When snowmobile cross-country racing reemerged in popularity and stature beginning in the late 1980s, a handful of racers became household names thanks to their success and consistently. Jeremy Fyle was one such racer.
A winner of the 1989 Jeep 500 aboard a Polaris, Fyle was one of the big names added to the fledgling Team Arctic race program in 1991. For the next seven years he would become one of the most faithful of all Team Arctic racers, and one of the most successful. What truly defined Fyle’s success, however, was the fact that he was a true independent racer who had a full-time job outside of the industry, yet his triumphs were against many who were either factory racers or those who raced full-time in the winter.
Now 48 years old and living in Pequot Lakes, Minn., the married father of three answered a bunch of my questions, shedding light on his career and the passion that still burns for snowmobiles and Arctic Cat.
AI: Jeremy, it seems like I’ve know you forever, but I’ve never really heard the story about how you got into snowmobile racing.
Fyle: I grew up in the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota, which was great for snowmobiling. As a young teenager, I and my brother and friends loved snowmobiling more than anything else in the world. We rode hard and fast, probably some pretty dumb stuff if I think about it. Anyway, in the early 1980s the old Heartland Racing circuit ran low-key cross-country races in Northern Minnesota. I bought a used Polaris TXC leaf-spring sled and did my first race – a buddy race with two teammates that including my brother-in-law Chet Nelson, who raced the Winnipeg for years and would prep my sleds until 1992. But that first race was in either ’82 or ’83. Of course we got the bug and wanted to race more. Back then we’d ride every day. We’d go riding all night on the trails, get home, throw our sleds on the trailer, sleep for about three hours then get up and drive to wherever the Heartland race was that weekend. After the race we’d go home and never touch our sleds, just repeat the same thing the next week. We weren’t smart enough to test back then, we just rode. But in a way it didn’t matter much because racing was pretty much run-what-ya-brung back then.
AI: Your first big win was the 1989 I-500. That’s the biggest prize in cross-country.
Fyle: Yeah… the thing was, after the old Winnipeg I-500 died, it wasn’t until 1987 that they had the first Jeep race. Everyone in my group of friends wanted to race it, but we were young and most didn’t have enough money. But I was an airline mechanic at that point, so I had a little money and entered the ’87 Jeep race along with teammate Dan Zimmerman. I finished third.
That stoked the fire for all of us, so we all raced a little more the next season and started to take it a little more seriously. In 1988 I finished second, but was disqualified. That’s a long story, but the short of it is that I didn’t see a course sign that pointed me off the road and into the ditch, and I continued on the road for a little while. A bunch of us got DQ’d, which was a bad deal. Anyway, the good thing that happened in the ’88 race was that on the second day Arne Rantanen passed me on the North Shore State Trail. I thought I was going fast, be he showed me what really going fast meant, and it was a defining moment for my career.
So in 1989 I came back and had the lead after the first two days. The third and final day when from Duluth to the Twin Cities, almost entirely ditch running. Bob Menne was in second and caught me, and then we had ourselves a race (laughs).
AI: I’ve seen video of you two that day and you were both literally hitting ditch approaches wide open, side-by-side, and just sailing.
Fyle: It was like a 100 mile dogfight in the ditch. We were throttle-to-the-bar and literally banging off of each other, landing within inches of each other. It was fast and stupid and a lot of fun. His sled broke, and by then we were way ahead of the field, so I cruised in for the win. That was a pretty big deal for me. It was and still is my biggest win.
AI: Then you switched to Arctic Cat. Why?
Fyle: Well, actually I raced Polaris the next year. I had a bunch of problems with that sled, Polaris really didn’t help out much, but the big thing was that Russ Ebert had been talking to me for a couple years, providing a little advice here and there, kind of scouting me to ride for Arctic Cat. So I switched to Cat for 1991.
AI: Wow, the first year of the Prowler Special… that must have been a bit, uh, disappointing?
Fyle: (Laughs) Well, it was all-new to me and everyone else. Luckily I missed the first couple races, where everyone else discovered some of the really big problems with the sled, like broken spindles. By my first race that season, at least some of the really bad stuff was starting to get figured out. But even still, everyone on a Prowler Special kept breaking stuff. It was dog-turd slow and unpredictable. Racing it was a terrible experience.
Still, I stuck with Cat and the Prowler Special again for 1992, and it wasn’t any better.
Because it was so slow, my friend and racing partner Dan Skallet and I started working on engines, doing porting work to make them faster. Actually it was Dan who figured out how to make that engine go, while I worked on the clutching. Arctic Cat caught wind of what we were doing, got our cylinders from us and saw that it worked. They ended up with nearly identical porting on the next year’s race sled, the ’93 ZR.
AI: After suffering two years on the Prowler, the ZR must have felt like a Godsend?
Fyle: Actually, when we first got on them on the ice prior to the first race the speedos weren’t showing any amazing speed. And back then all we seemed concerned about was speed, so we weren’t actually too sure how great the new ZR was. It handled great though. Then we got to Pine Lake for the first ever ISOC race, and there we realized how fast we were. I won the Pro class that weekend, Kirk (Hibbert) finished second, Skallet finished third and we had something like seven of the top-10. That was pretty cool.
AI: Yeah, the ZR pretty much turned the racing world upside down. You must have been stoked to claim the first-ever cross-country win on one?
Fyle: Yeah, for sure. Maybe because of that win, Brian Nelson introduced himself to Dan and me and basically said he’d help us any way he could. Brian helped us with parts… he had an endless supply it seemed like. Plus he knew everybody at Arctic Cat, so that helped us get closer to the engineers. And of course he introduced us to Hubert Fixsen, who’s a genius and would help us out so much over the next few years.
It’s funny, but after two terrible years with the Prowler, in a matter of a few weeks with the new ZR, a whole world opened up to me with Arctic Cat. That’s when I really became an Arctic Cat guy, because once you know the people at Arctic Cat, it feels like home.
Fyle won the Ironman 250 in Thief River Falls in 1996 and ’97. Here he sails a ditch approach on day one of the ’97 race.
AI: What were some of your other career highlights?
Fyle: Well obviously winning the ‘89 I-500. That’s the king, a race that defines me.
I also finished second in it twice, and also twice finished third.
I won the Thief River Falls Ironman 250 in ’96 and ’97, which in some ways was the coolest. Winning that race, in Thief, on an Arctic Cat… man that felt good. It was a two day race, and all the Arctic Cat engineers were there, talking with us. Dave Thompson, Larry Coltom… guys I’d worshiped as a kid. It was a life-changing experience getting to know those guys. I was always in awe around them.
So yeah, those were my big wins. I had lots of top-three finishes at other races too.
Fyle was a consistent top finisher at the I-500. At the 1995 Grand 500 he finished second to Brad Pake, with Kirk Hibbert taking third for a Team Arctic podium sweep.
AI: In addition to racing with Skallet throughout the 1990s, you also raced with a core group from the Brainerd area. Describe who and what that was.
Fyle: It was me, my brother Jed, Dan Zimmerman, Jim Kendall, Kevin Spielman, Jim Spielman and, later on, Eric Loge. My brother was killed in a boating accident in 1987, and we formed a team and kind of kept racing in memory of him. We called our team the CMF club, and we raised money for a scholarship in Jed’s name at Pequot High School.
The scholarship still exists. In fact I’m giving this year’s scholarship to a person next week. It’s focused on people who are going into a vocational/technical school, because Jed was an auto mechanic.
AI: That’s really cool. I always think of the CMF team as really fast independent racers.
Fyle: Yeah, it’s true. We were all mechanic/racers who had jobs during the week. Skallet and I worked at the airline, working third shift. We’d get off work at 7am on Friday and drive straight to wherever the race was that weekend. We’d test all afternoon on Friday, race Saturday and Sunday, then drive like maniacs to get back to work Sunday night. We needed to make money racing or we’d have to quit.
Fyle scored a couple hefty paydays at the Ironman 250. Here he’s racing in the ’97 edition with Team Arctic’s Brad Pake and Gary Goskey.
AI: Did you make money?
Fyle: Yeah… well for sure racing didn’t cost me anything. And I usually came home with a check. I’d get a few free sleds and a parts allowance each year. The payday for winning the Ironman was $10,000 which was huge. I made enough to keep racing. The best part of racing though was always hanging out with my friends.
AI: Tell me about that.
Fyle: Well, Skallet and I raced out of the same trailer for years. We had a blast because our personalities were perfect for each other. We liked hanging around the goofballs who made the races really interesting, guys like Paul Mack, Tom Belair and others. The camaraderie in the trailers was always the most fun part of it all. Even more fun than racing.
That, plus working with guys like Russ Ebert, Hubert, and Brian Nelson… it was an honor to be with those guys. I was really lucky I got to experience all of that.
Russ was my idol as a kid. He was a famous local stock car racer. His brother Roger raced Scorpion snowmobiles and was really fast before he died. It’s cool, I received the Roger Ebert Scholarship when I was in high school. So the Eberts were legendary to me. Russ scouted me to get on Arctic Cat, then really started helping as a mechanic in the mid-nineties. He made my program way better, and eventually got to the point where he was building and maintaining my sleds.
Fyle’s career saw multiple epic battles in cross-country. At the 1996 ISOC cross-country in Garrison, Minn., Fyle and Brad Pake were ski-to-snowflap for the entire race…
…Pake took the win, with Fyle oh’-so-close in second.
AI: When and why did you stop racing?
Fyle: In 1998, my back hurt so badly from the years of pounding. Plus racing emphasis was moving toward snocross, which I wasn’t good at. Kirk, Pake and Toni (Haikonen), they adapted to snocross, but I didn’t. My back was bad, it was time to quit.
AI: You’re still into snowmobiling, or at least your always texting me photos of you riding some place.
Fyle: I still love riding and testing. It’s still my passion. I mostly ride with Jim Kendall and some of the old CMF guys. We go all the time. We go wherever there’s snow, but mostly in Minnesota. We put on a couple thousand miles this winter, which as you know was a crummy winter.
We ride mid-week, usually Wednesday and Thursdays. We go hard and put on a lot of miles.
Fyle lends his autograph to the SHOF Raffle sled at the Arctic Cat 50th Anniversary in TRF during the summer of 2011.
AI: And you’ve remained on Arctic Cat.
Fyle: For sure. I’m a die-hard Cat guy because I love the people. I would never want to be seen on something else. The new ProCross sled was long overdue.
AI: Tell me about your sled and what you did to get it to work for you?
Fyle: It’s a 2012 F800 Sno Pro. Like I said before, I still love testing and improving like we did during all those years of racing.
I probably revalved the shocks 10 times during the winter. I put custom EVOL chambers that I built on the front shocks. I did a lot of tuning with the skidframe, eventually changing the rear arm mounting position and removing the transfer blocks. I switched to an old position-sensitive rear shock that was out of a Firecat. I eventually got the skidframe to work how I wanted it.
Probably the biggest improvement though was adding some C&A skis. Of course I modified those too, trimming off some of the keel. I want a sled that corners the moment I turn the handlebars, and with those skis it handles exactly how I like it. It transformed the sled’s cornering, making it totally predictable.
AI: You must still have a pretty strong interest in racing, because I see you at the I-500 every year. Will we ever see you put on a number and line up again?
Fyle: I love to watch racing, to see the guys doing it. I love watching their intensity and passion. But I don’t have a desire to race again. I know what it takes to win and if I’m not winning then I’m not having fun. I couldn’t go win again. I like trail riding… I’m doing exactly what I want with snowmobiles and I’m having a blast.
AI: That’s cool Jeremy! Okay, last question: Tell me a good Roger Skime story.
Fyle: First of all, it’s awesome to see Roger at every single race. Whether it was in 1992 or in 2012, he’s always at the races and he always talks to you. He’s a super guy and I always look for him because I love the guy. And when I see him I always get a big hug and handshake.
The next thing I think about Roger is that after I’d win a race or come close to winning a race, he’d mail me a personal letter. If I had hadn’t won, the letter would offer encouragement and his observations of my race. If I’d won, he’d say how happy he was. But the main message of all his letters was to thank me for racing Arctic Cat. He’s so appreciative of his racers.