Last season, Team Arctic’s Zach Herfindahl burst into the USXC cross-country Pro class like a tornado through a trailer park, upending the status quo en route to four class wins, multiple podium finishes and a cat’s whisker from winning the Pro 600 Championship. It might have been the most impressive Pro debut in a generation, especially considering he turned 17 in February!
Smooth, fast and calm beyond his years, the humble high school senior from Eagle River, Wis., has all of the characteristics needed to continue his meteoric rise in snowmobile racing. He talked with me about his amazing 2013 season, his background and his goals for 2014.
An hour before his first ever Pro 600 final, in front of the Christian Brothers Racing trailer.
AI: Your Pro class debut was as surprising as any I (and many others’) have seen, simply because of the immediate and lasting success. It seemed like you came from out of nowhere… a true Cinderella story. So what was your racing experience prior to last season?
Herfindahl: Last year was my second full season of racing. I raced one time in the Junior class the winter of 2010. The next year I raced just the one weekend in Warroad, Minn. For 2012 my dad and I decided it would be fun to compete the whole season. I started in the Junior class on an Arctic Cat Sno Pro 500, then switched to Semi Pro when I turned that February. I did pretty well that season, taking a few second place finishes and winning one or two. That was pretty exciting.
Going into last season we were uncertain about whether to stay in Semi Pro or maybe jump up to Pro. We had a lot of discussions with Mike [Mike Kloety, the Team Arctic Race Manager], who helped line up my ride with the Christian Brothers Racing team. He suggested that I race Pro, to get the experience of racing against the fastest guys. That’s what we chose, which worked out pretty well.
AI: That’s an understatement! At the first race, in Pine Lake, you took a third in Pro Open and second in Pro 600. And, except for a couple events, you pretty much stayed on the podium at every event, finishing second overall in both classes for the season points. Were you surprised by your own success last season?
Herfindahl: Yeah for sure I was surprised. Going into Pine lake, I was so nervous. I had no idea where I’d finish. Pro Open was the first final and it was a heads-up race, with everyone starting at the same time. I got a terrible start, was in second-to-last, and then just started working my way through traffic and eventually into third.
The whole time I couldn’t believe that, not only was I not getting passed by all these guys that I was looking up to, but I was actually passing some of them! To finish third was pretty amazing.
Then when it was time for the Pro 600 stock final, I was worried that maybe the Open finish was a fluke and that I’d have a bad race. Once again, I got a terrible start, but I also worked through traffic just like in the Open. I was running in third for a long time, with Brian Dick right on my tail. That was really fun. Finishing ahead of him in second place felt great. I was smiling like crazy the whole drive back home.
When Zach came into the fuel stop of the Pro 600 final at Pine Lake, hot on the tail of teammate D.J. Ekre and just ahead of Brian Dick, the then-16-year-old played it calm, cool and collected.
AI: For a Pro class debut, it was stunning. How had you prepared for that race?
Herfindahl: Before Pine Lake we had plowed a course on a lake back home, and I practiced it on my practice sled all the time. I had a lot of miles on the lake before we showed up at Pine Lake.
Zach (L), teammate Brian Dick (R) and Paul Dick share a laugh after the Pro 600 final in Pine Lake. Brian chased Zach for most of the race, but wasn’t able to get around him.
AI: Were you able to talk with and glean information from teammates like Brian Dick and Ryan Simons?
Herfindahl: For sure, especially as the season progressed. Ryan Simons and I talked a lot about set-up. If I couldn’t figure something out with my sled, Ryan would jump on it and go for a spin, then come back and tell me what it was doing. Brian helped me a lot by explaining how sleds work. And at Pine Lake last year, D.J. Ekre helped me out a bunch with getting my sled set up. Between those guys and my mechanics, Hector Olson and Corey Berberich, I learned so much.
AI: So you finish second and third at your first Pro race, did you reshuffle your goals for the season?
Herfindahl: Yeah. My dad and I talked about it, and after Pine Lake my goal became podiums. I didn’t know how things would go once we hit the ditch races, and I didn’t want to be too confident. But each race we went to, I kept finish up there and building my confidence, so it all kind of steamrolled. At one race I finished fourth or fifth, and my engine ate a seal 10 miles into the first leg of the I-500 and I DNFed, which was disappointing. But otherwise it was a great season.
AI: Do you prefer lake races or ditch?
Herfindahl: Either works for me. I love ice races like Pine Lake, but the ditch is really fun too.
AI: What is your snowmobile experience?
Herfindahl: I started riding sleds when I was just a little kid. Our family used to just ride for fun, every weekend of the winter. All four of us, that’s what we did.
I started on 120s. I actually wore one out so we got another one. From there I got a Yamaha Enticer until I was big enough to start riding my dad’s 2003 Sno Pro 400 race sled. I rode that for a few years until my dad bought a used 2005 Sno Pro at Hay Days. I rode that until 2010 when I got the Sno Pro 500 and started racing.
We’ve always been an Arctic Cat family. My grandpa, who lived in Minnesota, was always Cat guy. My dad raced cross-country and some snocross in Wisconsin when I was a little kid.
AI: It sounds like you’ve always ridden, all the time. Your dad told me a story about you last Christmas break, spending an entire day riding around an old Enticer.
Herfindahl: I just love to ride snowmobiles, even old ones.
AI: Coming from Eagle River, Wis., you have a pretty hefty traveling schedule for each race. Describe that.
Herfindahl: Yeah for sure. We get in the truck Thursday night after school, and then drive west. The closest race is about five hour away, but most are 7-8 hours. Then we get up early Friday morning and start practicing. Then we race, stay for the awards banquet and drive home in time to get to school on Monday. It’s a lot of sitting in the truck, and I know the route to northwest Minnesota without even thinking about it.
AI: You live in Eagle River, a town that’s synonymous with oval racing… and you for sure see the glitz and glamor of snocross… what made you decide to race cross-country?
Herfindahl: The first race I ever did was a cross-country on my dirt bike. I liked it and told my dad that I wanted to try the same kind of thing on a snowmobile. I just love cross-country riding and racing.
AI: Tell me a little more about how you seriously practice for cross-country racing.
Herfindahl: I try to practice every day. Last year, before there was much snow on the ground, I would practice on our lake course almost every day after school. Once there was enough snow on the ground, I rode my sled to school. After school I would ride straight to the moto track to put on laps. In both cases I would ride well into darkness, with only my headlight to see by. This year a couple friends who race snocross and I are hoping to set up a course at the Derby track that we can practice on every day.
AI: Cool, that’s pretty hardcore. What are your other interests besides snowmobile racing?
Herfindahl: My dad would tell you it’s duck hunting, for sure. I’m really into that [Note: I conducted this interview with Zach while he was driving home from a Minnesota duck hunt. –Ed.] At this time of year he’s always saying, “Get your head in snowmobiling.”
I also like dirt biking, as well as water sports like skiing and wakeboarding. Golf is the one school sport that I play. But even golf makes me think of my favorite sports, because every time dad and I go golfing, we talk about how sweet the course would be for dirt biking and snowmobiling.
AI: Do the kids in your school know that you’re one of the top snowmobile cross-country racers in world?
Herfindahl: I think a lot of them know I race, but not my results. I don’t really tell people that I do well because I don’t like to talk about myself.
AI: Tell me about your family’s involvement with your racing.
Herfindahl: My 13-year old sister Gabby plays hockey, so there are a lot of weekends when my mom is with her while my dad and I are racing. But if there are no hockey games, they’re with us at the races. I wish Gabby would race sleds because she’s a really good rider, but I think she’s a little nervous to right now.
AI: What are your goals for this coming season?
Herfindahl: I’ll race the entire USXC series with Christian Brothers Racing, just like I did last year. My goal is a top-3 in all the races, with the goal of winning the points championship. Probably my biggest priority is to try and win the I-500. I’ll also race a few Cor Powersports cross-country events on weekends that don’t conflict with USXC races. When I’m old enough I’d like to race the Soo 500 enduro too.
AI: Who are your sponsors?
Herfindahl: I’m really lucky to have a lot of great sponsors. Arctic Cat, Christian Brothers Racing, DRIFT, Troy Lee Designs, Stud Boy, FOX Shox, Scott, C&A Pro, Speedwerx, Sportech, APV Synthetic Oil, Evolved SX, 139designs, Soygreen, West Central, Mitsuboshi, Cycra, ODI, Leatt and Culligan.
AI: You’re a senior now, what is plan after high school?
Herfindahl: My plan is to go to college.
AI: Okay, one last request: Tell us a Roger Skime story.
Herfindahl: I had never really met Roger until Pine Lake last year, although of course I knew who he was and that he’s a legend. Well, after one of the finals at Pine Lake, he came up to me and said, “Herfindahl, you’re my hero. I wish more kids would put down the video games and race snowmobiles like you do.” He made me feel really good and proud of what I do.