Last year Team Arctic’s Brian Nelson took aim at the inaugural USCC Red Lake I-500 vintage event with the same lazer-like focus that made him a cross-country racing legend in the 1970s.
That remarkable effort netted him and his fleet a one-two finish in the reprised race, with teammate Joey Hallstrom winning and Nelson taking a close second.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Nelson will be back again this year, with two “new” El Tigres that he built during the summer and fall.
Earlier this week I spent a day in his Spicer, Minn., shop, working on my race sled and documenting the master at work, doing what he does best.
From the “How I Spent My Summer” files come these two 1979 Cross-Country racers that are brand-new for this race season.
Yep, despite the fact that the pair of Tigers that went 1-2 at last year’s race are still perfect and will likely be raced again this year, Nelson built ANOTHER pair of racers for this year’s event, each bearing new tweaks and improvements based on what was learned last season.
While very similar to last year’s sleds, these new machines feature shorter tracks, slightly taller seats and new calibration of the FOX shox.
My own race sled was in his shop on this day, ready to get some of that good ol’ Brian-Nelson-Black-Magic. On the agenda: a motor swap back to the mill that burned down in the middle of last year’s race (and that Nelson rebuilt during the summer); a new hood; and a complete evaluation of everything on the sled.
It’s interesting: on my two-hour drive to Spicer that day, driving past fields and ditches that contained just a trace of snow, I was in a sour mood because of this (so-far) lame winter. It’s weird, because I can get amped up to 10 for snowmobiling when it’s 90 degrees in July, but when it’s 40 degrees in January, my mood is decidedly melancholy.
But within minutes of getting inside of this familiar race shop, with the feint smell of metal and combustion, my attitude does a 180.
And as the conversations about racing and riding mix with the rattle of tools and Nelson’s favorite oldies radio station, I am once again fired-up about that winter that will surely come (albeit later than we hoped).
Freshly rebuilt and ready to redeem itself, this 440 liquid engine will power my hopes and dreams this season (and those to come).
Yep, the Spirit’s Gonna Move…me.
Every time there was a need for heavy lifting, I grabbed the camera. Really, Brian, I think it’s important to capture these images…
I’m switching to the 1980-81 El Tigre hood for a couple reasons. One, the original hood (which I think looks the coolest) is still in really good condition, and I want to keep it that way. And two, the newer hood has additional venting, which might have been the difference why my engine burned down last year, while Hallstrom’s and Nelson’s didn’t.
This new hood is a repop and the area for the headlight isn’t exact, so it needs a little grinding to make ‘er fit.
Like a Jedi-master, Nelson notices both the big and small things that need fixing. In this case, the new hood didn’t fit exactly as it should, and was “off” by less than a quarter-inch. While some people might not notice or care, Nelson instantly sees such gremlins, and there’s zero hesitation whether or not to fix them.
Several trips to the vice with the hood hinge and a rat-tail file are required to fix the problem.
Moments like these literally happen a hundred times with each sled. When we hear of racers “building their race sled,” it can mean “big” efforts like installing an engine, rebuilding shocks or swapping a track. But more often than not, it means these small, fixes that are usually unglamorous and require much trial-and-error. And it’s the accumulation of these efforts that have helped make champions of people like Nelson, Hibbert, Dimmerman, Scheele, Wanderscheid, Pake, Davis, Cormican, Coltom, Ebert, Dick, Herzig, Devault, Young, Hall, Moyle, Yancey, Fyle, Sturgeon and the other Team Arctic legends.
Here’s another example, with Nelson checking the rate of a clutch spring. You can take five orange-colored springs and there will be a small variance between them. A box full of such springs, each marked, can help fine-tune clutch performance that little, extra bit.
The accumulation and organization of parts and tools is yet another defining characteristic of champion race efforts.
For me personally, having raced out of this shop in 1994 and again last season, the familiarity of such things and their corresponding routine brings a joy and satisfaction that are tough to describe.
There are dozens of such routines for those lucky and persistent enough to work and/or race out of a shop, ranging from the kinds of rags you use (old t-shirts for this shop) to the brand of wash soap (dish soap and Lava) to where you relieve yourself (outside, in the little section of garden between the shop and the garage).
Undoubtedly one of the most familiar aspects to many is their toolbox and the lifetime of tools contained within it.
I love the fluidity of navigating each drawer without even thinking, knowing exactly where each tool rests… where to place the razor blades so that you don’t cut yourself… where the homemade spring tool sits in the screw driver tray… the special spot for the 12-point 13mm socket for the clutch bolt…and a hundred other nuances for your box.
The patina that each tool box takes is equally cool, and it’s no surprise I’m particularly fond of this old Snap-On box and cab that have graced Nelson’s shop for decades.
In the nearly 12 hours we worked on this day in January, we made steady progress.
From checking heating elements in the handlebars to re-torquing skidframe bolts, there is literally no end to what can be done to a race sled.
And like he has done hundreds-upon-hundreds of times previously, Nelson ended this day jotting notes of things to do and parts to order.
And so it goes, another day in the life of a champion racer.
Thanks for reading.