EDITOR’S NOTE: Word trickled into our office this week about the passing of Phil Mickelson, the former Snow Goer Tech Professor. As you’ll see, however, Phil was more than just a magazine columnist. Portions of this column will appear in the January issue of Snow Goer. Normally, we don’t share such content before the magazine prints, but Phil’s passing has made us break our own rules.
It was the spring of 1994, and I was attending my first Rode Reports testing event. Held that year in the Black Hills, I was indoctrinated into the snowmobile media and snowmobile testing, and that’s where I first met Phil Mickelson.
Relatively fresh off a career at Bombardier and, before that, its U.S. distributor, Phil was the newly minted Snow Goer Tech Professor. Phil’s job was to explain technical things on a snowmobile, and to his credit, he did it in a rather twisted, unusual way. Instead of taking something the complicated and making it simple, he would often take the simple and make it complicated. And, somehow through that, stuff would eventually make sense.What doesn’t make sense is that we’ve lost Phil. The Duluth, Minnesota, native died on September 25 in a hospice facility in his hometown, a victim of an aggressive cancer that relatively quickly swept away a man with unbelievably deep and broad knowledge, incredible talent and a sense of humor so dry it could make the Sahara seem like a rain forest.
In South Dakota that first year, I watched Phil as he sat through technical meetings with marketing personnel from the various manufacturers. He only asked a few questions while the stuffed shirts portrayed the latest and greatest technology, politely listening as they occasionally distorted science. Then later in the bar, while downing a Bacardi and Coke, Phil would explain to us stuff that the person giving the presentation didn’t even understand.
Phil had an engineer’s mentality, and he knew firsthand that when it came to describing product to the media, the snowmobile factories didn’t let the engineers speak. The marketing people would do it, often dumbing-down concepts or looking for short cuts in explaining things, then adding a little spin and create their presentations. That might be good enough for some people, but not for somebody who craved knowledge like Phil. He would get the real story later directly from the engineers, in private conversation, and then research it well beyond that. His job at Bombardier was to go beyond the spin and train dealers and their service managers about new technology, and how it would affect the machines they would service.
That’s why Phil would put mathematical formulas in his Tech Professor columns. Why were plastic skis better than steel or aluminum? Anybody could say they ride better and flex more, but Phil would lay out the drag coefficient of each material (and that material was Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene, not plastic, by the way). In one column, he’d break down all of the components of gasoline, in the next he’d dive into ignition systems. One month in Snow Goer he’d explain the sonic waves that moved within a tuned pipe, and the next it was about the efficiencies (and inefficiencies) of drivelines.
Phil could tell you the name of the horse that “horsepower” was named after, the many types of drag incurred in aerodynamics and he could explain what happened to a molecule of air from the time it got sucked into the airbox until it comes out of the bottom of a silencer. Often times he would use huge words or confusing formulas, and many readers might think, “Do I really need to know this?” But by the end of the column that reader might come away with a higher appreciation for the science behind a simple change or alternation on a snowmobile.
Many longtime readers will recall that side of Phil, but his friends will remember a more diverse character. He sang in a city choir in Duluth, created videos showing the city’s sewer system, restored all sorts of antiques and designed mansions, churches and other large building. He had patents for a number of things, including a guitar design. With his deep voice, he did voice overs for commercials. He was an author of multiple books, a former motorcycle and snowmobile racer and a whiz with wrenches in his hands. He had a wall of classic snowmobile engines in his house, along with a TV on a panel that lowered out of the ceiling on command and other odd contraptions. And he never got just ankle deep into anything – that’s why his columns often started out with a heavy dose of history, to set the stage for more modern happenings.
But the person who was a friend to so many was also an intriguing humorist, as I found out that first year in South Dakota. The first afternoon, after we rode our first 50 miles from the remote staging area, we took a trailside note-taking break. Phil pulled off his helmet, fired up a cigarette and then squinted his eyes as he looked into an empty meadow in the middle of nowhere. “That,” Phil said, thirsty for a Mountain Dew, “would be a tremendous location for a convenience store.” If anybody else would say it, it might be a bit humorous, but with Phil’s delivery, it was fall-over-laughing funny.
Later, when a manufacturer’s official actually asked Phil’s help in explaining a concept to the assembled media, the smartest man I’ve ever met answered in low, stammering, monotone voice, “Well, I’m not very smart. But I can lift heavy things.” That’s why he was invited the event, he assured us. Another time, when folks driving erratically on rental sleds passed us, Phil looked down at the Thundercat he was sitting on and said, “You know this would make a great rental sled.” When asked why, he said of the renters, “because then they would all die.” Of course he wasn’t serious: He was Phil. Yet another time, Phil was in the rear seat of a rented SUV driven by our new art director – and that SUV had just been pulled over by the police. Loud enough for everybody to hear, except for the officer standing at the driver’s window, Phil said, “Gosh, I hope he doesn’t find this bag of weed.” One of our former editors once told Phil that cigarette smoking would take 7 years off of his life, to which Phil quickly replied, “I know. I’m just trying to get rid of the drooling years.”
Phil hadn’t had a full-time job since about 1990 – instead, he had about 14 part-time jobs, doing all of the things I listed above and then some. Writing, doing architectural drawing, overseeing building projects, restoring furniture and snowmobiles, conducting research projects – the list seemed endless, and he was increasingly busy due to countless referrals from enamored customers in each field.
Frankly, it was aging him rapidly. Finally, about 4 years ago, Phil told me he had to learn how to tell people “No” or he’d drive himself to an early grave. That fall, we were among the people that Phil told “No” – his time as the Snow Goer Tech Professor was done, although we still kept in contact, here and there, and Andy Swanson from our team was there when Phil was rightfully inducted into the Snowmobile Hall Of Fame two years ago.
Last November, I ran into Phil at the Duluth, Minnesota, Amsoil National Snocross race, and was amazed. It appeared like the aging process was reversing itself – the Phil who looked about 80 years old the previous time I saw him now looked 15 years younger. “Wow, you’re wearing this dialing-back-of-responsibilities well,” I told Phil. He said, “I know,” with a broad grin. “I feel great.”
Now, less than a year later, he’s gone. So much for healthier lifestyles, I guess.
The way I envision it, when Phil arrived at the Pearly Gates, he went to work explaining air density to St. Peter, noting exactly how much nitrogen, oxygen, neon, argon and other elements are injested every time we breathe here on earth and how that affects everything that utilizes air. Peter likely got lost in the minutia and finally asked Phil why he belongs in such a noble place.
“Well, I’m not very bright, and I didn’t do anything important,” Phil likely deadpanned, “but I can lift heavy things. Have you got a place up here for a simple guy with my skills?”
If they don’t let a guy like Phil into their club, I’m not so sure I want to join. Godspeed, Phil, we will miss your knowledge, your personality and your humor forever.