Kevin Thompson started working in the Engineering department in 1985, and today manages the Styling, Plastic and Drive Systems centers. A gifted, perceptive engineer who has managed projects ranging from the original ZR to many of the pioneering technology of the new ProCross/ProClimb machines, Thompson draws upon a lifetime of experience that began as a kid watching his dad, Davey Thompson, become a legendary Team Arctic racer, team manager and engineer.
It’s always great to talk with Kevin (48), who was nice enough to let me record our last conversation.
AI: Okay, what’s your job title, and then explain what you actually do?
Thompson: My title is Manager, Center of Expertise. I manage two areas: Drive Systems, and Plastic/ Styling.
I’m accountable for what we call System Design Specification (SDS), which means the game plan for snowmobile cost, features, weight, etc…, in Drive Systems, Plastic and Styling. I and other engineers are tasked to hit the targets outlined by the SDS.
The SDS doesn’t tell us what the drive system is, rather, just what the expectations are for it. We work to achieve those expectations.
For instance, we started working on Arctic Drive System (ADS) five years ago. We met as team, discussed flaws of ACT Diamond Drive and discussed how to improve our drive system. Our discussions concerned weights, cost, timeline and such.
Many designs were considered based on functionality, cost, performance and other criteria, and eventually we delivered an entire drive system that met our SDS.
AI: What are some of the other positions you’ve held over the years?
Thompson: I started working in the Engineering shop in 1985. We were a smaller company then, and each person wore many hats. Back then, I worked in the Model shop, on sled calibration, testing and probably in other roles.
I became a Product Engineer around 1990, and in 1992 Roger (Skime) asked me to be Product Engineer for first ZR. That meant that I “owned” that snowmobile in terms of responsibility.
Later I became Product Manager, then Center of Expertise Manager of the drive systems when Dennis Zulawski retired. When my dad retired a few years ago, I added Plastic and Styling to my duties. That’s what I do today.
Thompson shown next to a prototype Arctic Cat F1100 Turbo rigged up for summertime testing.
AI: Your teams brought a lot of new technology to the new Arctic Cat ProCross and ProClimb machines for 2012. What are a couple of the highlights for you?
Thompson: There are so many aspects of the new machines that I’m proud of, but particularly the styling, the plastic fit and finish and the Arctic Drive System. They’re all brand new. We took weight off and they function better than their counterparts on the Twin Spar platform.
I think our sleds have always had great engines, great suspensions and best ride quality. But sometimes we’ve struggled on the styling. On F4 (the company’s internal name for the ProCross/ProClimb machines), we launched a new design process, led by Nathan Blomker.
I may manage the Styling department, but I don’t claim to have style. Nathan, Corey Friesen and Erick Halvorson…these are the guys here who have style, and they defended the style of ProCross through the entire process, which was no small task.
There is a solution for both styling and function. In the past, we were always about function, rather than form. On ProCross/ProClimb we maintained both, which is a big highlight for me.
Thompson discusses a ProCross test sled with engineers Cord Christensen (middle) and Gary Homme.
AI: Keeping the jackshaft and motor in fixed-alignment with each other has been something of a holy-grail pursuit for many years. Why has it been so elusive, and what finally makes it possible?
Thompson: We tried the concept previously on the 2002 Sno Pro race sled, which was essentially the first Firecat, but there were some problems with that attempt.
To make our new Torque Control Link system work, we had to start from scratch. The old drivecase wouldn’t really allow us to accomplish the goal, so really everything about the drive system had to change.
We have a great drivetrain engineer here, Mike Tadych, who did the design work on the new drive system. He was able to make the system work because of his creativity, but also because he had a clean slate.
When you start clean, you can re-imagine the possibilities. The self-aligning bearings and oil seals were the critical components to ADS, neither of which could have been used if we had to use legacy components.
AI: What are the greatest challenges of your job and the greatest satisfactions?
Thompson: The biggest challenge is to hit and maintain our cost targets. Snowmobiles are getting expensive, and we’re trying to keep them affordable. This is a company-wide challenge. This is more of an issue now than it was 15 years ago. Back then we just designed and built a sled, then came up with price. Now we have cost and weight targets prior to starting any program.
The greatest satisfaction comes at the end of a project like the ProCross/ProClimb, seeing the enthusiasm and pride of everyone here. When we went to the dealer show last March, our dealers were extremely excited about the 2012 line, so when we returned to Arctic Cat and were able to convey that reaction, everyone here felt great pride and satisfaction. The same thing happened when our customers saw the product.
The pride we feel about our snowmobiles is similar to being a parent and talking about your children. This model line was the result of four years of hard work, for manufacturing, purchasing, engineering, etc… Everyone is proud of the new machines.
AI: How frequently do you ride snowmobiles as part of your job?
Thompson: I probably rode two days each week last winter, which is about average. When I ride many days in a row doing field analysis, I kind of become numb to a sled. I need a break to really refresh and come at it with a fresh perspective.
When I ride, it’s almost always with other people. We try to test as a group and get feedback. We always maintain a baseline snowmobile that doesn’t change, that we compare with.
We never just go riding for no purpose: There’s always a reason or objective to the ride. Following each ride we have discussions and evaluate the product.
I believe this is a key reason we do so well with our engine and ride calibration. Both of these groups give each other useful, necessary feedback…A LOT of feedback! An engine guy like Ryan Hayes can detect what’s going on with a suspension and provide important feedback. And a suspension engineer like Jeff Olson can feel exactly what’s going on with clutch calibration.
So upwards of 25 such people end up providing critical feedback on ride calibration and engines. And these people contain some of the greatest institutional knowledge in the entire sport. So the end result proven ideas and calibration.
AI: Do you own snowmobiles?
Thompson: I’m riding sleds that are coming out in next 2-3 years. That’s where my seat time needs to be.
It’s interesting; a couple years ago I rode a 580 ZR. That’s a snowmobile that we have revered for many years, because when they were new they truly set the highest standard in ride and handling.
But when I rode that sled a couple years ago, I couldn’t believe how awkward the riding position felt. And it didn’t corner as well as I remembered.
I think that as the years go by we tend to remember only the good things. We forget ther noisy intakes, terrible fuel economy and sore backs of sleds from 15-20 years ago.
AI: What was the 50th Anniversary Celebration like for you and your family?
Thompson: That’s a hard one for me to answer, because it was so powerful.
I talked with friends from over the many years, reminiscing about really great experiences and friendships that span my entire life. There were customers with Arctic Cat tattoos on their arms… and the sheer number of snowmobiles on display was outstanding.
Really, the entire event was overwhelming in a good way.
My life has been snowmobiling. And to see peoples’ enthusiasm…their passion and love of the brand… (pause)… it’s difficult to put into words what I felt.
It was powerful and great. It was that way for my dad too.
None of us were prepared for the magnitude of enthusiasm of our customers. And it reminded many of the great place we’re at in life.
AI: I love the story you tell of your dad bringing you into the Race Shop as a teenager, in the old Sno Pro days, and he put you on Jim Dimmerman’s race sled.
Thompson: Dad raced Sno Pro for many years. After retiring from racing he became the Race Manager. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in race shop at night.
In the spring of 1979, after the race season ended, Dad and I were in race shop when he asked if I wanted to drive Jim’s sled around the Arctic Cat test track. It was just a casual conversation, no different than asking me if I wanted to eat hamburgers for lunch.
I’d been around race sleds my entire life. Dimmerman’s sleds, Elsner’s sleds, Coltom’s, Lofton’s… all of those guys. So when Dad asked if I wanted to ride Jim’s, it really wasn’t a huge deal.
So we put the Sno Pro sled on a trailer and took it to our track.
That Arctic Cat test track was better than any race track at that time, and was ideal that day. The ice was perfect, better than any race track I’d ever seen.
We fired up the sled and I probably did three laps on it. And what I remember most vividly was how easy it was to drive.
It was my first experience going down a straightaway on a sled with handlebars cocked 45 degrees. I’m sure I putzed around corners, but I was wide-open going down the straights.
AI: What strikes me about that story was how this experience, which to any other person would be a lifetime achievement, was just normal for you. So did you see guys like Elsner, Coltom or even your dad as the larger-than-life heroes like most race fans did back in the day, or just regular guys?
Thompson: Charlie Lofton had kids – Chad and Charlene – that were my age. When we were kids we always rode Kitty Cats together. I babysat Coltom’s kids. I wore my dad’s hand-me-down Factory Team Arctic jackets in 7th grade.
Even now…I work with Larry every day. As I walk into work each morning I see a huge poster of him racing, on the outside of the building.
I know he’s a legend and a hero, but to me he and the other guys are just friends. They’re people I’ve known all my life and who I see every day.
When you grow up among these guys and with these kinds of everyday experiences, you don’t see them as unusual.
AI: What’s your all-time favorite Arctic Cat, and why?
Thompson: Probably the first ZR.
For me, it was a sled that we developed with our friends like Steve Thorsen, Dean Schwarzwalter, Brian Nelson, Hubert Fixsen, Joey Hallstrom, Kirk (Hibbert) and others, each of whom had great ideas and worked really hard to perfect on that machine.
We were a company made up of racers. Donn Eide, Brian Espeseth, Dad, Greg Spaulding, Tim Benedict and more. But we didn’t start really wining until the ZR.
In 1993-94 we started to dominate racing, and have continued to do so almost every year since. To be part of where that all started was and is very special.
AI: You pick: Following the I-500 for three days, or standing behind the fence at Eagle River on Derby weekend?
Thompson: Oh I’d have to go with Eagle River. There’s so much racing that you can watch, and I always enjoyed that. Tight, great racing.
I enjoy the I-500 and still chase that race each year, but Eagle is extra special for me. Nothing compares to watching three sleds dive into turn one at Eagle.
Thompson (l) talking with Roger Skime, Arctic Cat VP of Engineering
AI: Tell me a good Roger Skime story.
Thompson: For all the engineers here, whether they’re a ride calibration engineer, engine or suspension engineer, when they think they’re done calibrating their area of a snowmobile, they still have to pass the “Skime Test.”
Roger takes their machine for a ride and either gives it his blessing, or not. Very few sleds pass the first time.
Over the years “strange and miraculous” things happen to peoples’ machines just prior to the Skime Test, because after Roger rides it, the engineer immediately sees a problem that didn’t exist before (laughter).
We have a lot of very, very talented and experienced engineers at Arctic Cat, but nobody in this entire sport has more institutional knowledge than Roger. He’s better than anyone at knowing how an entire machine is, or isn’t, working.
He will do things that a young engineer won’t do, like drive through a swamp at 10 mph for an hour.
After enough trial and error, when an engineer’s machine finally passes the Skime Test, it’s like a badge of honor.