L-to-R: Dave Thompson, Roger Skime, Jim Dimmerman, Bill Decker, Bob Elsner, Bill Ness, Larry Coltom.
Team Arctic Reunion: The Boys Are Back In Town
-By Jim Dimmerman
The 7th of August my cell phone rang about 10:00 am. The caller ID said it was Bill Decker, the former Team Arctic PR and Sales Promotion manager for Arctic Cat back in the Sno Pro era of the late 1970s and early 80s. That team was comprised of Dave Thompson, Larry Coltom, Bob Elsner, myself, plus our mechanics and some others.
To say the least, Bill and I were very good friends from that era, but I hadn’t talked with him in decades. Seeing his name on the caller ID made my heart jump.
We did the usual preliminary small talk and he cut to the chase. He said, “Bucky, I’ve got something on my bucket list I need to do. I want to get together with you Team Arctic drivers one more time, I’m willing to pay for all the costs and I’ll travel wherever. Do you think we can do it?”
I replied, “That’s an awesome idea, I feel exactly the same way.”
I went on to tell him that Elsner would be the toughest to get to come. I had spoken to Bobby a couple of years ago to see if he would come to Eagle River’s 50th. He really didn’t want to be in front of all those people, so he said no. He might have a different feeling about a small Team Arctic reunion.
I gave Bob’s number to Bill. Twenty minutes later Bill called me back and said “Bobby’s good to go!”
He only would have done that for you, Bill. Great!
The next challenge is to get Coltom out of Thief River Falls…he doesn’t stray far from home very often. I gave Larry’s number to Bill and, awhile later, Bill call back to say that Larry’s good to go…Dave Thompson’s good to go and Roger Skime will drive them down to Hudson, Wis., to our hotel.
Bill Ness (former Arctic Cat CEO and Chairman of the Board) will meet us at the hotel. It’s all set for September 19-20. I’ll pick up Bill Decker at the airport (coming in from St. Louis) and drive to Hudson and meet up with the others about 4:00 Friday.
It was a beautiful Friday. I pulled up to Bill at the airport where he was standing on the curb. Thirty-three years had passed since we’d seen each other. A big hug, tears of joy welling up in our eyes, and smiles from ear to ear on both of us. We had non-stop jabber back and forth for the ride to Wisconsin.
I couldn’t believe this was really happening… Bill looked just the same, well, almost just the same. He’s about 70 years old now, but still full of that same enthusiastic charisma. He’s a great guy to be around. Everybody in the industry loved him, myself included.
Bill and I sat in the hotel lobby gabbing away. At 3:00 pm Bobby Elsner strolls through the door. I jumped up, smiling, and with a hearty handshake, we met. I hadn’t seen Bobby for 25 years, since Eagle River’s 25th anniversary. He looked just the same, very fit, except gray where there was once color! He could easily still throw a leg over a Sno Pro sled, maybe not bend at the knees, but he could still ride one! Decker came to him and gave him a huge hug, their smiles were so wide as their eyes teared up. I couldn’t be happier to see them together again.
We sat in the lobby, now three-way jabbering until Roger Skime comes in with Larry Coltom and Dave Thompson. Now it’s official. The Boys are back in town!!
I’ve seen Roger, Larry, and David almost every year over the course of the past 30 years, but they hadn’t seen Bobby or Bill Decker since 1981. I just sat back and watched these old friends get back in the groove. I kept shaking my head…I can’t believe this is happening. My heart was totally filled with joy! My mentors were all in front of me once again. Gray as ghosts, but mentors just the same.
Then, Bill Ness walks in. “Well, hello boys,” he says.
Ness was the money-man behind Team Arctic Racing. He believed snowmobile racing was hugely important to Arctic Cat’s success as a business and he supported what was then a million dollar budget to fuel it. As Chairman of the Board and CEO of the company, he certainly had the power and influence to make it happen, and he did to till the very end.
So now in the lobby we have the VP of Engineering, the PR & Sales Promotion Manager, 4 race team drivers and the man behind the company. I’d say that’s a full house!
You might think that seven guys talking in a small lobby would have a buzz of different topics going all at once…not so…a topic would come up and each of us would comment separately. I don’t think anyone wanted to miss what the other guy was saying, so we’d beat the topic to death and move on to a new one!
So the big question, what did we talk about?
First of all, very little of it was about racing. We needed to get caught up on our home lives, wives, kids, jobs, etc., sports, Vikings, Packers, Adrian Peterson, NASCAR, Kevin Harvick, Budweiser sponsorship (Bill knows a lot about Budweiser), race team budgets & development.
We talked about world events, Obama, health care and the economy, Arctic Cat and Polaris, ATVs, cattle, horses, farming and hay.
A lot of talk was about the status of old friends. Someone would mention a name – company people, fellow racers, old girlfriends – and everyone would fill in what they knew.
Dave’s passion is his 1950’s vintage cars. Larry loves to fish. Bobby is kind of a homebody, some old car restoration and still rides his sleds about 1000 miles a year. Roger has a farm and several hundred cattle. Bill Decker is passionate about supporting wounded military personnel via the Gateway Warrior Foundation. Bill Ness has his grandkids. And for me, the horse stable I operate with my love, Kris.
That first night we went out for dinner to Mama Maria’s Italian Restaurant, where Decker gave a nice toast about being with his best friends once again. He stopped just short of tears in our eyes. We were back to our rooms by 9:30, a sure sign of our advanced ages!
A few thoughts streamed through my mind before hitting the pillow:
I was so relieved to see Bobby was in good health. A lot of rumors said he was out of circulation due to health problems. That’s just not so. He doesn’t like being the center of attention, for that matter, neither do Larry or David. These guys were never very comfortable with that aspect of their public lives.
I understand it, but I’ve always believed that one of us needs to share the life of Team Arctic with all of our Arctic Cat fans, past and current. We have an interesting story to tell before we are too old to remember it. I suppose I’m the one to do the sharing.
Comfortable with that thought, I fell asleep.
The next morning we all met at Perkins for breakfast. From there we piled into cars for a short trip to New Richmond, Wis., to the Zed Shed, where my good friend Rich Pederson has a beautiful collection of vintage sleds, mostly race sleds and mostly Arctic Cats.
Rich met us at the door of his shop. He had asked a dozen of his good friends to come and be there with us. They were all true Arctic Cat fans that were interested in mingling with The Boys for an hour. This was the only fanfare for our weekend. I could see Davey, Bobby and Larry enjoying the fact that, 30 years after their race careers had ended, there are still some huge Team Arctic Sno Pro fans.
When we walked into the collection, Roger gravitated to the back of the room. I was next to him. One lone Polaris sled sat before us, a 1977 RXL.
Roger sighed for a moment and said, “That’s the sled that kicked our ass!”
It was a powerful, truthful statement.
We had just walked past 40 incredible, historic snowmobiles to stop and reflect on this one. It just goes to show you how vividly, after all these years, a company man like Roger Skime still recognizes that they had “missed” on the sport’s next evolution (IFS front suspension). When that sled hit the ice for the ’77 season, Polaris had shown him (and everyone else) their advanced engineering. It hurt his pride then… and it still stings even to this day.
The reality is that the RXL made Arctic Cat a better company. No stone would be left unturned in advanced engineering at Arctic Cat again…
The scene inside the Zed Shed quickly changed when Rich lit up the four-cylinder King Kat. Roger’s face was beaming as he walked over to put his hand over each stinger pipe to ensure it was running on all four. It was!
Now the racing mood kicked in. Larry and David were standing next to a ’73 EXT 340. Bobby came over and said, “I was right behind you at Ironwood and had you in my sights.” Larry won and Bobby – still an independent racer at the time – was second.
Dave asked if Bobby had ever removed the gear reduction set from his engine? Bobby said no, it was all stock just the way it came from Arctic. You could tell Larry knew Bobby had left a lot on the table in performance by not removing it! Which only reinforced what we’ve always known about Bob Elsner: He was one hell of driver!
Rich had a table set up with all sorts of memorabilia for us to sign. We all signed a couple of sled hoods as well. John Sandberg took lots of photos. Bobby agreed to do an interview with John, which was long overdue. After an hour or so we shook hands with everyone, got into our cars, and drove away.
While we were driving away, I called Rich to thank him. He said they were all sitting outside on the picnic tables having a beer and reflecting. “Do you realize what just happened?” he said. “We just had all of Team Arctic right here!” I laughed and said it was pretty cool for me, too. Thanks Rich!
Next on our agenda was to go on a boat ride on the St. Croix River. Bill Ness has a nice boat at the Bayport Marina. We cruised the river for a few hours, stopping at the new Stillwater bridge construction to admire the design of the pillars. Skime, always the engineer, had to check them out closely. We docked the boat in Stillwater and went up to a restaurant for lunch.
This was the most I’d talked to Bill Ness in my life. I have a new appreciation for him and his role in our racing. As a Company endeavor that certainly consumed resources, racing “passed by his desk.” To his credit, Bill kept it going all those years, even when the money probably wasn’t there. And, of course, Skime implemented it, Decker promoted it, and then it was we four amigos to race it.
Saturday evening we met for steaks at Bill Ness’s house, a beautiful home on the Hudson side of the river with a deck that overlooks a spectacular view of river valley.
For this weekend I had asked all the guys to bring a piece of memorabilia, something they had saved all these years. We all shared some special photos and signed each other’s books. I brought a Thief River Falls newspaper from 1978 about Larry’s retirement, a brochure from our trips to Hawaii and Sweden and, of course, photos showing a bunch of young bucks with young faces.
Dave had been pretty quiet up until now and I asked him why.
“You don’t learn anything if you’re talking,” was his reply.
I laughed, then asked him to show me what he had brought. He had brought some nice photos of all of us, many we had never seen.
Next, I asked each guy to name their all-time favorite sled. To my surprise, Larry answered the 1978 Sno Pro “Mailbox” sled.
He said, “Even though I quit racing before doing much with that sled, I was so impressed with its ability to steer when deep into a corner.”
That surprised me because he was Mr. Sno Pro in 1976, winning just about everything en route to the High Point title. I assumed he’d pick the gorgeous ’76 Sno Pro.
Bobby answered that his favorite was the ’73 EXT 650. “I won a lot of money on that sled,” he said.
Dave’s was the 1972 290 EXT. He too had won a lot of races with it and, like Larry, never really like the big sleds.
Roger couldn’t answer with one sled. He said he needed to break it down into eras. Each model had it’s special place.
My pick was the ’79 “Mailbox” Sno Pros. Even though I won my WC with a reworked ’81 Sno Pro, I always remember my near sweep at Eagle River in 1979. That day, those sleds were perfect!
The conversation continued to bounce around. We talked about the incredible team of engineers and mechanics that made our success possible: Dennis Zulawski, Roger Gage, Durmont Wahl, Duane Gram, Donn Eide, Richie Porter, Wayne Schantzen, Glenn Follett and many others.
Then I brought up the 50th anniversary at Eagle River that happened in 2013.
I had looked so forward to being on the track alongside Janssen and Elsner, me on my Phantom, Bobby on his ’79 Sno Pro and Roger on his ’69 Panther. While I did get to jam a little with Roger Janssen that weekend, Bobby never showed.
The Eagle River 50th was a huge deal for me. I had worked on the Phantom for a year in order to get it ready. Race-ready, actually. I’ll never forget the feeling when you leave the pits and enter the track, take the ski boots off and put that freshly sharpened carbides onto the ice. You become one with the track. I never wanted to let that feeling go, and I suppose I was disappointed that Bobby wasn’t alongside me that weekend. I wanted to share the experience with him.
On and on the conversations went. And for me, the biggest subject that I wanted to talk about stayed on the tip of my tongue: All weekend long – actually for many years – I wanted to tell these guys about my World Championship win in 1984…how it would not have happened without each one of them.
I wanted to tell them how, after my track spun on the start line that day, I had nearly given up, but instead drew my inspiration from them as I put my head down and charged for 25 laps.
I wanted to share how, on that day in 1984, I had remembered a trick from Dennis Zulawski who, back in ’79, told me add an extra quarter-inch preload to the rear shocks so I would have better steering pressure for the closing laps.
How Larry taught me how to find the perfect feel in the clutch.
How David always paid attention to the small details, because they add up.
How Bobby’s tenacity gave me the inspiration to start dead last, pass the entire field in 12 laps and lead for 13 more.
I wanted to tell them how my life was changed by the whole experience of Team Arctic.
But I didn’t.
That final evening of our reunion ended without me mentioning any of that stuff. It just never felt like the right time. But now, as I write this, I’m kicking myself for not telling them right then. I need the world to know that I didn’t win the World Championship alone. I won the race with Ted Nielsen, but it was Team Arctic that got me there. More importantly, I need you to know that it wasn’t my World Championship. It was ours.
While I didn’t share everything that weekend, I’m grateful for what we did share, including the tears of laughter. It was a joyous weekend. My sorrow was knowing that it would end too soon. I wanted each conversation to last longer. I wanted us to stay up a little later and keep talking.
I didn’t want this weekend to end.
On Sunday morning, when it was time to leave, we all shook hands and agreed to meet in five years. God, I hope that happens. We’re older men now, and who knows what five years will bring?
I drove home, my head swirling with emotions.
Kris was there when I arrived. I walked into her arms and just started crying. I was so happy, but so sad it was over. It was a weekend that relived the biggest events of my life, with the people who were my biggest influences.
Bill Decker, your dream to have all of us together came true.
I…no, WE can’t thank you enough.
Roger Skime points out a detail on the Sno Pro-inspired Kitty Cat to Bob Elsner.
Jim Dimmerman and Bob Elsner capture a selfie.
Bob Elsner, Dave Thompson, Roger Skime and Larry Coltom share a laugh with John Vrieze, a former Arctic Cat cross-country racer who told a story about the help he got at one of the I-500 races in the 1970s.
Vrieze said, “Back then you guys were my heroes. I was just some farm kid who was racing snowmobiles.”
To which Skime replied, “That’s the same thing that we were!”
Yes, the stories were taller than the legends themselves.
The crew poses with Zed Shed owner Rich Pederson (left) and friends.