I was thrilled to see Morgan, who was sincerely enjoying his time at Duluth.

 

Duluth Spirit National Snocross 2015. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

A stroll through the pits always produces some conversations with a variety of racers, crews and fans. Here Factory Team Arctic mechanic Jeff Wittwer (right) talks with the crew from Haala Racing and Dylan Jansen.

Jansen had a great weekend in the Sport class, claiming a 3rd and 7th, while Trent Wittwer came out of Duluth with a 10th in the same class. More and better things to come for both of these racers/teams the rest of the season...

 

Christian Brothers Racing. Team Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Inside the Christian Brothers Racing trailer, the crew was prepping the Pro Open sleds of Logan Christian and David Joanis. Here shock pro Mike Carver (left) talks with mechanic Betsy Haldorson about front arm travel on Logan's skidframe.

They were experimenting with changes only as small as 3/8-in. of travel variance. Like all racers, the goal is to get as much cornering precision as possible WITHOUT sacrificing front arm travel. It's the Holy Grail of suspension set-up, because achieving one always adversely affects the other.

Using the Cross-Link system helps, but there's still a tradeoff that must be faced.

 

Christian Brothers Racing. Team Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

In the back of the Christian Brothers trailer, owner Dwight Christian (middle) talks with Steve Houle of Speedwerx (right) and mechanic Ethan Hanson.

The conversation ranged from clutching to kids to cross-country to coffee to video games to work ethic and finally landed back on kids, all in less than 90 seconds. Whew!

 

Tucker Hibbert Monster Energy Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

A few minutes later, Houle (right) was inside Tucker Hibbert's trailer where the conversation with Kirk Hibbert (center) and Dan Ebert bounced around between clutching and farming (both Houle and Hibbert do some farming).

In other words, everything was fine in the world's of the two biggest Arctic Cat teams at Duluth. A lot of work getting done, for sure, but with machines as evolved as these (it's already been four years since the ProCross debuted at Duluth), there's an atmosphere of calm inside the trailers.

 

Hayes brake upgrade kit for Arctic Cat race sleds. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Sorry for the crummy photo, but I'm including to show that the new Hayes upgrade kit (larger diameter disc, 4-piston caliper) for the ZR race sleds is done and ready, as shown here on Dan Benham's sled. I'll have a story on this in a couple weeks.

Okay, let's see some race pix!

 

Team Arctic Cat's Anson Scheele. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Team Arctic pretty much crushed the Junior classes at Duluth, winning every one (except 120s) and often taking the majority of the top positions.

Here's a quote from Team Arctic Race Manager Mike Kloety about the team's success this weekend, with emphasis on the younger classes:

“We’re happy and excited. For starters, it’s great to capture the big class with Tucker. That’s the headline win for sure. But it’s equally impressive to win every Junior category, with Team Green taking five of the top-6 in Jr. 16-17, four of the top-5 in Jr. 10-13 and seven of the top-10 in Jr. Girls. Plus we claimed podium positions in every Pro Lite, Sport and Sport Lite class."

It was only 2-3 years ago that Kloety and Team Arctic took some flak for not having more racers and top finishes in the middle and Semi Pro, er, Pro Lite classes of snocross. At the time, Kloety essentially said "Be patient, we're going to grow this program rather than trying to buy racers."

Well, Kloety's tactic is paying off big time!

Above is a shot of Anson Scheele en route to winning the Transition 8-12 class, looking all stylish and factory-like. Another familiar name in Team Arctic history took a third in this class...Pake...Andy Pake.

(The only Cat race winner who's picture I didn't capture was that of Inanna Hauger who won Jr. Girls 9-13 ahead of Taven Woodie. Sorry Inanna, you deserve a photo here!)

 

Team Arctic Cat's Eric Downs. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Eric Downs took the win in Jr. 10-13 with Evan Christian taking second.

From what I gather talking with the powers that be is that the powered-down 600s will continue to become the standard choice of sleds for the younger classes. With the exhaust valves locked down and RPM limits, they're running nearly identical performance as Arctic Cat's Sno Pro 500 and ZR 4000RR models, plus they include models from Ski-Doo and Polaris.

 

Team Arctic Cat's Ryley Bester. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Ryley Bester has been winning snocross races for a lot of years, but I'd say he reached a whole new level at Duluth. Not only did the 14-year-old win the Jr. 14-15 and Jr. 16-17 finals, he no sooner finished both those finals and competed in the Sport #2 class at Duluth, where he won both heats and was in second place in the final before tangling with a racer and going down. He rebounded to finish 8th.

I wouldn't be surprised if Bester won a Sport class or two this season. The kid is FAST!

 

Team Arctic Cat's Brandon Lind. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Brandon Lind is another Team Arctic kid who looks to win in Sport this year. He left Duluth with 2nd and 3rd place plaques.

 

Team Arctic Cat's Dan Benham. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Team Arctic graduated its two best Sport riders from last year into Pro Lite for this season. Dan Benham is one of those riders, and he proved the wisdom of that jump with a third place in Pro Lite #1. A crash in the whoop section on Sunday took Benham out of competition for the remainder of the weekend, but it sounds like he'll be back and racing at the next round in Fargo.

 

Team Arctic Cat's Montana Jess scored a pair of two's in Pro Lite. Photo by ArcticInsider.

Montana Jess is the other Sport-to-Pro-Lite jumper this season, and he absolutely delivered the goods in Duluth with two second-place finishes.

Jess looked fast, poised and patient in a class renowned for keep-it-pinned, whiskey-throttle craziness. He is going to win races and he will be a championship contender.

 

Team Arctic Cat's Wes Selby. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

While Team Arctic's young guns were on fire at Duluth, one of the team's grizzled veterans returned to snocross and proved that he still has mojo.

Yep, cross-country ace Wes Selby jumped into the Pro AM 30-plus class and landed on the podium with a strong second place finish.

 

Team Arctic Cat's Corey Watkinson. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Okay, time for some observations on the Pro Open guys, starting with Corey Watkinson.

Watkinson made the jump to Pro Open after running top-3 (and winning!) in Pro Lite much of last season. Like pretty much everyone who jumps into this class, Watkinson was met with a new level of speed and strength that he'll learn to navigate with time and experience.

 

Logan Christian, Team Arctic. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Logan Christian was poised to make Duluth his launchpad for consistent podium positions this season. Unfortunately, he was a victim of the whoop section during Saturday's final and ended up with a concussion. He took starts (for points) in the heat races on Sunday, but didn't actually race.

Talking with him today (Wed.), he says the headaches ended early Tuesday morning and there are no more signs of concussion. He's planning to practice on Thursday of this week and will race in Fargo.

That's good news.

 

Team Arctic Cat's Cody Thomsen. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

While no longer the factory team pilot, Cody Thomsen hasn't stepped away from racing. He's planning to hit the first few races of the season and see where it goes from there.

At Duluth he showed flashes of brilliance, including winning a heat on Sunday, and finished 12th.

 

Team Arctic Cat's David Joanis. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

David Joanis was truly firing on all cylinders at Duluth, winning three of four heats (and taking second in the fourth) over two days. The guy had absolutely BLISTERING starts!

Alas, if there was a victim of ISOC's wonky inverted starting rule, it was Joanis, who got crowded out in both finals and never saw a clear track. He ended the weekend with a 6th and 11th, which is solid but not indicative of how fast he was going throughout the weekend.

Oh, hey, check out the sweet retro leopard print seat and Arctic Cat decal on the back of Joanis's sled!

 

Team Arctic Cat's Justin Broberg. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Justin Broberg is new to Team Green this season. Like any new racer, there was uncertainty of where he would slot in while running brand-new equipment that he's not accustomed to.

The answer: fourth place in Pro Open #1!

That’s a pretty impressive finish, one that portends well for the rest of the season.

 

Tucker Hibbert Monster Energy Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

Which leaves us with the master blaster of snocross disaster. He's back and he's even FASTER!

Well, I can't say for sure if Tucker Hibbert is faster than last year, but he's still the fastest guy on the track.

 

Tucker Hibbert Monster Energy Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

As we know from the results, Tucker finished the weekend with a win and a second (he was a cat's whisker from moving into second before the race ended on Sunday).

Getting buried on the start was the difference maker on Sunday, as he was nearly a half-lap behind Kody Kamm by the time he'd moved into second.

Oh well, at least he once again gave us the wonderful entertainment of moving through the pack and catching Kamm at the finish line jump for the checkered flag. Without that show, the final would have been a bit of a snoozer in terms of drama.

 

Tucker Hibbert talks to the Jackwagon. Photo by John Hanson.

After the race Tucker told me that despite not winning on Sunday, he was really, really pleased with the weekend. Based on a preseason that didn't afford the kind of testing he expects, he went into the weekend knowing that there were going to be a few challenges. And when he saw the track at Duluth that was narrower and with far less snow than normal, he knew that passing was going to be tougher than usual.

So a first and second were a good start to his season.

 

Tucker Hibbert Monster Energy Arctic Cat. Photo by ArcticInsider.com

And with that I'm going to end this report.

Congratulations to all the Team Arctic racers and crew who achieved their goals at Duluth.

Thanks to all of the racers who competed at Duluth, whether you were on a green sled or not.

And thanks for reading!



Comments (13):

I Bleed Green! says:
12/2/2015 2:05:00 PM

Awesome weekend, nice to see the younger kids doing well. I plan on making Duluth in the coming years, and will more than likely be at Fargo again. How crazy stupid fast is Hibbert, wow! Go team arctic!
Chris Schramm says:
12/2/2015 2:54:00 PM

I usually always go Sunday but this year we went Saturday night. The large amount of drunk people that did not even know what they were watching got old fast. Also I think it is time Spirit Mountain comes up with some better places to sit. Bleachers in front of the finish line is a complete waste. Other than that the racing and weather was perfect. I recommend Sunday if your bringing kids.
Scott Watters says:
12/2/2015 2:59:00 PM

Another very well covered race weekend recap John. One thing that was very noticable and so nice to see again was the strong presence of Team Arctic at the starting line and throughout all of the classes. Hat's off to Mike Kloety/Team Arctic for putting together such a good group of racer's for the 2015/2016 season. This past weekend kind of reminded me of the 90's into early 2000's when Arctic Cat dominated most snocross classes and was the machine to beat which made grown men cry and little kid's pee their pants.....I hope this is a strong sign to come for the future of Team Arctic Cat!
Todd U says:
12/2/2015 3:56:00 PM

24 Years of great racing and race coverage! Love the Live Streaming! Totally got my racing fix from the comfort of my couch!
Hey, what's up with Tucker's "generic" looking goggles?
Thanks for the great write up!
Todd U says:
12/2/2015 3:56:00 PM

24 Years of great racing and race coverage! Love the Live Streaming! Totally got my racing fix from the comfort of my couch!
Hey, what's up with Tucker's "generic" looking goggles?
Thanks for the great write up!
Dulpher says:
12/2/2015 4:11:00 PM

Awesome recap! I too agree, Arctic Cats presence on track in all classes was excellent. Cudos to Mike Kloety! Good to see the "kids" coming up through the ranks!! How about an interview with Broberg?
Mike F says:
12/2/2015 6:03:00 PM

Sweet write up as always. Congrats to everyone. The live stream is awesome. You can be out in the shop working on your own sled and still catch the races. I need a seat like Dave Joanis!
Paul Nadeau says:
12/2/2015 7:30:00 PM

Another great write up! Awesome photos! Excellent racing, live stream is a life line for me living in northern Maine. I saw a few interviews for future stories John, Betsy Haldorson would be an interesting story, how many other lady mechanics are out there at this level? There sure is lots of talent out there, congrats to all Arctic racers, Have a safe and winning season!
Dave M. says:
12/3/2015 10:12:00 AM

No matter what colors he's wearing it's fantastic to see Superman back in the game.
Eric Bergstrom says:
12/3/2015 1:29:00 PM

Thanks for the great recap John! You're right, live streaming is really a great service, and one that we do not take for granted whatsoever.

Regarding the Duluth races specifically though, my wife and I attended last year. While we did have a lot of fun, the event did feel like a bit of a money grab. Everything was uber-expensive compared to other races, and the number of spectators vs. seating was WAY out of balance. Getting a piece of aluminum bleacher to stand on was a miracle, and you could not see a thing from the ground (and I'm 6'10" tall). Combined with the pushing and shoving by others trying to shoe horn their way up and down, it was definitely an adventure. Hopefully some of those wrinkles can be ironed out in future years, because it's an awesome event otherwise.
g43 says:
12/3/2015 4:17:00 PM

Excellent race coverage!! Does Team artic no longer have a factory team? Can"t believe Cody Thompson doesn't have a Factory Ride !! Let's not forget that Zak Mason and Kyle Palin were both long time Team Artic riders and were let go, very unfortunate. It looks like Justin Broberg could be a very nice addition for Arctic in the Pro Open class.
Mike F says:
12/3/2015 5:45:00 PM

g43...The who is riding for whom is always a delicate balancing act. Sometimes riders are let go, but very often it a matter of money. When your competitors are companies that are 20 times bigger that AC, some times the checkbook is the deciding factor for both parties. A lot of things go into it, that is what makes it so interesting! Kloety does a REALLY good job with the limited resources he has.
Mike
Wade says:
12/8/2015 4:11:00 AM

Pro 5 pipes can be found buried in the pile of twisted up and spun crank cases they caused on the Polaris JLO motors they ran in the XLT. I mean Fuji motors I get those two mixed up.

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