Snowmobile stardom lures dirt specialists
Snowmobiling is not a year-round activity, and even the best riders with long backgrounds in the snow find other things to do in the warmer months. Many, such as 10-time SnoCross medalist Tucker Hibbert, race motocross. Some athletes in Snowmobile Best Trick and Freestyle actually launched their careers on the dirt first with motorcycles and ATVs. When the opportunity to double down and make a name at a place called Buttermilk Mountain opened up, several riders seized it.
With a diverse set of skills, riders such as Daniel Bodin (bikes), and the Moore brothers (ATVs) have found their biggest success while moonlighting as snowmobile hucksters. More medals equal more notoriety and more notoriety means more shows, demonstrations and other paying gigs on sleds, bikes and quads.
Now two-time Moto X Best Trick gold medalist Jackson Strong wants a shot at expanding his résumé. The allure and opportunity of snowmobile freestyle was once reserved for former snowcross racers, small-time FMX riders and two even more obscure ATV specialists. From where does the desire to push a thumb throttle come, and how difficult is it to make that switch back and forth every year?
"I think the allure is that there is not as many shows or events where you can do just one thing and get paid well for it," said Joe Duncan, sport organizer for many snowmobile events including X Games Aspen. "By opening up and having skills on two machines, you open up the door to do more shows, more competitions and more events, which is how they get paid and how they live their rock star life."
Strong will share this right now: He's not trying to make a career out of competing on a snowmobile. This idea to enter the Best Trick competition in Aspen was born out of a calendar with free spaces on it and a few alcohol-induced conversations with friends.
"I was sitting around drinking beers and I decided to do something useful," Strong said. "I've always kind of wanted to test myself as an athlete and see how I could go at something totally different and totally new."
Justin Hoyer, Bodin and the Moore brothers have a similar story -- they learned freestyle somewhere else and wanted a new challenge. But unlike Strong, they came in as unknowns with little expectations. They also made the seasonal move to sleds as a way to get some recognition and build their names and brand and find a supplemental income. It's been lucrative, and the three to five minutes of total live event time these riders might each get in Snowmobile Freestyle and Best Trick have become the main catalyst for getting work for the rest of the year. Learning to make that switch quickly and successfully, from dirt to snow and back to dirt, has been essential.
Colten and Caleb Moore are ATV racers turned ATV freestylers who rode sleds for the first time in December 2009, one month before the 2010 Winter X Games. Colten thinks switching machines throughout the year helps.
"The more stuff we can get on and learn more techniques and things that help us out, just being able to transfer back and forth, you use a little bit from everything," he said. "Putting it all together tends to help out more than it hurts."
Moore and his brother, Caleb, even started riding dirt bikes recently and Caleb is the first person to land back flips on snowmobiles, ATVs and motorcycles. Caleb remembers the switch from ATVs to snowmobiles as being difficult at first.
"Each time we switched it really got easier," he said. "It's kind of like riding a bike. Your body starts to get used to it and remember the machine."
Caleb now gets requests from some promoters to ride ATVs and snowmobiles in the same show, which often means double the money.
Even though the Moore brothers only spend about 30 percent of their year riding snowmobiles, they're now considered the ones to beat in Aspen. Colten earned gold and silver last year in Freestyle and Best Trick, respectively, and Caleb took a bronze in Freestyle despite a cracked tailbone and a broken pelvis.
For the snowmobile regulars, competing at X Games Aspen isn't their main source of revenue; rather, it's what sparks the opportunity for getting hired to perform in shows and demos around the world. For example, Colten Moore performs on the Nuclear Cowboyz tour, an 11-stop freestyle motocross show, as the lone ATV. Cowboyz had its first show Jan. 11-12 in Kansas City, Mo. The opportunity to compete in the X Games is the platform these athletes have used to get their names recognized.
"It was what we had all been waiting for," said Bodin, a two-time gold medalist at X Games. "We used to hope that one day we'd have freestyle snowmobiling at the X Games. It was really good for all of us."
But Strong, with his L.A.-earned hardware and being the first person to land a front flip on a dirt bike in a competition, already had a big name before he asked to be included in the Aspen 2013 lineup. Why would a guy who already has X Games medals and tours the world doing shows want to completely switch machines, terrain and sport? Is it really just the same tricks on a different vehicle? Sure. And a half-court shot in basketball is the same as a Hail Mary into the end zone on a football field.
Strong climbed on a snowmobile for the first time in his life last month in St. Cloud, Minn. The Australian native had only seen snow once before in his life, one year ago, also in Minnesota. Now, with help from Rockstar Energy, he's the proud owner of a race-ready Polaris IQ 600 that he bought used for $7,000. He's been training with Jimmy Blaze (née Fejes) who has a handful of XG Aspen appearances and was the third person to land a back flip on a snowmobile.
Instead of taking Strong out in the trails to get familiar with the machine, Blaze just pushed the ramp in to about a 40-foot distance and Strong hit it right away. He still hasn't gone for a ride through the trails. At first he found the machine unresponsive yet steady in the air.
"Once we started getting the ramp back and started getting a decent gap, and we were going really high in the air and jumping far, it started to get scary." Strong said. "I'm not going to say one is harder than the other but they're two different things. With some practice I think I could be good at either/or."
Duncan lives only 25 minutes from where Strong has been practicing and popped in to observe. He said he often receives messages from riders in other disciplines who want to know what it takes to get into the X Games Aspen freestyle events. Usually nothing comes of it. When he received a phone call from Brian Deegan who said, "Strong is serious," he made a point to check into it. He showed up for Strong's second day on a snowmobile and was impressed.
"He was so comfortable on a sled from the first couple of days on it that it was inevitable that if he put the drive and determination behind it he was going to do it," Duncan said. "And he did."
Strong isn't revealing his competition trick but he did say it is not a back flip. That doesn't mean he hasn't tried a flip. On Jan. 10, Strong asked Blaze for some advice on the flip. Strong said his brain must have switched off because "It did not work at all," he said. "Off the ramp I pulled so hard, thinking I had to pull hard to get the machine around and not use the throttle like I meant to. Both of my hands blew off the handlebars and I went flying through the air and did a backflip. I landed in the foam and then a 300-kilo sled landed directly on top of me."
He thought he'd broken a lot of bones but he was pulled out with only bruises and bumps. Aside from the failed flip, Strong is ready to go. He said he's comfortably stuck his trick into the foam pit, and even though he feels competitive, he's also realistic.
"I can't say I'm going to be there to win because I think my lifetime riding time on a snowmobile is going to be around five or six hours," he said. "I just want to go out and have some fun. If I can land my tricks safely and maybe medal that would be a highlight in my career."
Even though Strong may not become a regular on a snowmobile, he will be welcomed by the other athletes who don't mind sharing the spotlight.
"When we came in we didn't know if people were going to like us doing that or not and we feel like some people might not have liked it," said Colten Moore. "When we see other guys doing it now we say the more the merrier."
Ironically, it appears that the sport will be welcoming more riders in 2014 as another set of ATV freestyle brothers, Derek and Jon Guetter, have already taken delivery of snowmobiles for a full year of preparation. The two riders who are the Moore brothers' competition on ATVs will also be their rivals on the snow.
"They've seen what the Moore brothers have done, and now they have sleds," Duncan said. They're shooting to go to the X Games next year."