Snowcross: X Games’ NASCAR on snow
Post Independent staff writer
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – On skier’s right at Buttermilk, removed from the superpipe and the media-darling snowboarders flirting with their adoring fans, is the snowmobile snowcross track.
Engines roar so loudly that spectators standing a foot away from each other must shout to be heard.
Mechanics glance one last time at the still sled, hoping they’ve tuned it up perfectly before they hand it over to the rider – the man who’s been standing on the edge of the track, visualizing the path he’s about to ride.
Then it’s time to go.
The 12 athletes climb on their snowmobiles, which are lined up, side by side. Eight-time X-Gamer T.J. Gulla bounces up and down and prepares for one of the most extreme of the extreme events.
“It is the most brutal thing to land hard on those jumps and to ride behind somebody, getting hit with ice chunks the size of your fist at 80 miles and hour,” said Gulla, a 25-year-old from Vermont. “People don’t realize how hard it is on your cardio, they think all you have to do is push that gas and the snowmobile does all the work.
“Yeah right. It is one of the most physically demanding sports in the world. Compared to basketball and stuff like that where you get breaks, there’s no breaks.”
A full mechanic’s shop on wheels rests in a parking lot behind the track. It looks like a semitruck on the outside, but the inside is Tim Harrington’s workshop. After each race, Gulla’s snowmobile, a 440-pound, $40,000 vehicle, must be tuned up.
“I go through the sled making sure everything is tight, nothing’s broken or leaking or whatever the case may be,” Harrington said.
Closely eyeing the brakes, suspension and shocks – which have to be replaced after every couple of races – Harrington can spend hours on the tune-up.
“These guys work twice as hard as anybody thinks they do. They work 80 hours a week minimum,” Gulla says of his mechanic and the rest of his crew. “Sometimes these guys don’t even sleep on the weekends because if I break something, they are up all night getting it ready.”
Gulla, now a three-time X Games medalist after winning bronze at Saturday’s snowcross finals, competes for Hentges Racing, a team with three racers at the X Games and almost 30 crew members to keep everything going. The team manager, Nate Hentges, has to supervise it all. He and the crew chief have a lot to do, but a unique chore at X Games is to make sure the sled is adjusted to the altitude.
“It takes lots of testing,” Hentges said. “There is 30 percent less horse power at altitude. We have to do testing to try and get that power back.”
The rest of the crew wait at the starting line, flashing signs to Gulla as he passes, watching screens to track his progress when he is on the far side of the track – all hoping he’ll make it to the finish with no problems.
Working so closely together, and traveling to races half of the year together, the crew becomes close.
“This is my family away from my home,” said Gulla, who lives with Harrington during the race season in Wisconsin. “I am away from home for six months; these guys are my second family for sure.”
When the snowmobile’s ready, Gulla takes it on the course. For the finals, riders made a grueling 18 laps around the curvy, looped track, filled with rollers and jumps and five high-banked corners ” the longest race in the event’s X Games history. Teams topped off the tanks before the event began.
With so many snowmobiles competing, there is a high risk of crashing. But as the race goes on, the sleds get more and more spread out.
“The start is the hardest part,” Harrington said. “If you can make it through the start and past the first corner, then you are pretty good.”
On a straightaway, the sled can hit 95 mph – a speed that can leave a tossed rider with a lot of injuries.
“I’ve broken my hand a couple times, wrists a few times, collar bone. My worst was a punctured lung,” said Gulla, who travels around the country competing in 10 to 14 snowcross races a year. “I’ve torn my knee all up, my ACLs, broken my leg. Every year something happens.”
Outside of the injury risk factor, Gulla is constantly under pressure, and everything is amplified at the X Games. TV cameras are filming, the audience is lining all sides of the track, and everyone’s hard work is on the line.
“It’s hard to relax with all the pressure that is on you, I just try to hang out and not let the nerves get me. I listen to my iPod, close my eyes and think about the course,” Gulla said.
Hentges compares snowcross, with the crew’s responsibilities, the riders’ jobs and the whole process it takes to get it done, to NASCAR. Everybody works rigorously, all hoping for the same outcome.
“All this is for me to go out and do my job. So if I don’t do my job, it’s like I let not only myself down, but I let a lot of other guys down,” Gulla said. “That’s why when I do well, they celebrate just as much as I do.”
1. Tucker Hibbert, Centreville, Miss.
2. Ryan Simons, Sedgewick, AB, Canada
3. T.J. Gulla, Jericho, Vt.
4. Carl Schubitzke, Madison, Wisc.
5. Katejun Coonishish, Ouje-Bougoumou, QC, Canada
6. Levi LaVallee, Longville, Minn.
7. Iain Hayden, Espanola, ON, Canada
8. Mathieu Morin, Val D’Or, QC, Canada
9. Mike Schultz, Pillager, Minn.
10. Matt Piche, Detroit Lakes, Minn.
11. Brett Bender, Boston, New York
12. Brett Turcotte, Madison, Wisc.
Let’s make some skiing predictions. I made my X Games snowboarding predictions a day earlier and remain only mildly lukewarm in terms of confidence, but maybe I’ll feel better about the skiers.