Dan Gunderson / MPR News 90.3 FM, Published March 10 2013
Always in control: Tucker Hibbert insists he’s not a risk takerFertile, Minn.
Minnesota is home to two of the largest snowmobile manufacturers in the world, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the state is also home to some of the best snowmobile racers in the world.
One of them, Tucker Hibbert, is king of snocross, the sport’s most eye-popping, television-friendly and dangerous event.
What does come as surprise, given the daredevil nature of the sport, is that Hibbert insists he’s not a risk taker.
In snocross, a dozen or more souped-up sleds race side-by-side on a tight, twisting course with huge jumps. It’s a sport where racers are often injured, sometimes killed. But Hibbert said staying in control is a big reason he’s been successful in a dangerous sport for 20 years.
“I don’t like to push myself to my edge or to my limit of being in control,” the Pelican Rapids, Minn., man said recently at his practice track. “I try to avoid that place as much as I can. There are riders out there that ride at their limit the entire time, just wide open. You’ll see those guys; they put on a good show. You’ll see them; they’re crashing or they’re injured.”
At the track for several hours this particular day, Hibbert had yet to get on his snowmobile. The track winds around an area about the size of a football field. It has hairpin turns, big jumps and rough terrain, and it freezes solid at night, so every morning it has to be bulldozed and rebuilt, a process that takes about five hours.
In the meantime, Hibbert’s dad, Kirk, is replacing the brake pads on the snowmobile. Kirk Hibbert had his own long, successful career racing snowmobiles. He’s in the Snowmobile Racing Hall Of Fame. Now he’s chief mechanic for his son.
When he’s not racing, Tucker Hibbert says that he spends most days at the practice track. He’ll sometimes ride until midnight, working to fine tune the snowmobile and himself. He wears knee braces, a neck brace, a chest protector and a helmet – all standard safety equipment for snocross racers.
Hibbert said the gear is constantly improving and he thinks racing is getting safer. His racing suit is plastered with the logos of sponsors who pay his bills and bolster his bank account.
Racing is a combination of speed, agility, strength and timing. Hitting bumps at just the right speed means a smoother landing on the other side. Finding the quickest way through a corner can be the difference between winning and losing.
The places on the track Hibbert doesn’t worry about are those big jumps, where racers fly 20 or 30 feet high in the air.
“People think that the jumps are the craziest just because they look so intense. But the jumps are the easiest obstacle on the whole track. That’s where we get to rest a little bit. You get up in the air and you can breathe and let your body relax a little bit and get ready for the rest of the pounding,” he said.
Still, the pounding takes a toll. Hibbert has had two knee operations and a couple of broken bones. Last year he lost control of his sled at 60 mph, crashed hard, lacerated a kidney and spent three months sidelined.
Hibbert’s wife, Mandi, says that accident was scary, but she never questioned his decision to return to racing. She travels with her husband, managing his public relations and the all-important relationships with sponsors that account for most of their income. It’s a business that requires discipline.
“The biggest misconception of snocross and motorsports in general is that it’s this wild lifestyle,” she said. “That is so far from the truth. You can’t go out and party. There’s no way you can maintain your physical fitness or your mental sharpness to compete the way that these guys do.”
Tucker Hibbert started racing when he was 8 years old. He turned pro at 15. He’s now 28 and at the top of the sport, with two world championships, six national championships and gold medals six years in a row at the X Games, the Olympics of extreme sports. Still, he admits the daily grind sometimes makes him wish for a
“Yeah, there’s definitely days I don’t want to get on the snowmobile. I don’t want to get up early and go to the track” he said. “But you know, those are the days you succeed. The days you don’t want to do it but you do it anyway.”
And while some call him the Michael Jordan of snowmobile racing, he describes himself more modestly – and keeps aiming higher.
“I’ve won a lot of races and been able to do a lot of cool things,” he said. “I’m still motivated to do more and get better and I still love it.”