Can anyone beat Tucker Hibbert?
Since 2007, Tucker Hibbert has not only dominated SnoCross at Winter X, he's destroyed everyone who attempts to compete with him. A very heavy favorite at Winter X 15 to win his sixth gold medal and fifth consecutively, Hibbert has won the last four SnoCross finals by a combined margin of 97 seconds -- a staggering gap for races that have been 20-25 laps with lap times much less than one minute each. The list of challengers has grown. While Hibbert has been the only rider to win gold in SnoCross since 2007, seven different riders have claimed the eight available silver and bronze medals. Six of those men are coming to Winter X 15, and they're coming to win.
When you think that you've worked hard and you've really put in a good day's work and done your job, it isn't even close to what Tucker's done.
-- Dan Ebert
The bad news for anyone with a plan to usurp the most decorated rider in Winter X SnoCross history is that he already has a head start. For the first time since the 2002-03 season Hibbert is racing a full season on the ISOC national snocross series. Three events have been held already and you-know-who has swept every final in two classes: Pro Stock and Pro Open. Momentum like that has left a wake of hungry but confounded challengers. Dan Ebert earned bronze in 2009 and since his father, Russ, used to be Hibbert's mechanic, he's spent more time with the champ than any other rider. "His mental drive and his mental toughness is like none other," Ebert said. "When you think that you've worked hard and you've really put in a good day's work and done your job, it isn't even close to what Tucker's done. I've ridden with him and he is 110 percent, all the time, and if it isn't done right it isn't done at all."
Echoing Ebert's analysis, Hibbert is very militant and calculated even in his interview style: "I just take it year by year. My job is to win races. I don't really pay attention or worry about what [my competition] is doing." He doesn't waste excess energy on unnecessary words or comments nor does he make lofty claims or memorable quips. One might even say his riding style is the same: fast, diligent and unapologetic.
Racing against this guy is like searching for Sasquatch; the rest of the pack can't even get near him and if they do, there's a good chance no one will believe their tale. At two of the past four Winter X SnoCross finals, Hibbert led every single lap. In the other two years (2010, 2007) Ryan Simons had the rare opportunity to lead a final. Since 2005 Simons has been the most consistent rider not named Tucker. He's made five of the last six finals and has finished in the top five on every occasion. Impressive stats, but he still gives a verbal shrug when asked what he can do to stay in the lead. The two times he led were brief. In 2010 he held down the top spot for four laps. "I remember leading and knowing that you just have to pin it every single second because you know he is coming," Simons said. "It's a fast-paced race."
Snocross racers like to refer to Winter X as the Super Bowl of snowmobile racing and with that title comes an amount of pressure that must be experienced to appreciate. Unlike the ISOC series tracks, which get hundreds of riders at different skill levels pounding it all weekend long, the track at Winter X is made specifically for the best 24 racers in the world and it stays fast. Mistakes are magnified and cost dearly.
T.J. Gulla has learned and relearned this; he's making his 10th Winter X appearance. The three-time medalist earned bronze in 2000, his first WX, and the same year Hibbert won his first medal. But he still hasn't learned how to beat the guy. "The talent pool is so much deeper than it ever has been," he said. "You can't just get a good start and put it on cruise control. You have to ride hard for the entire race with no mistakes. You make a mistake and somebody is going to go by you."
Last year's silver medalist, Ross Martin, made his biggest mistake before the final even started. The Kansasville, Wis., native crashed in his Round 1 heat and had to qualify out of the LCQ. He knew the impending bad start in the final would make it nearly impossible for him to win. He boosted his confidence in the final by going from ninth on the first lap to passing for second on Lap 17. With a good start, Martin is Hibbert's biggest threat at WX. He's a three-time pro points champion in the national snocross series, sits second behind Hibbert in both classes of the 2010-11 season and he also has a Winter X bronze medal from 2006. "There is so much hype to the X Games," Martin said. "Everyone is pumped to do so well that they end up doing worse than they wanted to."
Hibbert owns nearly every significant record in Winter X SnoCross. Another gold medal will break his tie with Blair Morgan for most gold. With 61 career national snocross victories and a re-entry into full-time competition, at his current rate he's almost certain to surpass Morgan's record total of 84 wins. Such perfection and mastery across the entire sport has led one snowmobile journalist to ask, "Is Tucker Hibbert's domination good for snocross?"
Hibbert loves the question but doesn't claim to know the exact answer. "My job is to win races. If I win every race and people think that's bad for racing, I don't think they can blame that on me," Hibbert offered. "This year we've seen some really strong competition from a couple of riders and I think it's been better racing than it's been in the past."
Again, more shrugs from the rest of the Winter X competitors. They're doing what they can with what they have. "We go for broke at the X Games," Ebert said. "You bring your best package on the mechanical side. You bring you best motor, suspension and tracking packages because it's a hit-or-miss deal. You might try some experimental pieces that might give you that edge at X Games where they might not live on a regular snocross, but you don't care because you need everything you can get."