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HomeFeaturesPart II: Brian Nelson is Getting Ready for the I-500

Part II: Brian Nelson is Getting Ready for the I-500

Brian smiling at the ugly grind job I did on the cylinder for Joey's sled

So what’s been happening with Brian Nelson’s three-sled Vintage I-500 project since I posted THIS FIRST STORY?

A lot. But a project of this magnitude isn’t completed overnight.

Two of the three Arctic Cat el tigre Cross-Country sleds in Nelson's shop

In fact, I’ve spent three ENTIRE days at Brian’s shop since the first story was posted, working on the 1979 Arctic Cat el tigre Cross-Country that I will run in the upcoming USCC I-500 race, while Brian has split his time between this and the other two ’79 Cross-Country tigers that he and Joey Hallstrom will run.

And I’d say that we’re half done. Maybe.

Inside Nelson's race shop, Arctic Cat stuff everywhere

Thirty-year-old vintage sleds need a little TLC before they’re going to go 170 miles in a cross-country race. Some of the work required on these sleds isn’t so glamorous, like grinding off rusted bolts and drilling out loose rivets.

Seemingly small jobs like removing the old snow flap can turn into 30-minute sessions simply because the bolts have corroded and need to be ground off.

Plus, we’re talking Brian-Nelson-prepping, which is WAY more detailed and time consuming than probably most people would do.

These skis are built for pounding

Let’s face it, as a former professional Team Arctic racer and engineer, Nelson simply knows more about what can and should be done to race-prep a snowmobile, than most of us would ever imagine. For instance, extra welds on the ski mounts, more robust hardware and tightened tolerances at every pivot.

Prepping six ski assemblies takes more than one complete day

That, coupled with the fact that his approach to racing has always been one of complete, leave-no-part-unchecked focus, he’s bound to spend more time and effort on his sleds than most.

Nelson working on the Arctic Cat el tigre CC skidframe

Nelson wants every shaft cleaned, every bearing replaced, every steel component repainted, every bolt to be new, and every shock to be a FOX.


Ouch! Drilling the Arctic Cat el tigre's bellypan

Tricks of the trade? Yep, for instance, the cross-shaft that supports the front torsion springs for the rear suspension is mounted separately from the actual suspension, and its bolt locations are inside the bellypan near the footholds. Not too convenient, especially if you need to remove/access it in something other than a well-lit, heated shop.

So Nelson drills a 1.5-in. hole in the bellypan to easily access the bolt/shaft with a socket wrench. Smart.

Lots to smile about when working on vintage Arctic Cats

Know this about Nelson: He’ll share with ANYONE his tricks, ideas and advice about building an Arctic Cat (or anything else) to go racing. His strongest hope for this year’s vintage I-500 race is that as many people will participate.

And there’s a personal element to it as well, especially for the ’78 (kitted) el tigre and the production 1979 CC el tigre: He was one of a handful of people who designed and built them, and his greatest satisfaction will be seeing some of those sleds on the starting line (and at the finish!) in Thief River Falls.


This is the Arctic Cat CC el tigre that I plan to race

This is the ’79 Arctic Cat CC el tigre that I plan to race. I’m returning to Nelson’s shop in Spicer, Minn., this weekend to do some more work, like installing the engine, hooking up the hydraulic brake, placing the seat and such. But there is still much to do, like studding the track, rebuilding the clutches, and probably 10 other “issues” that will surface during the day.

Maybe this time I won’t accidentally drill a hole into one of the tunnel-mounted heat exchangers, like I did a couple weeks ago? Smart moves like that can add extra work, and a few choice words.

Nelson with his dog, Bella

It’s been an absolute blast to once again work alongside Brian, swapping stories, watching his dog Bella chase chipmunks that wander into the shop and catching up. He’s a fascinating person, and I feel truly grateful to once again work/race out of his shop.

Hard to believe it’s been 17 years since the last time. Amazing how fast the time goes!

Thanks for reading this stuff. I’ll post more photos (and, hopefully, some video) in the coming weeks. For now, check out some more pix from around his shop:

Upper idler wheels/shaft for the el tigre


Partially-built skidframe for the Arctic Cat CC el tigre


Gotta have a couple spare 440 liquid motors laying around, just in case...

My 9-year old son shot this image...good job Cal!

Racing memorabilia

How many hoods does it take to race a '79 Arctic Cat?

A couple Mikuni carbs in the middle of a rebuild

Extra hardware for the Arctic Cat squadron

Two of the three Arctic Cat el tigre Cross-Country sleds in Nelson's shop



  1. This is great. Keep us posted on the continued progression of these CAT’s! John, some video would be the cat’s a$$! I want to hear one of these tigers running! Brrrrrraaaaaaaaaap!

  2. The progress looks great. I have the day of that race blocked off and I will be in northern MN to see all of these black/green Cats take to a race course once again…I cannot wait! Oh yea…John/Brian….if you guys find that you get all of these sleds completed, done and finalized much sooner than you expected…and, find yourselves with many weeks of nothing much to do…you guys would be welcome to fix up an old El Tigre for me…just to help pass your spare time until race day arrives.

  3. Man, a guy stops back and low and behold, MORE PICTURES! Nice! I love this stuff. Thanks John.
    Everything looks like it’s rolling off the assembly line from 1978/79. Great work guys!

  4. Good stuff…but how about some more details on issues you’ve found on these old sleds, other than rusty bolts on the snow flaps? Did Brian seek out good sleds to begin with? Have there been any parts that needed to be replaced that were hard to find? You have not sent me to the salvage yard in Fond du lac yet.

  5. Brian…………..great work……… and keep us posted with photos. If you win, this sled belongs next to your Winn-StPaul winners in the museum ! ! !

    Can not wait to see you line up next to former team mate Jon Carlson on his North Carolina-made racer which is being built under strict NASCAR-type security ! ! !

    We need spy photos……………….what is with the rumor Mike Trapp is having Karpiks build a sled to compete as well ? ? ? I would shut down the HOF and bring grandma with me to see that ! !


  6. Brian and John,

    Great update on the progress of your I-500 sleds. I hear Aaron Scheele is hard at work on his racers. Man, am I going to have my work cut out for me, but it will really be an honor to line up with such accomplished racing legends.

    Keep up the good work, and good luck!
    -Joe Rainville

  7. PS: And Tom, don’t you have a kitted 78 or a 79 you could bring along…and maybe line it up and race while you are in town?


  8. In regards to the question about the condition of the chassis we started with. There were 8 chassis, 4 w/o engines that came from junk yards, 9one will be my racer.) There is a 78 that we are not going to race, (its to nice). We found 1 nice 79 and 2 more with engines that were pretty much junk. The pile of junk parts its getting bigger by the day. We had to manufacture a lot of shafts, bushings, spacers etc. It was surprising how many new parts we can still get from Arctic.

  9. Yes like Kyle asked please tell us what kind of tracks you found to fit these XC cats! Also if anyone is willing to share some of the mods to make these more competitive that would be appreciated as well. Where are you finding these FOX shocks to fit? I ride mine every season and look forward to another winter of use.

  10. Is that the same basic motor “440 liquid” that’s in my 87 pantera? Also did roger skime and brian etc design the rear suspension, the shock and the arm etc? This is like waking up to christmas morning! Whoooooo! Thank’s all!!

  11. I’m setting up a 79 El Tigre Cross Country for groomed trail riding; has a pretty solid motor with some porting and AAEN pipes added by a previous owner. Did you use a Fox shock option in the rear, and if so, care to share the part number? The rear shocks on my sled aren’t doing a lot of damping anymore, and the stock part (0114-300) is understandably rare or unavailable.


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