sledRacer Interview: Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson has been building, riding and racing snowmobiles his entire life. That would put a smile on anyone's face. Photo:

Starting any new business that is entirely focused on snowmobiling is risky. Starting a cross-country race circuit? Well, that takes some real guts. Brian Nelson has been around snowmobile racing, specifically cross-country snowmobile racing, since he was a teenager. He’s won some of the biggest races in snowmobiling including two I-500s and is the only man to win on a brand other than Ski-Doo, Arctic Cat or Polaris. He’s also run a successful powersports dealership and has run a snowmobile tour business for 30 years. Now he’s set his sights on giving something back to the sport that’s given him so much and has a started the USXC cross-country snowmobile racing circuit. Read on and find out what it takes to be successful, what the future holds for cross-country and what brought Brian back. Why did you start USXC?
Brian Nelson: There were a lot of people – racers, manufacturers, industry people – who didn’t want to see the thing die. It was apparent that nobody was going to buy it, so the only option was just to start over.

Brian Nelson and his mechanic Hubert Fixsen were an unstoppable team. They were pioneers in making shocks work on snowmobiles as well as a huge part of the development of Arctic Cat's ZR snowmobile.

sR: There are potentially a lot of odds stacked against cross-country – the weather, support, etc. Are you scared of any of that?
Nelson: At this point its water over the dam, we don’t have a choice, we have to make it work. The way the weather has been, you look at how poor last winter was, and some of the extremes we’ve seen with snow levels the past few years, yeah, it’s risky. But when I was in the boat business they told me I had a 10-percent chance to make it there too. Well, now I’m in the insurance business and they told me 90-percent of them don’t make it 10 years. Any business is risky. You have to follow your heart. It helps to know the business you’re in. In this particular situation we’ve already got a lot of support. There are a lot of people who are willing to spend the time to make it work. That’s really one of the key things that pushed me to go ahead and do it. There were probably 30 people who stepped forward with offers of money, time energy, connections – without that it wouldn’t work for anybody.

sR: In cross-country there are no crowds, no grandstands, there’s no show, yet so many people are so passionate about it. Why do you think that is?
Nelson: Cross-country racing has been the grassroots of snowmobile racing since Day 1. When I was young every little town in Minnesota had a snowmobile race and there would be a cross-country on Saturday and an oval on Sunday. Everyone had a tremendous amount of fun participating in those races. But the thing about cross-country is it’s a driver’s sport. There’s nothing more fun than getting on a snowmobile of any size, model or brand, and running down a ditch at 60-70mph, hitting road approaches and flying through the air. And doing it for two or three hours at a time. It’s an incredible rush. It’s a true test of man and machine.

Nelson back in the day. If you lined up next to this guy you were probably going to get a good look at his snowflap that day.

sR: What is your goal with USXC?
Nelson: Survive! I think just to provide a venue where everyone can have fun, where the manufacturers can get something out of it via testing and development and to give the racers a place to race and get some enjoyment. It’s no different than our tour business which I’ve had for 30 years. To take people on a motorcycle tour or a snowmobile tour for a week and watch them have a tremendous amount of fun with their products is extremely gratifying. To top it off, we’ve made a lot of friends and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it over the years. The two things really aren’t much different. It’s a form of entertainment for a bunch of people who enjoy snowmobiling. So we’re going to approach it with the same discipline and the same ethics that we do our tours with. It’s a business and it’s no different than any of the other businesses I’ve been involved in. You learn the ingredients it takes to be successful and make sure they’re all in place and it will do OK. If you don’t work at it, it won’t function. You need to surround yourself with a lot of good people, let them think and listen to their ideas and rely on their experience. I put it all together and use it. I see it as a team and I’m just the coach. Hopefully everybody’s happy when it’s all said and done.

sR: There’s a whole generation of kids out there who don’t know anything about cross-country. How do you get them to come out?
Nelson: Every type of racing has its day in the sun and everything tends to cycle. I think our goal is going to be to show people how much fun they can have with our type of racing. We’re not out to take racers from anyone. I would like to get more people, and by more people I mean new people, into racing. I want to work with advertising, schools and promotions to try and get young kids out there. It’s going to be tough, but we’ve done a few things to get it kickstarted. We’re giving kids a free entry for their first race, we lowered the youth entry fee to $75 and we’re also going to do a race school.

Nelson after finishing the 2011 I-500. The guy on the left in the purple coat is his old friend Fixsen.

sR: What do you see in the future for cross-country?
Nelson: We as an organization are going to try and set the rules so that racing is done with standard, production, showroom snowmobiles. Something that anybody can go buy, an off-the-shelf product, has good resale, runs on pump gas and has oil injection. That’s our goal. I think when we do that we’re going to be a lot more affordable and we’re going to appeal to a lot more people financially. That’s our long-term goal is to lower the cost of racing. If we get more entries as a result we get more sponsors and that will allow us to lower the costs. Another thing is we also formed a new class this year, it’s called Classic IFS, it’s for 1980-1997 independent front suspension snowmobile. There are tens of thousands of those sleds out there and you can go buy a decent one for $1500 and have a great time. I think that class has a ton of potential to grow and become our biggest class.

sR: What drives you to go to the lengths you do to find success?
Nelson: I like to do things right. I don’t like to embarrass myself. I like to succeed and be successful. I’m not entirely, but I am a little bit of a perfectionist. I’ve always said if it’s worth doing it’s worth doing right. Not that this thing might fail for reasons out of our control – weather, decreased support from manufacturers and sponsors – there are a lot of things that can come and bite you. But we’re going to do everything in our power, that we have control over, to make it work. Hopefully it’s not the first thing that we fail at and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that it isn’t.

sR: Looking back, you had such a great racing career. What is most memorable about it? What is the one thing you look back on more than any other?
Nelson: Every race had its moments, but as far as racing my most exciting time was when we made up 14 minutes on the last day of the I-500 in 1976. When we lined up in Thief River Falls, there were 10 sleds on the front row, nine of them were Polaris and there was one John Deere – that was me. I was 14 minutes out of first place and we won by 32-seconds. It was probably the wildest ride of my life because I had to average 10mph faster for 140-miles to win that thing. It was extremely gratifying. At the time you just consider yourself lucky to have lived through it, you know! Looking back on it now, it tells you as a person that there’s nothing that’s impossible. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. I don’t like no for and answer. I don’t like negative people. That kind of dovetails with this race circuit. Things are really positive right now but we haven’t succeeded by any means and there’s still a lot of work to be done. Plus there are so many variables like weather, the economy, the industry, and let’s face the snowmobile industry as a whole is not real healthy. As far as numbers of units sold it’s probably at the lowest level it’s been at since the 1960s. And it’s not just one thing, it’s the cost of the sleds, the weather, and kids don’t live out in the country anymore, they all live in town. I lived on a farm when I was a kid and that’s what we did every night after school was we jumped on our sleds and went riding. But now they go home and they turn on their computer and get on Facebook. And kids can’t afford new sleds and there aren’t as many places to ride, our whole country is urbanized. There are a lot of things that make it tough to be a snowmobiler.

Still collecting trophies. As owner of the new USXC cross-country racing circuit Nelson will soon be the one handing out the trophies instead of accepting them.

sR: What would you say to people looking to get into cross-country or to those who have their doubts about USXC?
Nelson: They should just come and run a race. I think they’ll make friends, they’ll have a lot of fun – more fun than you can have doing anything else on a snowmobile and be legal – and they’ll find that it’s addicting. I hadn’t been to a cross-country race in many years and in 2011 Joey Hallstrom, John Sandberg and I ran the Vintage class at the Red Lake I-500. That brought back the feeling and the excitement, the fun the people, running down the ditches and hitting approaches at speed – it just brought all that back. It was just an incredible rush. It was one of the most fun things I had done in the past 20 years. Sandberg and Joey said the same thing. As snowmobile Product Manager at Arctic Cat Joey rides sleds every day, probably eight months out of the year, and he said he had never had so much fun on a snowmobile and he was riding a 1979 El Tigre. That’s another thing, you don’t need 14-inches of travel to have fun. You’re going to ride it as hard as you can no matter what. You can have just as much fun on $1500 snowmobile as you can on a $10,000 snowmobile. It’s not about how much money you can spend, it’s about having fun with other people. You don’t need a semi or big dollar equipment to have fun cross-country racing. You can put a sled together, throw it in the back of your pickup and go out there and have a good time. And you can win, because it’s about the driver.

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