As it has been for the past 23 years, Spirit Mountain hosted the season-opening Thanksgiving snocross in grand fashion, with a who’s-who of racers, fans and industry people showing up to see what’s new in the highest profile form of snowmobile competition.
I’ve been to every one of those events, a couple as a wanna-be racer and the rest as a wanna-be journalist. I’ve seen the ebbs and flows of excitement, attendance, craziness and weirdness that have come to define this always interesting weekend.
Here are my observations on year #24:
The obligatory shot of the pits give a perspective on the sport, or at least how much gear it can haul around to the eight different venues that comprise the 2015-16 ISOC National Series.
My view: ISOC has done a really good job the last few years with the races, the accessibility (Live Stream viewing is pretty awesome) and the comprehensive marketing.
Yes there is some wonkiness (inverted starting orders, for example), but most of what ISOC is pushing is worth getting addicted to.
There was a HOLY MESS of people who spectated at Duluth this year. Like record-breaking numbers!
How many? I spent a couple minutes trying to count everyone in the stands but eventually gave up when some drunk guy in a 1994 Polaris jacket interrupted me by asking if I knew a good place to buy Pro-5 pipes for an Indy XLT Triple.
Spirit Mountain sets the prices for this event and they certainly made a handsome profit this year. A friend of mine went with his son for the day on Saturday. Cost for tickets, pit passes, a couple hamburgers and a few drinks: $150. To some that will sound like a small ransom while to others it will seem a great value for nearly 12 hours of race entertainment.
Among the fans at Duluth this and every year is this sly smiling hombre, Brian Dick. As the lead Arctic Cat engineer for the ZR6000R race sleds (as well as all trail performance machines), Brian has a keen interest in what happens at ALL the races, and especially the first one or two.
When I asked him on Saturday what he’d learned so far during the weekend, he replied: “Our sled is working pretty good. We’re getting good holeshots, which I think we can attribute to the new track and the holeshot device. Nothing is breaking, which is good. Looks like all the brands are pretty competitive.”
Two other been-around-since-the-invention-of-snow guys that I talked with at Duluth were Roger Skime (left) and Tom Lawrence, race team manager at Ski-Doo. Lawrence has spent a lifetime in the snowmobile industry, including at Arctic Cat, Black Magic, ISOC and more.
While these guys are competitors on the track, they’re longstanding friends off of it. Both were enthused about the crowd and the performance of their own brand’s machines.
When I snapped this shot, Tom was telling Roger the finishing order of the previous final. Roger has taken notes about this kind of stuff since the first Eagle River Derby in 1964.
I’m happy to see all my friends at Duluth, but I was most happy to see this guy, Blair Morgan.
It had been seven years since Blair attended a national snocross race. He was at Duluth sporting the colors of his “other” brand, Ski-Doo, who tapped him to help coach Tim Tremblay this season. Blair was the only racer who could ever race as an equal to Tucker, so they are hoping he can impart some sage advice to Tremblay.
Regardless of his intentions, I was thrilled to see Morgan, who was sincerely enjoying his time at Duluth.
A stroll through the pits always produces some conversations with a variety of racers, crews and fans. Here Factory Team Arctic mechanic Jeff Wittwer (right) talks with the crew from Haala Racing and Dylan Jansen.
Jansen had a great weekend in the Sport class, claiming a 3rd and 7th, while Trent Wittwer came out of Duluth with a 10th in the same class. More and better things to come for both of these racers/teams the rest of the season…
Inside the Christian Brothers Racing trailer, the crew was prepping the Pro Open sleds of Logan Christian and David Joanis. Here shock pro Mike Carver (left) talks with mechanic Betsy Haldorson about front arm travel on Logan’s skidframe.
They were experimenting with changes only as small as 3/8-in. of travel variance. Like all racers, the goal is to get as much cornering precision as possible WITHOUT sacrificing front arm travel. It’s the Holy Grail of suspension set-up, because achieving one always adversely affects the other.
Using the Cross-Link system helps, but there’s still a tradeoff that must be faced.
In the back of the Christian Brothers trailer, owner Dwight Christian (middle) talks with Steve Houle of Speedwerx (right) and mechanic Ethan Hanson.
The conversation ranged from clutching to kids to cross-country to coffee to video games to work ethic and finally landed back on kids, all in less than 90 seconds. Whew!
A few minutes later, Houle (right) was inside Tucker Hibbert’s trailer where the conversation with Kirk Hibbert (center) and Dan Ebert bounced around between clutching and farming (both Houle and Hibbert do some farming).
In other words, everything was fine in the world’s of the two biggest Arctic Cat teams at Duluth. A lot of work getting done, for sure, but with machines as evolved as these (it’s already been four years since the ProCross debuted at Duluth), there’s an atmosphere of calm inside the trailers.
Sorry for the crummy photo, but I’m including to show that the new Hayes upgrade kit (larger diameter disc, 4-piston caliper) for the ZR race sleds is done and ready, as shown here on Dan Benham’s sled. I’ll have a story on this in a couple weeks.
Okay, let’s see some race pix!
Team Arctic pretty much crushed the Junior classes at Duluth, winning every one (except 120s) and often taking the majority of the top positions.
Here’s a quote from Team Arctic Race Manager Mike Kloety about the team’s success this weekend, with emphasis on the younger classes:
“We’re happy and excited. For starters, it’s great to capture the big class with Tucker. That’s the headline win for sure. But it’s equally impressive to win every Junior category, with Team Green taking five of the top-6 in Jr. 16-17, four of the top-5 in Jr. 10-13 and seven of the top-10 in Jr. Girls. Plus we claimed podium positions in every Pro Lite, Sport and Sport Lite class.”
It was only 2-3 years ago that Kloety and Team Arctic took some flak for not having more racers and top finishes in the middle and Semi Pro, er, Pro Lite classes of snocross. At the time, Kloety essentially said “Be patient, we’re going to grow this program rather than trying to buy racers.”
Well, Kloety’s tactic is paying off big time!
Above is a shot of Anson Scheele en route to winning the Transition 8-12 class, looking all stylish and factory-like. Another familiar name in Team Arctic history took a third in this class…Pake…Andy Pake.
(The only Cat race winner who’s picture I didn’t capture was that of Inanna Hauger who won Jr. Girls 9-13 ahead of Taven Woodie. Sorry Inanna, you deserve a photo here!)
Eric Downs took the win in Jr. 10-13 with Evan Christian taking second.
From what I gather talking with the powers that be is that the powered-down 600s will continue to become the standard choice of sleds for the younger classes. With the exhaust valves locked down and RPM limits, they’re running nearly identical performance as Arctic Cat’s Sno Pro 500 and ZR 4000RR models, plus they include models from Ski-Doo and Polaris.
Ryley Bester has been winning snocross races for a lot of years, but I’d say he reached a whole new level at Duluth. Not only did the 14-year-old win the Jr. 14-15 and Jr. 16-17 finals, he no sooner finished both those finals and competed in the Sport #2 class at Duluth, where he won both heats and was in second place in the final before tangling with a racer and going down. He rebounded to finish 8th.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Bester won a Sport class or two this season. The kid is FAST!
Brandon Lind is another Team Arctic kid who looks to win in Sport this year. He left Duluth with 2nd and 3rd place plaques.
Team Arctic graduated its two best Sport riders from last year into Pro Lite for this season. Dan Benham is one of those riders, and he proved the wisdom of that jump with a third place in Pro Lite #1. A crash in the whoop section on Sunday took Benham out of competition for the remainder of the weekend, but it sounds like he’ll be back and racing at the next round in Fargo.
Montana Jess is the other Sport-to-Pro-Lite jumper this season, and he absolutely delivered the goods in Duluth with two second-place finishes.
Jess looked fast, poised and patient in a class renowned for keep-it-pinned, whiskey-throttle craziness. He is going to win races and he will be a championship contender.
While Team Arctic’s young guns were on fire at Duluth, one of the team’s grizzled veterans returned to snocross and proved that he still has mojo.
Yep, cross-country ace Wes Selby jumped into the Pro AM 30-plus class and landed on the podium with a strong second place finish.
Okay, time for some observations on the Pro Open guys, starting with Corey Watkinson.
Watkinson made the jump to Pro Open after running top-3 (and winning!) in Pro Lite much of last season. Like pretty much everyone who jumps into this class, Watkinson was met with a new level of speed and strength that he’ll learn to navigate with time and experience.
Logan Christian was poised to make Duluth his launchpad for consistent podium positions this season. Unfortunately, he was a victim of the whoop section during Saturday’s final and ended up with a concussion. He took starts (for points) in the heat races on Sunday, but didn’t actually race.
Talking with him today (Wed.), he says the headaches ended early Tuesday morning and there are no more signs of concussion. He’s planning to practice on Thursday of this week and will race in Fargo.
That’s good news.
While no longer the factory team pilot, Cody Thomsen hasn’t stepped away from racing. He’s planning to hit the first few races of the season and see where it goes from there.
At Duluth he showed flashes of brilliance, including winning a heat on Sunday, and finished 12th.
David Joanis was truly firing on all cylinders at Duluth, winning three of four heats (and taking second in the fourth) over two days. The guy had absolutely BLISTERING starts!
Alas, if there was a victim of ISOC’s wonky inverted starting rule, it was Joanis, who got crowded out in both finals and never saw a clear track. He ended the weekend with a 6th and 11th, which is solid but not indicative of how fast he was going throughout the weekend.
Oh, hey, check out the sweet retro leopard print seat and Arctic Cat decal on the back of Joanis’s sled!
Justin Broberg is new to Team Green this season. Like any new racer, there was uncertainty of where he would slot in while running brand-new equipment that he’s not accustomed to.
The answer: fourth place in Pro Open #1!
That’s a pretty impressive finish, one that portends well for the rest of the season.
Which leaves us with the master blaster of snocross disaster. He’s back and he’s even FASTER!
Well, I can’t say for sure if Tucker Hibbert is faster than last year, but he’s still the fastest guy on the track.
As we know from the results, Tucker finished the weekend with a win and a second (he was a cat’s whisker from moving into second before the race ended on Sunday).
Getting buried on the start was the difference maker on Sunday, as he was nearly a half-lap behind Kody Kamm by the time he’d moved into second.
Oh well, at least he once again gave us the wonderful entertainment of moving through the pack and catching Kamm at the finish line jump for the checkered flag. Without that show, the final would have been a bit of a snoozer in terms of drama.
After the race Tucker told me that despite not winning on Sunday, he was really, really pleased with the weekend. Based on a preseason that didn’t afford the kind of testing he expects, he went into the weekend knowing that there were going to be a few challenges. And when he saw the track at Duluth that was narrower and with far less snow than normal, he knew that passing was going to be tougher than usual.
So a first and second were a good start to his season.
And with that I’m going to end this report.
Congratulations to all the Team Arctic racers and crew who achieved their goals at Duluth.
Thanks to all of the racers who competed at Duluth, whether you were on a green sled or not.
And thanks for reading!