We recently had an interesting discussion with John Sandberg, webmaster at ArcticInsider.com and current board member for the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St. Germain, Wisconsin.
It all started with John contacting us to ask Jim Beilke, Publisher of Race & Rally Magazine (through 1996) and SnowTech Magazine (1997-present) and Snowmobile Hall of Fame inductee, “Who was the best snowmobile racer he ever saw?”
John furthered the question, “If his answer isn’t an oval racer, would you follow up by asking him who, in his opinion, was the best oval racer?”
Before SnowTech Magazine we were Race & Rally Magazine, started in 1967. Back then our coverage was far more about racing than it was snowmobile technology like it is today.
Jim got to see the inside of the absolute golden era of oval racing. That, plus the fact that he was not and is not tied to a brand or agenda, makes him uniquely qualified to answer the question better than anyone else.
We were curious as well. Our initial guesses were names like Jerry Bunke or Brad Hulings, and we knew he always was impressed with “King” Gerard Karpik in cross country, and of course Bob Eastman. Maybe Jim Adema. Wow, we had to go ask!
John didn’t start covering racing until 1989, so what he knew of the things that occurred before that is what he had read reported by Jim, CJ Ramstad and a handful of other journalists. John also asked the question of several people whose opinions he trusted at Arctic Cat, guys like Roger Skime, Greg Spaulding, Jim Dimmerman.
So when we posed the question to Jim, he said it would be easier to pick a top ten than it would be a single one. Thinking back over the great ones, we asked about Dimmerman, Donahue, Elsner, Coltom, Lofton, Davey Thompson, Schubitzke, Adema, Elmer, the Trapps, Duhamel, Villeneuve, Bunke, and of course Bob Eastman. That’s why he said it would be easier to pick a top ten, there were so many good ones. His vision would have been mid-60’s through the 70s and into the 80s, up to like 1985. He said there were leaf springs and then there were the Sno Pro IFS sleds, and it was hard to really compare from one to the other. Some guys that sucked on leafs were good on IFS, some were good on leafs and not so good on IFS.
Which led us to the observation that Brad Hulings was good on them all. Type of suspension didn’t matter, brand didn’t matter. Hulings was tough to beat on a Merc, Polaris, Ski-Doo, Scorpion, whatever. He was always a force to reckon with.
Jim continued to say Hulings stood out because he was such an innovator and a good racer. Even before he had factory support he would show up and clean everyone’s clocks all by himself. That takes talent. Jim also leaned towards King Karpik as he was so dominant and determined, that guy could really ride. Now the funny thing, Gerard’s brother Dave Karpik was wrenching for Hulings for quite a while, and that speaks volumes.
Jim said when the little guy can do so good without factory support and do so very well, then continue doing so once you are backed, we have something to reckon with. And then to go off with Scorpion and get leftover Arctic Cat race sleds and go out and do it again, that took more than luck. That was true skill.
Based on that historical knowledge, John agreed that Hulings was probably the best oval racer of all time. He’s surrounded by good company, and we named them: Coltom, Adema, along with Stan Hayes and Gilles Villeneuve, who went on to race Formula I.
Hulings wasn’t just an exceptional racer, he was an exceptional engineer, tuner and tactician. And he had incredible drive. That’s a powerful combination, and the reason he achieved so much. The same was also true of Coltom, Hayes, Adema and Villeneuve.
But past the oval racing discipline, John thought a LOT about if he had to pick a greatest snowmobile racer of all time (across all disciplines), it would probably be Stan Hayes and/or Kirk Hibbert (Tucker’s dad). Those guys won in every discipline they competed in, including the monuments like Eagle River, I-500, Soo 500, Jackson Hole. They too were/are both inventors, tuners, tacticians… the complete package. Interestingly, both of these guys are absolutely two of the nicest, kindest people we’ve known. ZERO ego for either. And if Hulings had also concentrated on cross-country, he would probably would have won there too.
The good old days. Interesting stuff.