In the aftermath of the 50th Anniversary of the Eagle River World Championship last January, Jim Dimmerman and I have wanted to spend a few hours with the Wandersheid Racing team to see their Champ 440 race sled; talk with four-time Champ P.J. Wanderscheid and his brothers Mark and Dave; and get a feel for the commitment required in oval racing’s premier class.
The timing worked out during Thanksgiving week, so Dimmerman and I headed to Wanderscheid’s dealership Country Cat in Sauk Centre, Minn., where their race shop is located.
When we arrived, Dimmerman went straight to the cool display area containing a couple of P.J.’s World Championship Champ sleds, along with a selection of his trophies and gear.
Jim’s interest in current oval racing was piqued by what he saw last January at Eagle River, as well as the restoration he completed on his 1984 World Championship-winning Phantom race sled.
He’s been eager to learn the current state of race sled technology from the Wanderscheid crew.
Jim and P.J. spent a few minutes talking about the display and the busy Country Cat dealership.
These two guys have more in common than the elite title of World Champion: Dimmerman owned a successful Arctic Cat dealership in the Twin Cities for about a decade beginning in the early 1990s.
The two traded stories about the dealership experience, as well as a laugh about the energy and pace of work required during the Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s timeframe.
After getting a quick tour of Country Cat, we headed to the race shop, located at the back of the property and separate from the dealership/mail order aspects of their business.
There, Mark Wanderscheid (left) joined in as the three immediately began discussing race sleds.
Dimmerman’s career as a Team Arctic Factory racer began in 1978, when he was tapped to replace the retiring Larry Coltom. He raced alongside Bobby Elsner, witnessing the joy of Elsner’s historic win at Eagle River in 1979, as well as the gut-wrenching demise of Arctic Enterprises (and its famed race program) in late 1981.
While Team Arctic was “gone fish’n” beginning in 1982, Dimmerman teamed with Ted Nielsen to continue racing ovals aboard the last of Arctic Cat’s factory sleds — specifically the Scorpions previously piloted by 1981 World Champion Brad Hulings.
Starting with that sled, Dimmerman and crew added their own ideas and components to create the Phantom and, in a historic piece of driving, won the 1984 World Championship. That David-vs.-Goliath victory against the factory Ski-Doo twin-track machines was the last for a single-tracked machine until the sport changed the class rules more than a decade later.
Fast forward nearly two decades from Dimmerman’s win… to the era of single-track Champ 440 sleds that comprised the World Championship class of oval competition. In 2002, then-18-year old P.J. Wanderscheid showed up at Eagle River aboard a year-old Arctic Cat Champ 440 sled built by John Hooper.
It was P.J.’s first-year in the Champ 440 class and, in another historic bit of driving that turned the snowmobile oval racing on its collective head, he upset the old guard to earn his first World Championship title.
P.J. and the Wanderscheid crew would return to win again in 2003 and 2006, joining an elite club of three-time champions.
In 2011, P.J. became the first-ever four-time winner; a feat that many pundits had previously proclaimed would “never happen.”
In the year’s since the team’s first win in 2002 they’ve continued to learn, engineer and build ever more sophisticated (and better) Champ 440 race sleds, continuing their relationship with sled/engine builder John Hooper for most of that period.
For Dimmerman, who had been away from oval racing for more than a decade, this historical download proved as fascinating as it was illuminating.
There are some pretty big differences between the last of the Factory single-track sleds like what Dimmerman rode and the current crop of Champ sleds.
They’ve gone from cleated tracks to rubber tracks; from 340-lb. machines powered by 340cc engines producing around 90hp to 375 lb. sleds with much more powerful 440cc mills. The chain cases have been rolled back, positioning the track further from skis, hence a more separated weight balance from front to rear. The rider is further offset to the left of the machine. And instead of factories competing against each other, it’s a handful of independent teams.
Dimmerman summed up his fascination and curiosity: “I look at that race [Eagle River] and always wonder what the next step is in order to win it.”
What he saw this afternoon in the Wanderscheid race shop answered most of his questions.
Likewise, listening to Mark Wanderscheid talk about the continued development that’s occurred in Champ 440 was equally enlightening.
As the crew chief/head mechanic for Wanderscheid racing, Mark has become one of only a handful of Champ sled builders, albeit one who confines his work to his younger brother.
From cooling to front end geometry to engine placement, the Wanderscheids have continued to push the envelope of oval sled development for the past decade. Each year the team crafts a new machine that incorporates new ideas and technology.
Her Dimmerman checks out the cooling system on last year’s sled.
As fate would have it on this Tuesday evening (and to our welcomed surprise), into the shop walked Steve Thorsen (right), the 1977 and ’78 World Champion.
“Son of a gun, Orville, it’s good to see you!” proclaimed Dimmerman, using the nickname given to Thorsen decades ago.
Thorsen’s career is another that deserves a book. He won his World Championship titles for Polaris before moving to Team Scorpion (owned at the time by Arctic Cat).
Thorsen would continue his relationship with Arctic Cat racing, building race sleds (with partner Dean Schwarzwalter) for Brian Sturgeon for more than a decade beginning in 1987. Thorsen & Schwarzwalter, aka T/S Racing, also owned an Arctic Cat dealership while continuing as head builders/mechanics for several Team Arctic racers through the late-2000s.
For the past handful of years Thorsen has been the head mechanic for the Scheuring Speed Sports snocross effort while assisting the Wanderscheid team with ideas on recent Champ sleds. Truly Thorsen is one of the most knowledgeable and accomplished sled builders of the past 25 years.
It was compelling listening to Thorsen and Dimmerman talk race sleds. The two have very different personalities. Thorsen is quiet, almost solitary, while Dimmerman is talkative and very social. There was healthy dialogue and some good laughter this evening at the Wanderscheid race shop.
Here the two look at what will be Wanderscheids’ 2014 Champ sled.
On the bench next to the new Champ sled sat the Hooper-built 440 Arctic Cat race engine. With continued creative development, Hooper has pushed horsepower numbers for this non-valved 440 well into the triple digits.
Hooper has been a veritable guru of engine (and sled) building during the past decade, having been key to the success and World Championship titles posted by P.J., Gary Moyle and Larry Day.
While Hooper builds the engines, Mark knows them intimately. This time of year, Mark excuses himself from most of his day-to-day duties with Country Cat in order to build the race sled.
I’m guessing he spent at least 30 hours welding hooker plates and adding studs to this track.
Untold hours are spent inside this shop, building a race sled (and eating beans).
While the vast majority of components on the Champ 440 sled are custom, there are a few off-the-shelf items, including the coolant hose from a 1995 ZR580…
… and another from a 1992 Prowler 440. So for all of us who chuckle about the Prowler, we should acknowledge that it has some really awesome plumbing.
There were a couple years when the Wanderscheids used the laydown-style engine in their Champ sled, including their 2006 World Championship-winning machine. The remnants from that period are now housed in the storage area of the shop.
Dave Wanderscheid (left) joined the powwow for a while that evening, but generally he was busy doing all the real work so that P.J. could talk race sleds. Thanks Dave!
All three of the Wanderscheid brothers are so dedicated to the race efforts, with the same passion and attention to detail they employ with their Country Cat business, it’s no wonder they’ve achieved such great success on the race track.
The team has been building their own carbon fiber tunnels and hoods the past couple of seasons. Above is one of the sets they’ll use this season.
Wanderscheids have a slightly different approach to the schedule for 2014, with maybe slightly fewer events than some previous years, to better concentrate on winning a fifth World Championship.
Just before it was time to shake hands and thank our hosts, Dimmerman pulled out his phone to show some pictures of a race sled he’s got cooking.
If I had one take-away lesson from the afternoon spent at Wanderscheid’s with Dimmerman, it’s that a continuous line can be drawn from Roger Janssen’s 1969 World Championship all the way to P.J.’s 2011 win.
Along that line you would find Dave Thompson, Larry Coltom, Charlie Lofton, Bob Elsner, Brad Hulings, Steve Thorsen, Dean Schwarzwalter, the Wahl Bros., Jim Dimmerman, Brian Sturgeon, Jim Herzig, the DeVaults, John Hooper, Larry Day, Gary Moyle, P.J. Wanderscheid and many others.
Each has simultaneously achieved success under the Team Arctic umbrella while pushing the sport forward, giving themselves and their fans truly thrilling experiences in the historic arena of oval competition.
And I know that, for Dimmerman at least, his passion for Team Arctic has never diminished.
As he told the Wanderscheids before we left for home, “I want to see you guys put yourselves and Arctic Cat back on the podium at Eagle River.”
Thanks to the Wanderscheids for hosting our visit, and thanks to you for reading!