Last weekend marked the 33rd Annual Snowmobile Hall of Fame Induction ceremony and Ride with the Champs.
This incredible weekend event in St. Germain, Wis., delivers one of the truly great experiences for snowmobilers whose passion tends towards racing. And it just keeps getting better.
Pulling into the (now expanded) SHOF parking lot, you’re greeted by a sea of snowmobiles ranging from the latest-and-greatest all the way back to classic vintage sleds and a few wonderful clunkers.
And of course, Tom Rowland from Thomas Sno Sports just HAS to make everyone else feel inadequate about their own trailers (see top photo). It’s okay though, because Tom is otherwise such a cool Cat that we don’t care. Case in point: He brought two 2016 Arctic Cat Bearcat 3000 demo sleds for ANYONE to test ride and/or use for the weekend. Thanks Tom, you rock!
SHOF weekend brings all sorts of cool, mostly unseen stuff from out of the woodwork. An awesome example this year is the prototype John Deere IFS sled that is now on-loan to the SHOF courtesy of Polaris (yep, they acquired the assets to John Deere’s snowmobile line way back in the early 1980s).
John Deere aficionados arrive en masse to the SHOF/Ride with the Champs each year, and this machine was like candy to them.
Team Arctic racing master Jeremy Fyle came to the SHOF this year, and he brought with him the restored 1989 Polaris Indy 500 that he piloted to win that year’s Jeep 500 cross-country.
That was a seminal sled for terrain racing, as well as for Polaris AND Arctic Cat. For terrain racing, the Indy 500 (and similar performance machines from the other brands) helped make the Jeep 500 popular to a larger group of would-be racers. For Polaris, it sold so well that the company grew like gangbusters. And for Arctic Cat, it was a benchmark sled that the company would work hard to beat (yet would do so the following year in the Jeep 500 with Kirk Hibbert’s win aboard the EXT Special).
Fyle left the sled at the SHOF, where it will soon be put on display.
You never know what you’re going to see in the parking lot of the SHOF. For instance, here’s a 1970 Panther with Montana pipes getting a little attention from Arctic Cat 2-stroke Engine engineer, Greg Spaulding (right, wearing facemask).
Each year the SHOF displays a unique theme in roughly half of its indoor space. This year’s theme is “Prototypes,” and on hand were a dozen or so prototype machines from the early 1970s through the early 2000s.
On the left is a 1982 Arctic Cat Cougar, one of the “Cats that never were.” On the right, a prototype Kawasaki IFS snowmobile that, like the Deere, has a strut-style suspension that’s similar to what Yamaha came out with in 1980.
Neither Deere nor Kawasaki produced IFS models before exiting the snowmobile industry, but seeing these prototypes makes me wonder what might have happened had such machines appeared?
One of the prototype Arctic Cat Firecat models, featuring a single leaf spring on the front suspension, as well as ZR chassis and hood that had been cut down the middle to remove a couple inches of width, then “put” back together for testing.
The other sleds on display are part of the Hall’s permanent collection and include some SUPER significant race sleds, such as Brad Pake’s 1996 ISOC I-500 champion Arctic Cat ZR 440.
There are all kinds of great, interesting people who come to SHOF weekend. Here’s Chad Lofton, son of Team Arctic legend Charlie Lofton, standing next to Arctic Cat Boss Cat II which was driven by the elder Lofton.
Chad attended this year’s event because his brother-in-law, Steve Houle, was one of the four inductees.
Chad was gracious when I asked him to stand next to his dad’s Hall of Fame plaque. Charlie was inducted posthumously in 1991.
Tom Zernia (right) is another of this year’s inductees. Here he poses for photos with his brand-spanking-new plaque on the wall. It’s very cool to see how personal and important this honor is for the various inductees.
Lots of smiles at the SHOF this weekend, including this monster grin from Drew Zeller, who once again won the Friday poker run. Nice job Drew!
It’s tough to adequately convey what an amazing winter wonderland this part of Wisconsin is, especially on this weekend. It is literally bursting with snowmobilers wherever you go.
Huge signs like this one in Sayner welcome snowmobilers to the towns and hundreds of miles of trails that crisscross the region, many of which are groomed twice per day!
Everywhere you go there’s a buzz of sound (from sleds), energy and enthusiasm.
For snowmobilers, it’s a slice of heaven.
Helping to add to this slice of heaven is SHOF board member Tom White, who grilled a pile of brats for the hundred or so participants of the poker run.
Tom is one of the heavy-lifters within the SHOF organization, and he always has a smile and kind word to say about the sport and its people. We’re lucky to have people like Tom!
A SHOF board meeting takes place during the weekend, where the members discuss the various happenings and business aspects of the Hall. There’s lots of energy with this group, to expand and make better its current events AND to grow the Hall.
The current SHOF building is bursting at the seams with sleds and memorabilia, and able to house only a fraction of the Hall’s inventory of amazing stuff.
A big effort is underway to add a 60 x 100-ft. addition that will have two floors and a major upgrade in displays, facilities and more. This is an effort that will continue the effort to recognize and honor the great people, machines and innovations in the history of snowmobiling, and it’s something that I hope all interested people will participate in a way that works for them.
The Friday evening fish fry has quickly become a hallmark part of SHOF weekend, offering a great, casual atmosphere to be with friends and meet the people who are in town for the weekend.
Lots of laughter going on at this table, where Team Arctic’s Jeremy Fyle, Mike Kloety, Roger Skime, Kevin Thompson, Hubert Fixsen and Brad Pake listened to Jane Pake tell the story of their family getting, ahem, slightly lost during the day’s snowmobile ride to/from Eagle River.
Saturday morning begins bright and early with the Annual Ride with the Champs. Meant as an opportunity to experience the great trails of the area while riding among many racing heroes and celebrities, the RWTC brings out a great group of participants each year. Some ride vintage sleds, others brand-new iron. Some opt for a leisurely 40 mile ride, others a nice 100-miler and, for a few, a brisk 150-mile romp.
Here’s the whole group gathered for a pre-ride picture.
There were a lot of celebrity racers/people this year, including my hero, Roger Skime. Roger is a 1998 SHOF inductee and has come to this weekend several times over the years. Prior to the ride on Saturday morning, Roger talked about what a privilege it was for him and Arctic Cat to be at the SHOF, to be among such great peers and fans, and to be able to honor the four men who would be inducted later that evening.
True to Roger’s style, he was humble, gracious and genuine to the core. There’s HUGE respect for this guy from everyone in the room, regardless of which color their machine.
There were 5-6 different rides to choose from, but by the names on this list, you could tell there was a distinct green hue to its makeup. Seriously, where else in the world do you get to ride 100 miles with Skime, Dimmermans, Lofton, Pakes, Houles, Herfindahls, Scheeles, Kevin Thompson, Mike Kloety, Wayne Davis, Warnings and more?
The group prior to riding.
It took a few miles for the group to get organized and humming along, but when it did it was fun, thrilling and seasoned with the DNA of racers.
That’s Steve Houle roosting on Kevin Thompson, who happened to be riding a 2017 Arctic Cat Engineering sled.
That’s another cool aspect of RWTC: Pretty much every year I’ve been there, someone from Arctic Cat is riding a prototype sled. A careful eye is all it took to spot a few key changes on this particular model, but you had to be at RWTC to get the scoop.
A couple of different stops gave people a chance to swap stories. Here the Scheeles and Pakes give some gentle teasing to Roger for always roosting the exit of every corner.
Steve Houle (center) talks with Zach (left) and Greg Herfindahl. Despite the fact that these guys see each other at most XC races, they don’t get a lot of time to just BS with each other. So RWTC offers something they don’t get at the races.
Saturday evening is the formal part of the weekend, with an autograph session, dinner and induction ceremony.
These three legends are some of my favorite people to bomb around with, talk with and hear stories from.
Each is gentleman and ambassador for the sport. Thanks Doug, Stan and Jim!
Tucker (middle) and Kirk Hibbert (right) came to SHOF to see their friends Houle (left), Pake and Hubert Fixsen get inducted. These three are together every single snocross race and the results they achieve together is pretty remarkable.
Talk about friends who have achieved a lot together! Hubert Fixsen (left) and Brian Nelson were best friends who became one of the most successful cross-country duos of all time, with Hubert designing/tuning the sleds and Nelson piloting them.
Together they notched two Winnipeg I-500 wins (1976 on a Deere and 1978 on a Cat); an ICCSF Championship; multiple ICCSF wins; and part of the brain trust who designed/built the first Arctic Cat ZR machines.
If there was a silver lining to the I-500 being cancelled, it was that it allowed Nelson to be at the SHOF to introduce Hubert.
During the dinner but prior to the induction ceremony, the SHOF had a live auction performed by USXC’s Scott Schuster (left), selling great items like racers’ jackets, helmets, gear and memorabilia to raise money for the SHOF.
Here Hunter Houle models one of his dad’s leather Yamaha race jackets that they donated to the silent auction…
…and the guy bidding-to-win on the jacket was Tucker Hibbert, who told me beforehand that he was going to leave with that jacket no matter what.
Sure enough, Tucker was the highest bidder and, upon winning, proudly put on the jacket, only to question, “How in the heck did Steve EVER fit into this little thing!?!”
Once the induction ceremony began, led by Brad Pake (and being filmed by his daughter Erika), you could hear a pin drop in the room.
Brad told the room of 350-plus people about how he fell in love with snowmobiling, then snowmobile racing. He talked about how Kirk Hibbert saw him race well in the 1993 I-500, which led him to become a member of Team Arctic. He spoke about his subsequent friendship with Kirk and all the other people at Arctic Cat who were instrumental to his career. He talked about Roger; what racing meant to him; and how some of the losses were as important as the wins. He talked about his family, his brother-in-law Tom Herindahl, and his wife Jane.
And, in what was a very touching and truthful moment, he talked about the importance of passing down the experience of snowmobiles and racing to our kids, and how it greatly pleases him to see young Hallstroms, Diesens, Scheeles, Herfindahls, Sandbergs, Pakes, Houles and other next-generation names at the races.
Pake isn’t a very public guy and, fact is, he’s pretty shy. So to see him lay bare what snowmobiling meant to him, was truly special and worth every moment.
Next came Steve Houle who, a few months earlier, told me his speech might just be him standing up and saying “Thanks,” then sitting down.
Thank goodness for everyone in the room that he opted instead to share some of the most personal, heartfelt stories I’ve ever heard at this event. Most touching was his story about his father, Gary, who back in the 1970s earned an invitation to the World Series of Ovals in Malone, NY (I think).
Steve talked about how he’d grown up reading about the legends like Yvon Duhamel, the Trapp brother, Bob Eastman, Gilles Villeneuve and more. He recounted how he didn’t put much stock in his dad’s chances to race with those guys at the World Series. But Gary did something his son didn’t expect: He won that World Series. And in doing so, he taught his son everything he needed to know about life and racing.
It was a story that brought lumps to every throat in the room and tissues to many of the eyes. And it was a glimpse inside of a man whose career success is among the all-time greats.
Thanks, Steve, for sharing your story.
Hubert Fixsen was next.
Despite his current battle with Lyme’s disease that has left him pretty weak, Hubert was his humble, gracious self.
This is a man who has left HUGE tracks in the sport of snowmobiling, and in racing in particular, yet I don’t think he used the word “I” except to say how lucky he was to work with so many great people at Deere and Arctic Cat.
To see him embrace Roger Skime after the speech, tears running down his face in appreciation for the all the life-gifts that Roger had given him, was something I will never forget.
Thank you Hubert.
Tom Zernia was the final inductee of 2016, and he told about the origins of International Snowmobile Racing (ISR, the governing rules body of the sport), and the relationships he’s made over four-plus decades in the sport.
The four Snowmobile Hall of Fame inductees for 2016 (L-to-R): Hubert Fixsen, Tom Zernia, Brad Pake and Steve Houle.
Congratulations to each of these guys and their families!
I’ll end this post with one of the last images in my camera from the weekend. It was an impromptu gathering of the key Arctic Cat people in attendance who were instrumental in the ZR period from 1993-2001.
That was a remarkable period in the history of a company that has a lot of remarkable periods, and it’s burned forever in the makeup of these guys.
L-to-R (and their role back in that period): Tom Herfindahl (Pake’s mechanic); Mike Kloety (Hibbert’s mechanic); Kevin Thompson (engineer); Roger Skime* (VP of Engineering); Kirk Hibbert* (racer, engineer); Hubert Fixsen* (engineer); Brad Pake* (racer); Joey Hallstrom* (Team Arctic Race Manager); Greg Spaulding (engineer); Aaron Scheele (racer); Jeremy Fyle (racer); and Brian Nelson* (engineer).
There are six SHOF inductees here, marked with an *. I wouldn’t be surprised if, 10 years from now, a couple others will have an * next to their name.
Regardless if they do, they’re all hall-of-famers in my eyes.
Thanks for reading.