Tucker Hibbert's secret to winning
Tucker Hibbert has a bit of Batman in him. He is the winningest snowmobile racer in history, including six straight X Games SnoCross gold medals, and among the many reasons why is his understanding of one simple concept.
"We're not in the business," he says, "of showing people what we do."
This is why secrecy is the crucial tenet to everything he does. And why, in the seven years since he first established an X Games training compound at high altitude, he had never allowed an outsider to observe it. The point is to win, not show people how you win.
"It's nothing illegal," Hibbert says firmly, "but part of our whole deal is the competition doesn't know what we're doing -- ever."
On a bluebird morning in northern Colorado, Hibbert's wife and publicist, Mandi Johnson Hibbert, greets a visitor with a smile. It is 9 a.m. and Hibbert is driving a snowcat on a private 75-acre pasture, shaping a snocross track to mimic the X Games course in Aspen. He does this every day for two weeks leading up to the biggest event in snowmobile racing. The site is a secret. It is made clear that no one is to reference the town or post photos to social media that might be GPS-stamped. Certain testing contraptions may not be photographed. Mechanics and engineers exchange wary glances. It feels as if you are being let into the Batcave.
Hibbert has more to guard than anyone in the sport. The 29-year-old is on the verge of making X Games history, three weeks after he broke the all-time victories record in the National series (his 85th Pro class win, on Jan. 3, broke a tie with longtime rival Blair Morgan). His six straight X Games titles match Shaun White's winning streak in Snowboard SuperPipe. With a win Sunday afternoon, a few hours before White is to defend his SuperPipe titles, Hibbert will own the first seven-peat in Winter X Games history.
And if Hibbert has his way, in a sport where every engine is the same size, the mystery of how he dominates will live on.
Hibbert gets the question all of the time. Why does he win so often -- more than half of the races he has entered (86 of 156) since joining the National series in high school? Garth Kaufman, a nine-time X Games SnoCross racer and Hibbert's first cousin, says the answer is simple. "He's the most talented, he has the best equipment and his program is spotless."
We’re not in the business of showing people what we do... part of our whole deal is the competition doesn't know what we're doing -- ever.Tucker Hibbert
Kaufman retired from racing last summer after Hibbert recruited him to be his mechanic. "I was excited for the opportunity just to see what goes on," Kaufman said. "There's a lot more that goes into it than I realized."
"It's nothing I can really talk about, what we do to the snowmobiles," he said.
Every X Games sled has a 600cc motor and a fixed carburetor size. But you can modify their exhaust systems and cylinder heads, improving weight (most run between 450 and 460 pounds) and horsepower (Hibbert's team takes his stock $12,000 sled from 125 horsepower to 160 at sea level, which becomes 130 at 8,000-feet elevation). With the custom mods, Hibbert's sled accelerates from zero to 66 mph in 4 seconds.
The mastermind is Kirk Hibbert, Tucker's father and crew chief, who has a mop of wavy hair and a chinstrap beard. Kirk started racing in the 1960s and won everything from 500-mile cross-country races to the legendary Jackson Hole Hillclimb. When Tucker was little, the family spent summers on a farm in Idaho, just west of the Tetons, harvesting potatoes and grain. They would return to Thief River Falls, Minn., in the winter so Kirk could race and work as an engineer at the Arctic Cat factory (a job he still holds). He is one of the most respected people in the sport -- and the undeniable source of Tucker's work ethic.
Standing outside the team trailer, bleeding brakes with rubber gloves on, Kirk says Tucker got four new sleds last fall and it has been his mission to modify them to perfection, particularly the two that could be used in Aspen. "I think there's been a day and a half total that I haven't worked on these sleds since September," Kirk says. "Usually when the grandkids come around."
Kirk has a knack for spotting things no one else sees. "Tucker might say his sled is awesome," said X Games racer Logan Christian, who also rides for Arctic Cat, "but Kirk will see he was landing a little hard and make a slight tweak, and Tucker will gain another half-second on every lap."
Kirk has four children and two sons, but Tucker was the only one who wanted to race. He rode his first sled at 18 months and crashed so often that Kirk eventually removed the windshield so he would stop breaking it. He was sponsored at 8 and won his first X Games gold medal at 15, after receiving a special exemption to enter the race as a semi-pro. (Kirk, it should be noted, finished fifth at age 42.)
Tucker Hibbert has always raced dirt bikes as well as snowmobiles, and he often competes in the AMA Pro Motocross series against stars such as Ryan Dungey and James Stewart. Still, his gifts of line selection and flow are most evident on snow. He has won multiple X Games SnoCross races by more than 20 seconds. In November, during a National series final in Duluth, Minn., he became the first rider in history to lap the field.
"If you beat Tucker, you're at the top of your game, man," Scott Judnick ,of Judnick Motorsports, said. Judnick owns the team that employs Ross Martin, who has finished second to Hibbert in three straight X Games races, and he says Hibbert's team is the most clandestine in the sport. "We're parked next to each other a lot at races, and I'm forever standing outside the window watching them bring in their sleds, just to see what I can see. And they know it. Kirk will come out the door and shake his finger at me."
Judnick continued: "I don't for one second believe Tucker's equipment is better than ours."
Then why is he so much faster?
"We ask ourselves that question a lot. We study him at races, put stopwatches on him and also on Ross through certain sections. I guess it goes back to, if I knew the answer to that, I'd fix it."
If there is a downside to winning, it is that Hibbert's approach can make people think he's standoffish or arrogant. He wears his Monster Energy flat-brim cap just above his eyes, ears tucked in, squinted gaze straight ahead, rarely speaking.
"I think some people think I'm kinda stuck up and not very friendly, because of how I am at the race track," Hibbert says. "I'm not like most racers who are there to have a good time and hang out with everybody and laugh. I don't really talk to anyone else, I'm not friends with the other racers, except a couple guys I don't mind being around. Most of the guys, I'm there to race them and that's it.
"I don't think it matters what kind of guy you are," he adds, "as long as you got what it takes to win and put in the hard work."
Hibbert is a jokester around his team. He stickers people's backs when they're not looking. When asked outside the trailer how he has gone undefeated this season, he deadpans, "I changed from Tide to All. And I don't separate my clothes, I throw in everything at once."
No team on the circuit is tighter than the No. 68. In addition to his wife (whom he met in grade school), dad and cousin, Hibbert also employs Robby Dahlen, his best friend and longtime brand manager. His mom serves as the team seamstress. He doesn't drink or party; after a big win, he and his team sit around the trailer eating Hot Stuff pizza and drinking Monster.
"It sounds kinda lame," he says, "but that's as crazy as I get."
At about noon at the compound, Hibbert's sparkling new X Games sled is lifted off the shop floor and transferred via cable track to the snow outside. This is the first time Hibbert will ride it, and everyone is nervous about how it will run. Last year, his would-be X Games sled developed a mechanical problem 10 minutes before the final, and Hibbert switched to his backup in a frenzied, stressful blur. The goal this year is to avoid that.
Hibbert spins laps on the sled for 7 minutes, then returns to the pit. His entire team gathers around, eager to hear what he thought. "Stiff steering, easy throttle, fast rebound, no traction," he reports. "But it felt good. Fast."
Kirk and engineer Steve Houle take a small black device from Hibbert's sled and plug it into a computer inside the trailer. The software, which Kirk tailored to work with Arctic Cat sleds, records RPMs, throttle position, speed and exhaust/coolant temperatures throughout Hibbert's testing, so they know what was happening at every moment on the track. The X Games sled is unique in Hibbert's fleet: Barring mechanical trouble, it will be ridden in Aspen, then never again in competition, retired like a champion quarterhorse.
Given how much trouble Hibbert and his team take to shield the virgin machine from photographs, it begs the question of why he agreed to open up his practice in the first place.
"I don't know that he did agree," Mandi says, grinning. "He's on the fence about it."
Hibbert explains. Less than a mile away, on the other end of the pasture, a handful of Ski Doo-sponsored X Games racers have set up a similar track. Others do the same at various sites around the state, lured by Hibbert's success.
"It's no secret anymore," Hibbert says. "They can watch us with their binoculars if they want."
Then he adds with a wry smile, anticipating the next question before it is asked: "They might know where we are, but they don't know everything."