This was the 22nd year of the Duluth National snocross opener. I’ve been to every one of them, which makes me old, grizzled and reflective of this event’s place in the world of snowmobile racing.
Snocross is a bit of an anomaly in the snowmobile racing industry, with its largest participation event kicking off the season. Other forms of racing typically experience their biggest events either in the middle of the season (Eagle River, I-500) or towards the end of the racing calendar (Jackson Hole).
As such, the vibe at Duluth is always extra-electric… like it’s 220v instead of 110.
A customary scan of the pits every year gives a visual indication of health and racer participation of national snocross. It probably also says something about the North American economy, as families (rightly) look long and hard before leaping into an expensive hobby.
This year the parking lot appeared to hold an additional row or two of haulers, which bodes well for the season.
Fan participation was also stellar this year. It’s impossible to trust the spectator numbers given for any racing event. I trust my eyes though, and what they saw indicates that people were okay with $47 weekend gate fee (which doesn’t include parking or food/drink) or $27 daily fee.
As more than one person mentioned to me during the weekend, “Everything costs so damn much money these days!”
There’s a new face or two inside the Team Arctic Parts/Accessory trailer this season, but they’re anything but new to this kind of endeavor. Brian Rust (right) will handle the job this season, along with the occasional assistance from his dad, Butch.
Back in the old OLD days, when I got into this industry, Butch operated “Rusty’s Parts Express,” the Polaris race parts trailer. He was a top cross-country racer who passed along the same skills and passion to Brian (who achieved success in oval, cross-country and snocross).
It’s good to have these guys wearing green.
The cold (and sometimes snowy) weather that graced the snowbelt early this year has had a profound effect on snocross, as most racers and teams have logged WAY more pre-Duluth practice laps than most years. The positive effect is that nearly everyone came into Duluth better prepared and more relaxed, which meant I saw more smiles this year than any in recent memory.
Rick Strobel, the head tech guy at FOX Shox, is always good for a smile and few words of wisdom. He’s spent a lot of days at the various practice tracks in Minnesota, working with the teams to fine-tune calibration on this year’s crop of race sleds.
Team Arctic’s Aaron Scheele (right) was also sporting a familiar smile. He’s doing double-duty at the National events this year: as lead mechanic and food service for his son Anson’s race effort; and as an assistant to ISOC’s race director.
Since I skipped the Friday events this year to properly digest my Thanksgiving turkey, I didn’t stroll onto the track until late Saturday morning. By sheer coincidence, one of the first action shots I captured was of Carson Alread, a very-fast dude from Gaylord, Mich. Carson captured the win in Transition 8-12.
Alread’s win was one of nine class victories for Team Arctic this weekend, the most of any manufacture (Polaris had five, Ski-Doo had one). Likewise, Team Green captured 22 of the 45 available podium positions (again, the most of any brand), with at least one rider on the podium in 13 of 15 finals.
Indeed, it was truly an awesome weekend for Team Arctic, and a LONG ways from the long faces of a couple seasons ago when the then-new ProCross-based Sno Pro 600 debuted. The bugs that hampered that first year race sled have long since been worked out.
Taking off my Arctic Cat underwear for a moment, I’d say the three brands competing with 600cc race sleds appear fairly equal, although perhaps the Ski-Doo is a titch (yes, that’s a word) behind.
Team Arctic still has fewer total racers than the other two brands, yet won nearly twice as many finals as Polaris and nine times more than Ski-Doo. I think that says a lot about Arctic Cat machines, teams and drivers.
Ryley Bester almost made it 10 wins for Cat. Competing in Jr. Novice 10-13, Bester holeshot and lead the final for a few laps until he was overtaken by another rider. He finished second, but I suspect he’ll take a win or two this season. He’s fast.
Jay Lura is another very-fast dude who, along with some guy named Tucker, delivered one of the two double-victories of the weekend. Lura’s wins came in the Amateur classes.
Nice job, Jay!
Another Cat win came at the hands of Tyler Adams, who won Sport #2. This was Tyler’s first win in the Sport class at a national, and it was cool to see his raw emotion flowing on the podium as he was flanked by his dad Mark and mechanic Mike Hass.
I missed getting a shot of Team Arctic’s Travis Kern (sorry Travis!), who won the other Sport final at Duluth. In all, Arctic Cat truly dominated the foundation classes.
Sweden’s Marica Renheim will race the full ISOC National schedule in Pro Am Women this season, and she kicked it off with a commanding win at Duluth.
Renheim is racing with the Christian Brothers Racing/DRIFT team.
Actually, CBR is more like a family than they are a team. Here they pose with Renheim following her big win.
Filip Eriksson is another Swedish racer who showed blazing speed at Duluth, finishing fourth in Pro Lite #1.
Josh Zelinski continues to be a force in the Pro AM +30 class, taking third place at Duluth despite a busy fall that prevented him from much pre-event practice.
Pro Lite was the only class that Team Arctic didn’t capture a podium position, but it wasn’t for a lack of possibility. Corey Watkinson won multiple heats throughout the weekend and holeshotted the Pro Lite #2 final, but was tagged by another rider in the rhythm section and finished 11th.
Here’s the start of the Pro Lite #2 final. In addition to Watkinson, Riley McClelland and Matt Pichner were the other two Team Arctic racers on the front row.
The winner of the Best Race Pullover contest.
Like many of the fans at Duluth, I was curious about Yamaha’s race effort, which consists of Arctic Cat ZR6000R Sno Pro race chassis with the 7000-series Yamaha engines.
What I saw suggests that these machines are capable of slotting into the top-4 on the first lap, but then fade with each lap. Whether that speaks to the machines or the riders (or both), I’m not entirely sure.
I know I heard a lot of fans asking to see Tucker Hibbert race one of these engines in his sled, which would indeed be pretty interesting.
As has always been the case at Duluth, there were a contingent of Arctic Cat engineers on hand to watch, talk and learn. One such engineer was Lynn Berberich, who is the Team Leader of the TUF (Touring, Utility, Family) category of Arctic Cat sleds.
Engineers Brian Dick (left) and Dayne Efta (middle) were also paying close attention to the action at Duluth. Brian is the High Performance Team leader, which includes the race sleds, while Dayne is a CAD engineer who “draws” the machines.
Lots of smiles from these two guys during the weekend.
(On the right: Brian’s fiancé Alicia, who was surprised to learn that Brian pays me $50 for every photo/story I publish about him.)
Inside the Christian Brothers Racing trailer, the crew preps the Pro Open sleds of Logan Christian and David Joanis, the latter of whom is new to the team (and the Pro Open class) for 2014.
Next to the CBR team, the Factory Team Arctic trailer showed a similar hustle of activity prepping Cody Thomsen’s sled. Thomsen (left) chats with team manager Dan Ebert following Thomsen’s excellent heat results.
The routine for all the Pro teams is to bring the sled into the trailer after each heat. They use compressed air to blow out all of the accumulated snow and water; download the VIP data; make necessary adjustments; then inspect the machine before heading back out for the next race.
There was a TOTALLY low-key, easy-going vibe inside the Monster Energy/Arctic Cat race trailer of Tucker Hibbert. The combination of an abundant pre-season practice laps and a nicely evolved race sled made for a seriously high level of confidence for the crew.
Here Kirk Hibbert (left) shares a laugh with Steve Houle of Speedwerx. The Speedwerx motor packages continue to be among the best in the entire Pro Open class, and Houle’s knowledge of clutching is second to none.
That too added to the confidence level.
L-to-R: Tucker Hibbert, Roger Skime, Kirk Hibbert and Garth Kaufman compare notes and observations as they prep Tucker’s sled for the weekend.
Bar-to-bar action in a Pro Open heat on Saturday evening.
Mike Bauer is new to Team Arctic for this season. He finished 12th in the first Pro Open final, but didn’t qualify for the second final.
David Joanis proved his switch to Arctic Cat and jump into the Pro Open class were great decisions. He finished 8th and 10th in the two finals, and looked very quick and comfortable on the new machines.
Likewise, Logan Christian appears to have found another gear. He was within striking distance of the podium on Saturday, finishing fourth, then backed it up with a fifth place on Sunday.
Coming off of a season-ending injury early last year, there was a big question mark about Factory Team Arctic racer Cody Thomsen heading into Duluth.
Would he be healthy and ready to race? Would missing most of last season hamper his speed or intensity?
Thomsen answered those questions by nailing the holeshot and leading the first Pro Open final. He would get passed by Tucker Hibbert, but maintained his speed to finish second, his first-ever Pro Open podium!
It was an emotional and satisfying start of the season for Thomsen and the entire Factory crew.
Thomsen brought serious momentum into the second Pro Open final. Early in the race, while passing Amsoil rider Tim Tremblay for third place, Tremblay fell off his sled. And in one of the most mind-boggling calls I’ve seen in a LONG time, ISOC officials black-flagged Thomsen.
I was standing in the corner that the supposed infraction occurred, and I’m at a complete loss to understand the decision. Thomsen was even with or even slightly ahead of Tremblay. Thomsen had the inside line. The contact between the two machines appeared minor at most, but certainly not the fault of either racer. There were huge sharp-edged holes in the line both riders were taking, which appeared to me the true “cause” of Tremblay’s fall.
Until I see video replay of the incident that proves my own eyes were wrong, I’m inclined to believe the decision to black flag Thomsen had more to do with Tremblay’s sponsor than whatever actually occurred on the track.
By now everyone in the free world has heard about Tucker Hibbert’s outstanding performance at Duluth.
He not only won, but he lapped the entire field on Saturday and lapped through fourth place on Sunday. He was on an entirely different level than anyone else… even more than usual. He was alien… from another planet.
I’ve seen a lot of dominant performances over the years by many great racers, but I’ve never seen anything like what Hibbert did at Duluth.
Obviously this is racing and anything can happen, but from what I saw at Duluth, the only real drama remaining this season is who will finish second (and will Tucker lap them)?
Congratulations to all the Team Arctic racers and crew for an outstanding performance at Duluth! There’s A LOT to smile about (even if you have a goofy grin).
Thanks for reading.