Who's hot to watch in 2000?
by Vince Castellanos, Winter X Games Snocross researcher
November 1999 What can Snocross possibly do for an encore in 1999-2000? That's the question after a year when snocross, and especially the World Snowmobiling Association (WSA, the Winter X snocross organizer), achieved tremendous success against seemingly impossible odds. With question marks at the beginning of last year, sport organizers Joe Duncan, Scott O'Malley and the WSA crew answered their critics within the snowmobile industry by holding a series of well-received races that attracted both thousands of spectators and ESPN television coverage. The exclamation point to the year was the fact that interest in snocross continued to climb even though the snowmobile industry itself suffered through a second consecutive lackluster winter during which low-snow conditions and crushing inventory slowed sales. Despite the industry's poor health, interest in snocross continues to soar. Attendance at races is up substantially, new teams have entered the sport, the four major sled manufacturers (Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha) are putting the bulk of their racing budgets toward snocross and many of the top racers are switching teams with the frequency of free agents in hockey in an effort to get big-buck deals. The Show Must Go On
That snocross races were held at all last year is a testament to WSA's commitment to the sport. While events were being cancelled from Alaska to Quebec and everywhere in between due to lack of snow, WSA continued to run races. The organization spent tens of thousands of dollars either making snow or hauling it in to each of the eight national races and several regional events. WSA was rewarded for their efforts with an hour-long television show on ESPN and espn2. In addition, attendance was up an average of 28 percent at national and regional events. According to Duncan, the following are the total entries and attendance figures for WSA's eight national races during the 1998-1999 season. (Attendance figures are provided by the promoters.):
Round 1 Duluth, Minn.: Entries, 837; Attendance, 19,800 (last day was cancelled due to lack of snow)
Round 2 Hinckley, Minn.: Entries, 761; Attendance, 6,200
Round 3 Crandon, Wis.: Entries, 500; Attendance, 6,100 (despite a raging blizzard and the fact that it was held over New Year's weekend)
Round 4 Deadwood, S.D.: Entries, 319; Attendance, 7,300
Round 5 Minneapolis, Minn.: Entries, 751; Attendance, 19,200
Round 6 Valcourt, Quebec: Entries, 159 (includes Pro and Semi-Pro classes only); Attendance, 8,200
Round 7 Syracuse, NY: Entries 119 (Pro only); Attendance, 10,300
Round 8 Lake Geneva, Wis.: Entries 530; Attendance, 12,200
Including the 10 WSA regional races, Duncan estimates the total attendance to be 142,000. Also, the entries were capped at several of the events or they would have been much higher. The Sport classes - typically made up of racers in their mid-teens - are the largest divisions, where participation can number in the hundreds. Its worthy of note that in 5 of the 8 tour stops on the '98-99 WSA national circuit, the total event attendance was more than double the host town's population (exceptions: Minneapolis, Syracuse, Duluth). In addition to WSA's success, a group led by Canadian Snocross Racing Association (CSRA) head Ken Avann capitalized on snocross' popularity by staging the first indoor snocross in 30 years. Held in Toronto's brand-spanking-new Air Canada Centre, the race was a promising start to a series of indoor events that will be held in 2000. Around 10,000 fans attended the poorly publicized race, and event promoters and Air Canada Centre staff were thrilled with the ease of setup and tear-down and the relative lack of machine noise and smoke. But what they loved the most was that the crowd set a Centre record for concessions consumed. Really. The stereotype is true: Snowmobilers love to drink beer and eat greasy food. Unfortunately, snocross wouldn't be complete without some controversy, and WSA and the CSRA will have scheduling conflicts this year. Included among them will be dates when indoor races clash with WSA events and, most importantly, when WSA holds its Wisconsin National the same weekend and less than 100 miles from the Eagle River Derby. The Derby is the granddaddy of all sled races, and the CSRA's U.S. branch is the sanctioning body for the snocross portion.
Despite the potential of the new indoor races, the Winter X Games remains the premier event in snocross. Want proof? Three of the four manufacturers are offering $10,000 to anyone who can ride their sled to a win at Winter X. (Chris Vincent got the same reward last year from Ski-Doo, and that 10k plus the WX prize money makes for a pretty healthy payday.)
The biggest news in the sport of snocross has to be all of the racers who have changed teams and sleds. Every team has at least one new face for two main reasons: One, drivers - who are aware of the sport's growing popularity and assume that translates into dollars - are shopping themselves around more than ever in an effort to find the best deal. A couple even have agents. Two, financial hardship has hit Ski-Doo. Once known for its deep pockets, Doo has scaled back in all aspects, including racing. The Canadian manufacturer simply couldn't afford to pay all of its big-name racers what they wanted, so they bolted.
Polaris made the biggest move. After years of downplaying the importance of racing, the No. 1 manufacturer in terms of sales now wants to be No. 1 in racing, as well. The following is a partial list of riders who will now fly the Polaris flag:
Noel Kohanski - The Golden Boy actually began his racing career on a Polaris before switching to Ski-Doo. He's back on Polaris and coming off a serious knee injury last season. He's not yet qualified for WX.
Jesse Strege. Superfly was stolen away from Arctic Cat-where he was much loved and had great relationships, especially with Kirk Hibbert- by "an offer I couldn't refuse."
Troy Schaden - Schaden - who had the second most spectacular crash at the 1998 WX Games (nothing could top Jason Jones getting landed on)-captured his first Pro National podium spot last year on a Ski-Doo and was on his way to an excellent first Pro year before an injury ended his season. He's not yet qualified for WX.
Jim Beck, Jr. - Beck finally began to live up to his potential last year on his Ski-Doo. He had several top 10 finishes, and his consistency was rewarded with a 5th place finish in overall Stock 440 points. He's not yet qualified for WX.
These four add to Polaris' already large and solid lineup. Kohanski is probably the real steal. He gives Polaris a chance to win in every race he enters, and that's something Polaris had been missing.
Arctic Cat's big off-season signing is Toni Haikonen. The former Ski-Doo racer and 1998 WX gold winner had to shop himself around, a far cry from two years ago when every manufacturer came to him with big offers.
Yamaha has added Tim "Magic" Maki. The former Scheuring/Ski-Doo rider should complement Nathan Titus nicely.
Finally, despite all its losses, Ski-Doo did add a couple of young, talented riders. Carl "Showtime" Schubitzke will be an independent racer for them and Dennis Eckstrom will campaign for the Scheuring/Ski-Doo Amsoil Team.
After a successful first year, the well-funded, independent Amsoil Team is back with two new racers: Eckstrom and Justin Tate. Both are young racers on the rise, and both got Pro National podium spots late last year (Eckstrom even won a race). However, they don't give Amsoil the ability to win consistently like Chris Vincent did.
Speaking of Vincent, he signed with Warnert Racing, a new, topnotch independent team similar to the Scheuring/Ski-Doo Amsoil Team. Warnert will use Ski-Doos and have major backing from a yet-to-be-named sponsor from outside the sledding industry. Young T.J. Gulla, a promising Eastern racer, will join Warnert Racing and move to the team's St. Cloud, Minnesota, headquarters. Ski-Doo veteran and cross-country ace Todd Wolff will be the third member of the team and will concentrate more on snocross this year than he has in the past.
In less compelling snocross news, the WSA is switching from three premier classes to two. Pro 600 has been dropped, leaving Pro Open (the WX class) and Stock 440 as the top divisions. The factories never cared one way or the other about Pro 600, the class was originally added as a concession to Yamaha, which doesn't build a 440. The 600 division gave Yamaha a chance to compete with a stock sled. However, the other three manufacturers simply raced their 440s in the 600 class, and those race-specific machines proved more competitive than Yamaha's consumer-designed 600.
In other news of note, WSA weight requirements have been changed - at least temporarily - from 350 pounds to 435. By most neutral accounts, the change was made in the wrong way but for the right reason.
Everyone who cares about the sport is concerned about rapidly escalating costs. Pro Open sleds now can easily cost $35,000 (although Arctic Cat claims to build them for much less), and the sheer cost alone prevents many talented racers from even attempting to campaign an Open machine. The problem was going from bad to worse with the old 350-pound weight rule because it encouraged and rewarded factories for experimenting with the lightest, most expensive materials they could find. A lighter sled provides a better power-to-weight ratio and better handling, so factories were using more carbon fiber and titanium parts.
By changing the weight rule to 435 pounds, factories hope to keep costs down both for themselves and for top independents, thus making the class more competitive. Red Line, a company new to snowmobiles, had built and planned to race a radical new sled that weighs less than 400 pounds. Because they are underpowered, Red Line's whole advantage was based on weight. They are currently threatening a lawsuit.
Finally, in some sad news, Arctic Cat's Canadian Racing Coordinator Jamie Anseeuw was paralyzed from the waist down in a sledding accident he suffered while racing in a Master's class event late in the season. Anseeuw is the team manager for the Flying Canucks-Blair Morgan, Carl Kuster (not yet qualified for WX) and Earl Reimer. The whole team is very close (Morgan and Kuster even live at Anseeuw's parents' house during the season), and the accident greatly affected all three riders, particularly the sensitive Kuster, who was first on the scene and still had difficulty describing the accident five months later. Anseeuw, one of the brightest, most forthcoming and caustic men in snowmobiling, has resumed some of his duties, but it remains to be seen how active he will be during the season and what effect his presence or lack thereof will have on the team.
The 1999 Medalists and Possible Heroes For 2000
Chris Vincent - Gold
Like Toni Haikonen the year before, Chris "Air" Vincent went on to have a career year after winning the WX gold. Besides better equipment, Vincent also matured as a racer. Last year, no racer spent as much time examining the track as Vincent did. In particular, he would watch Blair Morgan carefully and study his lines. If Morgan was tripling a section of track, Vincent would try it.
Vincent's research was rewarded with several event wins. More impressively, he was consistent enough to earn second place points finishes in Pro 600 and Pro 440 and a third in Pro Open. Vincent is clearly the second best racer in snocross. The man who beat him in all three classes? Blair Morgan, of course. The rivalry between the pair is becoming increasingly intense and personal, and it culminated in mid-February at the Canterbury National event outside of Minneapolis.
Vincent studied Morgan's aerial acrobatics, and he is now the second best jumper on tour.
For WX 2000, Vincent will be a close second to Morgan as odds-on favorite. A Vermont native, Vincent will be cheered on by what is guaranteed to be a large, raucous crowd. While he will still be on Ski-Doos and George Sherrard will still be spinning wrenches on his machines, it will be interesting to see if he performs for Warnert Racing the way he did for Steve Scheuring and Team Amsoil.
Blair Morgan - Silver
It appears "Superman" Blair Morgan's kryptonite is the Winter X Games. WX gold is the only significant snocross title that has eluded Morgan's grasp. Assuming he stays healthy, look for him to rectify that in 2000. Last year, Morgan became the first (and, with the move to two Pro classes instead of three, probably the last) rider to win the National series triple crown. He claimed points championships in all three Pro classes. In Pro Open, he had to beat Yamaha's Nathan Titus in the last race of the season to win that division. He did. With the triple crown, Morgan became the first racer ever to win Snow Week magazine's Racer of the Year award in consecutive seasons.
Like 1998, Morgan dominated, and only Chris Vincent presented a consistent challenge, and it was a challenge Morgan normally overcame with ease. Despite the fact that every rider was gunning for him, Morgan still won an amazing 15 of 24 finals. Vincent was next with four wins, and Titus was the only other rider with more than one. Morgan's tremendous 1997-98 success led his competitors to work and train harder during the off-season. Most rode motocross bikes religiously and dedicated all their free time to new fitness regimes. Didn't matter. Morgan still crushed.
The soft-spoken Canadian has more in common with ESPN's extreme sports demo than any other sled racer, and that's apparent in his dress, hobbies and choice of music. The highlight of Morgan's 1999 WX experience probably came when Shaun Palmer gave him a brand new snowboard.
In an industry first, Arctic Cat is trying to capitalize on Morgan's success with 7c Racewear. Otherwise known as "Blair Wear," the clothing line is a drastic departure from the normally loud, bright, multi-patterned sled clothing and reflects Morgan's baggy jeans and muted colors preference.
For the 2000 WX, Morgan should get his gold unless he and Vincent take each other out first. With all due respect to Vincent, his Ski-Doo (and, for that matter, most of the Polaris') simply had more power and were able to make it up the long hill faster than Morgan. After reviewing the WX Snocross tapes, it's clear that Morgan had to come from behind consistently, and Vincent was just good enough to maintain his large initial advantage in the final. Joe Duncan and the WSA promise a far different course in Vermont. It will be a track without a long uphill and will most likely be far rougher than either of the past two courses, and both bode well for Morgan, who much prefers rough tracks to smooth ones. Statistics sway in Morgan's favor. After winning 28 of 42 National finals over the past two years without capturing WX gold, logic says he's due.
Trevor John - Bronze
The surprise of the 1999 WX, Trevor John went on to post a solid year, especially for an 18-year-old. After taking a bronze at WX - the biggest event in snocross - John ended January by taking a third in the FANS 500 (First American Northstar Series)- the biggest event in cross-country. Not a bad month. However, he posted only one top five finish in a snocross National after WX, which isn't surprising since he had only two top fives before WX. A lot of that can be blamed on the Polaris machinery, which wasn't at all suited to snocross, but snocross doesn't seem to be John's preference. His passion appears to be cross-country, and while a repeat podium performance is likely at the FANS 500, it's a longshot at WX. Much will also depend on Polaris. The factory claims it has made several key changes to make their machines more competitive. Of course, they said the same thing after a disappointing 1997-98 campaign, but it didn't matter. They still claimed just three podium places at WSA National events last year (all thirds, and all by Kurtis Crapo).
The Best of The Rest
Not yet qualified, but a sure bet to either qualify or receive a WSA invitation.
Before his season-ending knee injury a week before the 1999 WX, "Golden" Noel Kohanski had a win and two silvers in just seven National races. Kohanski was clearly at the top level with Vincent, Morgan and Titus. While his knee recovered enough to allow him to race at the April Toronto indoor race, that track was more an exhibition than real racing. Laps were completed in less than 20 seconds and the bumps were small. It remains to be seen whether his repaired knee can take the repeated snocross pounding. More troubling than Kohanski's knee may be his brand switch. Unless Polaris is right in saying it has fixed their problematic racer, the Thunder Bay native could be in for a long season. However, Kohanski will be racing out of performance-guru Glenn Erlandson's shop, and if anyone can make a Polaris competitive it's Erlandson. The clutching master was Dennis Burks' team manager in 1998 when Burks won WX silver.
After his injury, Kohanski spent most of the season helping announcer Greg Creamer callraces, and he is clearly comfortable with a mic in his hand.
After going a year and a half without a win, Nathan Titus took two last year and seemed to regain some much needed confidence. One of the most popular racers on the circuit, Titus revitalized Yamaha's sagging snocross effort. Now that the Pro 600 class is gone, Titus will have less track time, and that may well prove to be a detriment. Yamaha's Pro Open machine will be better than ever, but Race Director Gordy Muetz said it's designed more for smooth tracks than rough ones, so stay tuned.
Despite his nice-guy attitude and genuinely likeable persona, Toni Haikonen became a puzzle last year, and no one seems quite sure how the pieces fit together. After a career-best 1997-1998 campaign highlighted by his WX gold, Haikonen got a large monetary deal for '98-99.
Besides Kohanski, Kurtis Crapo is probably Polaris' best chance. One half of the only brother-combo in WX snocross history (all two years of it), Kurtis is the more serious racer, though both made the final last year. Kurtis was also the only Polaris pilot to podium at a WSA National last year. The straight-talking Idaho native has a dry sense of humor and an honest approach.
In addition to the above, several other racers have a chance to be competitive. Arctic Cat's Brad Pake is back. Once the best snocrosser, he reportedly has renewed interest. Aaron Scheele, another year older and wiser, keeps getting smarter and better.
From Polaris, Jesse "Superfly" Strege may surprise, although it's more likely that he'll have trouble adjusting to the new Polaris equipment.
Ski-Doo's Dennis Eckstrom, Carl Schubitzke and Todd Wolff (Eckstrom & Wolff are not yet on the invite list) will join Vincent as the top Ski-Doo threats, while Yamaha's Tim Maki should run near the top (Maki is not yet qualified).
A Great Story in the Making
There's a decent chance that a father and son will both make the Winter X. No parent-kid combo has ever competed in either X event? The two in question are Kirk Hibbert and his son, Tucker. Tucker, at just 15, has an excellent chance to qualify, however, insurance details might keep him from competing. He really came on strong last year and nearly dominated the semi-pro classes (even beating Kent Ipsen regularly, who finished in the top 16 at last year's Winter X). Tucker is a smart, talkative kid who thinks he lives about the best life in the world. He's in awe of his dad and the great racers he brings home (two winters ago Blair Morgan and Tucker rode a lot together).
To add to the cool story, Kirk Hibbert was the most famous of any sled racer until Morgan and Vincent came along, and he's probably the only racer Morgan looks up to. He's a great guy that every racer loves. A certain hall of famer, Kirk, at 42, is still competitive in a sport where every other top racer (besides Lynn Felker) hasn't seen his mid-30s. Kirk works for Arctic Cat and actually leads the team that designs the machines the racers ride. This father and son team haven't made the roster yet, but it is likely they will.
Morgan, Vincent Battle Turns To War
The most significant post-WX event was at a WSA National at Canterbury Park just outside Minneapolis. There, Blair Morgan and Chris Vincent collided mid-air over a jump in a heat race. That neither would back off an inch in just a heat race speaks volumes about their battle. The accident - mostly incidental, but more Morgan's fault than Vincent's - sent Superman Morgan to the hospital. Apparently he's not faster than a speeding sled, as Vincent's machine landed on top of him. After spending hours in the hospital, Morgan returned the next morning hopped up on painkillers and promptly placed higher than Vincent in all three finals.
Vincent is at the point where he will criticize Morgan in interviews. For his part, Morgan still treats Vincent like a non-factor, which must burn Vincent even further. Their sleds seem almost magnetized towards each other. If they are anywhere near one another, they end up bumping. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before their rivalry boils over once again.
El Niño/La Niña
After El Niño's exit, La Niña was supposed to arrive in 1998-99 and bring lots of snow with her. But, it seems, she stood everyone up. The snowmobile industry suffered through another low-snow winter, and the result was poor sales and high inventory. The good news is that 230,887 units of the 1999 models were sold. That's more than in any year between 1980 and 1996. The bad news is that dealers dumped a significant percentage of those at little or no profit so they could avoid paying finance charges.
The good news is that production dropped by 39,000 units for 1999. The bad news is that inventory was still at 57,700 units entering the 2000 model year. That's the worst inventory for the industry since 1991.
The good news is that an estimated 60,000 people turned out in early September for the Hay Days grass drags and consumer show. That's the biggest crowd ever. The bad news is that most were bargain shoppers who know dealers are in trouble and looking to make the deal of a lifetime.
Dealers across North America - and particularly in the Midwest and East - are struggling. Most have high inventory from both 1998 and 1999 and have reported slow early-season sales for the model year 2000. Of the four manufacturers, Ski-Doo has been hit hardest. Ski-Doo has the most marketshare in the Personal Watercraft (PWC) business, and the bottom fell out of that industry in the last three years. Vermont And Snowmobiling
Vermont is a huge snowmobiling state. The Vermont Association of Snowmobile Trails (VAST) is one of the best trail systems in North America, and they are among the top five or six states in sleds registered. That reason alone should make for some huge crowds. A throng of 5,000 showed up for the Haystack National two years ago. Vermont could have been the beginning of the Morgan/Vincent rivalry as they bumped significantly for the first time at that event. It's also where Morgan unveiled his Superman jump.