L-to-R: Larry Coltom, Bill Decker, Bobby Elsner, Dave Thompson, Bill Ness, Jim Dimmerman and Roger Skime
By Jim Dimmerman
Four years ago, in the fall of 2014, the nucleus of Team Arctic’s last Factory Sno Pro team gathered for the first time. Roger Skime, Larry Coltom, Dave Thompson, Bob Elsner, Bill Decker, Bill Ness and myself gathered in New Richmond, Wis., at Rich Pederson’s Zed Shed and then onto a nice St. Croix River boat ride and lunch in nearby Stillwater.
It was the first time in more than 30 years that the seven of us had been together, and it was one of the most enjoyable and memorable events of my life.
Former Arctic Cat CEO Bill Ness was our host at his beautiful Hudson home and shared with us his spectacular deck view of the river while we reminisced about the times we shared as the Team Arctic Sno Pro team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the height of oval racing popularity.
For those of you that may have missed that first reunion story, you can click this link www.arcticinsider.com/article/legends-gather-team-arctic-sno-pro-reunion and read it all, including the kind and thoughtful comments of many people.
That first reunion four years ago had rekindled great friendships. We left that weekend knowing that we’d started something good and would do it again someday.
Fast forward four years. In August the same team descended on St. Germain and Eagle River, two Wisconsin northwoods towns that were and still are a hub of snowmobile race history. We had a couple of days together, with a lot to catch up on since our first reunion four years earlier, plus a lot see in these two historic towns.
It had been many years since most of these guys have toured the Snowmobile Hall Of Fame (St. Germain) and the World Snowmobile Headquarters (Eagle River).
We started the day with our first stop at the Eagle River Derby Track, where we literally stood on the starting line gazing at the famed half-mile oval that had been the sight great triumphs for this group, a few painful defeats and one terrible accident. As we stood in the grass that grows during the site’s dormant summer months, our memories were of January days racing on this hallowed ground. Of course the stories flowed…
Out of the blue Roger pointed to a spot just to the left of the starting line and said, “I changed broken cleats on Steve Anderson’s 1968 744 Panther sled with a hand pop-riveter right there.”
It was a story I’d never heard and not what I’d expected. Roger has spent a lifetime at this racetrack. We can only imagine how many stories he could tell if he just paused long enough to remember them.
Then Larry (aka “Sarge” to this group) piped up with a the story of what had been his best chance to win the World’s Championship:
It was the final in 1974. He had race leader Giles Villeneuve in his sights and was just waiting for the last laps to wind down before he’d pounce. With two laps to go, right at the starting line, Sarge blew a belt. He pointed up towards the first corner infield
“That’s where I sat and cried under my helmet,” he remembered.
There are many great snowmobile racers who never won the World’s Championship, but in my opinion there is none greater than Larry Coltom.
To have been one most accomplished snowmobile racers of all time, having won virtually every major oval race and championship during the heyday of the sport, but missing this one title…is a painful example that even the best racers suffered bad luck and misfortune.
Nobody has to tell that to Dave Thompson, who of course remembered his fateful accident at this track in 1975 when he nearly died. Dave’s vivid recollection of that day is chilling, even though all of us were there when it happened and had heard him tell the story several times over the years.
But this time, more than four decades since, I heard another part of the story, but from the perspective of Bobby, who was an independent Arctic Cat racer at the time but would soon be given the chance of a lifetime.
Dave Thompson (left) and Bobby Elsner
Because of the crash Dave was out of the race. But his factory 650 Super Mod was primed and ready. The decision was made to offer it to Bobby to drive, which he gladly accepted and returned the favor by winning the Mod V final that weekend.
As he stood reminiscing about it, Bobby said to Dave, “I remember the gearing ran out right at the end of the straight, just before the corner…I could steer it anywhere I wanted to go.”
Davey smiled. That would have been his championship sled.
Bill Decker, the man who managed Team Arctic’s PR and Marketing back in the day, was the next to talk. He recalled the famous 1979 Eagle River race that he’d commissioned to be filmed, and that was narrated by John Valencia. [If you’ve never seen it, watch it now. Even if you have seen it, it’s always worth watching again. –Ed]
It was the first manufacturer attempt to produce a professionally filmed video, and what a HUGE success it was! That tape played in cassette machines at Arctic Cat dealerships throughout the world, and it’s words still echo through my ears:
“They came from Rhinelander and Middle River,” as the camera captures guys dragging a 16-gallon keg of beer onto the banking spectator area.
That race and Bobby’s historic win will be 40 years old this coming Derby! Those 40 years gave Roger, Bobby and I a different perspective as we walked the track during the reunion.
The first thing we noticed is that the straightaways seemed longer than in January. I reminded Roger that our Sno Pro sleds would hit about 98 mph if you entered turn 1 at the top. That was fast 40 years ago and it’s still fast today.
I can’t imagine how many thousands of laps Team Arctic has accumulated at this track. The company even went so far as to build our test track in Thief River to the exact Derby Track dimensions.
That test track and the hundreds of other efforts made by Team Arctic made a difference in our careers and success at Eagle River. Bobby and I had great drives to win our World Championship titles.
Forty years since his win and 34 years since mine…it felt very special to me to walk this track reminiscing with our race boss and my teammate… kicking the dirt and looking through the corner at the lines we once drove.
I’ll never forget the roar of the crowd over the sound of my engine coming down the front straight to take the checkered flag. People were hanging over the fence with arms waving frantically. It was the longest sigh of relief in my life!
The careers of each of us were bolstered by our performance at THIS track. Bill Ness, then CEO of Arctic Enterprises, believed that what happened on this very starting line on Sunday was the fuel to expose the strength of Arctic Cat. He was standing in front of us now, telling us about his overwhelming pride about the accomplishments of “his boys.” He was certainly right, no one has the loyal fan base like Arctic Cat!
Having taken in the sight and a lap of the Derby track, we walked the few hundred feet to World Snowmobile Headquarters Museum next door, which displays an outstanding collection of historic Derby photos. Of course our motley (but much younger) faces are plastered on the walls. On these walls are also great photos of countless consumer racers, all using machines developed thru Team Arctic Racing.
As we walked through the museum, it occurred to me that these six guys I was with probably never stop to think about how much they influenced oval racing. But that influence is plain as day to anyone who stands back and looks not at the individual pictures on the wall, but the bigger picture they tell.
After touring the HQ we went a block down the road for a surprise visit to the Best Western Derby Inn where we stunned another famous racer of our era, Allen Decker.
Allen (third from left) owns this hotel, which contains some great Derby memorabilia including the signature Argosy Cup trophy. Hands were shook, photos were taken, then it was time to continue our tour.
A block the other direction, across the street from the track, we made one more surprise visit to see Zach Herfindahl at his family’s school bus transportation business. If we were the old guard of Team Arctic, Zach represents the new generation. He’s one of the best cross-country riders of this generation, yet he’s also a fan of the old Sno Pro era and is restoring a couple Team Arctic sleds from it.
Next, it was on to the Snowmobile Hall Of Fame in St.Germain just down the road from Eagle River. As we pulled into the SHOF parking lot, the first first thing the boys spotted were the factory race trailers of Arctic and Polaris.
We parked next to the Polaris trailer, which is restored to the condition it appeared in the 1970s and decorated with names like Bob Eastman, Jim Bernat, Brad Hulings, Jerry Bunke, Steve Thorsen and others.
Larry, standing next to me, said, “There are some pretty powerful names on the side of that trailer.” Oh yeah there are!
The Team Arctic trailer next to it was used for racing parts support back in the day. Charlie Lofton’s name is still painted on the side. We stopped for a long while and reflected on this “Tough Cat.” Lofton was a HUGE part of Team Arctic. And we all lost a little something when he died in a tragic plane accident in 1989 at just 43 years old.
We talked about Charlie for quite awhile and then walked over to the Museum with a little emptiness in our hearts.
The new addition at the SHOF was in the final stages of construction when we were there and looked grandiose and full of potential. Again, walking inside is overwhelming with the awesome history on display. And yes the boys are plastered on the walls here too, with inductee plaques for Roger, Davey, Bobby, myself and Charlie.
Jamie Zeller, the SHOF museum curator, made a special trip to open up the house just for us. Thank you Jamie!
We perused the museum, stopping in C.J. Ramstad Memorial Library for a moment to acknowledge another Legend that left too soon.
After an hour spent at the SHOF we’d seen enough snowmobiles. It was time to go back to our motel with a box of beer and let the B.S. begin. Let me tell you it got DEEP, fast!
We sat for four hours and covered everything past, current and future. It was the most fun we had during the whole reunion. When the beer was gone it was time to turn in.
The next day the TRF crew of Roger, Larry and Davey headed back home.
Bobby, Bill Decker and I stayed for an extra day of golfing. Old man Elsner kicked our butts, proving that nothing’s changed in 40 years. He’s 74-years old and I’m 63, but I still can’t beat that guy. What the hell?!
After the golf game the three of us shook hands, shared a couple last laughs, then went our separate ways. In the weeks that have passed since that second reunion, I’ve played the conversations and memories over in my head a hundred times. I’m always sad when they end, but I’m also excited for the next one, which will be even better that the first two.
Thus far our reunions have mostly been the drivers. But there were a whole bunch more people who made Team Arctic Sno Pro than the few of us who piloted the sleds.
Midway through this most recent reunion, the seven of us agreed that the NEXT reunion would include the rest of the team: Roger Gage, Dennis Zulawski, Durmont Wahl, Donn Eide and a few others.
We also had some thoughts about our next destination. We have to work through some logistics, but like Bobby said to me “What else have do you have to do Bucky?”
To which I responded, “Do you want to do it Bobby?”
“No, no, no Bucky, you can handle it!”
Bill Decker, we knocked another one out of the park this year. I love you bud!
I love all these guys:
I’m sure lucky to be a part of TEAM ARCTIC