At the Winter X Games at Mount Snow, Vt., in 2000, 42-year-old SnoCross racer Kirk Hibbert lined up against a 15-year-old young buck making his first professional start. The teenager’s name was Tucker Hibbert. Kirk’s son.
Tucker was a semi-pro racer, working his way up through the ranks, when he wrangled an invitation to the X Games. After surviving the qualifying rounds, Tucker found himself in the group of 10 finalists, which included the old man.
“I remember being a little nervous at first, like, Am I going to get in trouble if I pass my dad, or beat him in the race, or is he going to be excited?” says Tucker. “I didn’t know what to do, because he’s a serious, competitive racer, and he wanted to beat me.”
So the young buck did what came naturally, and what he had been training to do for the past decade. When the gun fired, Tucker got the all-important hole shot, and hung on to claim his first professional title: X Games champion. And his father, like scores of competitors since, got a good view of Tucker Hibbert’s backside.
“I can hardly remember that race,” says Kirk Hibbert, now 58, with a laugh. “He got the start, and I ended up fifth in that race, which was my best finish ever in the X Games. I can’t even remember how my race went, because I was so busy looking up to see how Tucker was doing.”
If Tucker had any concerns about his father’s feelings before the race, they vanished quickly afterward, when Kirk Hibbert greeted his son with an enormous bear hug.
“It was a really cool opportunity for me,” says Tucker. “It was the first time racing all the pros, first-time X Games, and I was just pumped up to be there. I didn’t expect to win by any means, I was just happy to be there and competing.
“That kind of kick-started my career as a professional, going out there and winning the first one.”
Now there’s an understatement. Today, at 31, Tucker Hibbert absolutely rules SnoCross. He is gunning for his 10th X Games gold medal (in addition to three silvers and a bronze) and his 10th National Pro SnoCross Championships since 2000. In 2014, Hibbert shot past Blair Morgan’s victory total of 84 to become the most successful SnoCross racer ever. After winning two finals in Deadwood, S. Dak., last weekend, he now has 114 victories in 192 starts, for an astounding winning percentage of almost 60 (58.3%, to be precise). The next winningest active racer is Ross Martin, with 31 victories.
To understand the kind of domination Tucker’s numbers represent, consider that the active NASCAR leader in winning percentage is Jimmie Johnson, at 14.8% (75 victories in 507 starts). Even The King himself, the great Richard Petty, mustered “only” a 16.9% winning percentage, or 200 checkered flags in 1,184 starts.
“I’ve always been motivated by challenging myself, by figuring out ways to be better,” says Tucker. “When you’re a little kid, and you’re just learning to ride, there’s so much room for improvement, and there are so many things that you learn over a short period of time. I just really loved the challenge of how to be a better snowmobile rider.”
Much like former NBA player Del Curry can admire the otherworldly talent and work ethic of his son, Golden State guard Steph Curry, Kirk Hibbert says his son took whatever natural talents the gene pool may have provided and honed his racing skills over countless hours of practice.
“If there’s one particular thing [that explains Tucker's success], it’d have to be his complete dedication and commitment,” says Kirk Hibbert, still considered one of the most versatile snowmobile racers ever. “He developed that because of his pure excitement and love for racing at a young age. He followed me around racing, and was totally intrigued. He couldn’t wait to get doing it himself. Somewhere along the line he picked up that if you want to be really good at it, you have to work really hard at it.”
Like father, like son.
“I learned from my dad,” says Tucker. “He approached his racing the same way I do mine, with the attitude that you do whatever it takes. You work as long and hard as it takes. Whatever you can do to be better, you do it. And you do it the best you can.
“That’s what I love about racing: You're never done. It’s never the best it can be. And that goes for myself as a racer, and for the snowmobile, and the equipment, and our team. It’s constantly changing and evolving, and you have to be on the front edge of that change to be competitive. We’re never done. We never line up on the start line for a race feeling like we did everything we could. There’s always more you can do.”
A native of Driggs, Idaho, Tucker moved with his family to Thief River Falls, Minn., when he was still in elementary school to accommodate his father’s racing career and engineering job with Arctic Cat.
“I was always around snowmobiles and motorcycles and four-wheelers,” says Tucker. “Anything recreational with an engine, I was involved in and wanted to ride since a real young age. My dad grew up doing all those sports and activities, so naturally as a kid, I was around my dad, and watching him race and compete and prepare for the races at the shop. I just kind of grew up in that atmosphere, and fell in love with it right away.”
However, because of his father’s racing schedule, Tucker had to find his own way. A family friend, Russ Ebert, took young Tucker under his wing. As Tucker hit his teenage years, he started climbing the ladder from amateur racing to semi-pro to professional. Throughout, he developed an attention to detail that has sustained him during his record-breaking 16-year run.
“It takes the snowmobile, it takes the rider, it takes mechanics and a team,” says Tucker. “Every little angle that goes in to preparing for racing, you have to be good at it. If you leave one part of that puzzle not taken care of, it can lead to poor performance. That’s what we focus on: making sure that every single detail is figured out and planned for.”
In 2007, together with his wife Mandi (a former high school sweetheart), Tucker branched off to form his own Team Monster Energy/Arctic Cat/Ram Truck squad, and continued his assault on the SnoCross record book. While the elder Hibbert still works for Arctic Cat part-time as an engineer, he has also assumed the role of Tucker’s crew chief.
“It’s all basically the same job,” says Tucker. “We’re all at the race track, working on our sleds, getting them all figured out to make them the best they can be. Then we take what we learn at the track, and my dad helps bring that back to Arctic Cat for their production models. So it’s a really good relationship we have with Arctic Cat, and my dad.”
Tucker is also quick to lavish praise on his crew, saying his own edge in experience is surpassed by many of his team members. “People don’t always realize how many people and how many man hours it takes to be prepared just to go to the race track,” he says. “We all love what we do so much, and we all work well together. We have a lot of fun. Having success helps that, but even on our bad days, we get along.”
Together, they’ve proven to be almost unbeatable.
“A big part of Tucker’s success is the people he brings around him, the whole crew here,” says Kirk Hibbert. “We have a motor man—Steve Houle from Speedwerx—and we always have another mechanic/sled builder with us. The whole trailer is full of people who’ve been right on top of the racing scene their whole lives. So it’s a very dynamic, dedicated group. There’s something about Tucker that he attracts those people.”
Much like a rally car team, Hibbert’s crew will take a stock Arctic Cat ZR6000 R SX from the company’s performance line, bring it to the shop and modify it. Hibbert won’t discuss any specific changes, other than to say that the mechanics customize it to suit his strengths as a racer, and the upcoming track.
Tucker’s rig is designed to be quick and agile, with more than 100 horsepower producing a 0-to-60 acceleration under 3 seconds, a top speed over 100 mph, and a foot of suspension front and rear. But the sled can also be a handful, which requires the 6', 175-pound Hibbert to maintain exceptional fitness.
“I spend a ton of time training, and doing the right things preseason to make sure my body is ready for racing,” says Tucker. “Snocross certainly has a big endurance aspect to it, and a lot of strength and a lot of force.
“The snowmobile is about 450 pounds, so you’re dealing with a really heavy machine with a lot of power, and you have to be able to maneuver that thing and take the big hits,” he says. “The body takes pretty good pounding if you don’t ride real smooth or if you take a lot of big jumps. It’s all part of competition and racing.”
Tucker admits that he feels the old injuries more now that he’s on the far side of 30. There’s also the mental component, which can’t be ignored. Ever.
“We race all winter long,” says Tucker. “It’s a long race series, and we have to be mentally prepared for the whole series. It’s not all about one race, or one weekend. You have to be prepared to take the challenges of racing, the ups and downs that happen from week to week, and not let that affect you mentally. There are definitely a lot of riders out there who are really, really fast, and have a lot of potential, but they mentally can’t handle things going wrong, or having a tough day. It kind of breaks them, and they struggle to rebound from that.
“That goes back to making sure that every part of your preparation is dialed in. I’ve done a really good job mentally of handling racing over the years, and knowing how to manage my emotions, and be strong and confident through every weekend. It’s a huge advantage if you can have your mental game on point, just like your physical game.”
Unlike his father, Tucker says he can’t see racing much past 35.
“[Retirement] could be anywhere between now and then,” says Tucker. “I feel like I’m at the tail end of career, for sure. But as a competitor, I feel like I’m as strong as I’ve ever been. The last three seasons have been the best seasons of my whole career, so I want to finish feeling like I'm the best I can be.”
Hibbert’s retirement party probably can’t come soon enough for his competitors. Rest assured, though, that Hibbert isn’t looking down the road. His focus will be on the upcoming X Games, and gold medal No. 10.