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Remembering Phil Mickelson, The Snow Goer Tech Professor

By John T. Prusak

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.

Phil Mickelson Snow Goer Tech Professor

Phil Mickelson was more than the Tech Professor, he was a snowmobile industry icon who was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall Of Fame two years ago.

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 Mickelson (right) taking a less-than-serious mid-afternoon break with Snow Goer Sales Manager Mark Rosacker at the 2002 Rode Reports.

Phil Mickelson (right) taking a less-than-serious mid-afternoon break with Snow Goer Sales Manager Mark Rosacker at the 2002 Rode Reports.

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.

3 comments

  1. John,
    You did a fantastic job describing Phil.
    That was the Phil I had the pleasure to know.
    Thanks,
    Randy

  2. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Phil for the past several years as his boiler serviceman. I found him to be a very interesting and remarkable man who loved to show off his unique creations and share his knowledge about everything he knew, as well as taking interest to learn about my technical knowledge about his heating system. He always had a smile on his face, and his stories always included quips of humor that you might’ve missed if you weren’t listening closely, or sharing his level of thought. We had common interests in mechanics, motorcycles, snowmobiles, and cars. Although our specific tastes differed to opposites, his being Ski-Doos and Thunderbirds, and mine being to Arctic Cats and vintage Corvettes, we shared appreciation of all.
    The road at the end of his driveway was once marked by a very unique-looking geodesic, bright yellow mailbox he created from a series of steel panels cantilevered toward the shoulder that resembled something you’d find in space. It was there up until a few years ago when he informed me that he woke up late one night to the sound of a small explosion in the distance, then while walking down his long driveway the next morning to retrieve the paper he was finding these little yellow (and black) panels strewn about leading to the empty piping his work of art was once suspended by. “The work of pranksters,” he told me.
    His driveway led to a home that was similar to something you’d see in a retro 70’s James Bond movie. A partially earth-sheltered structure he designed and built himself with a cave-like entryway lined with a collection of vintage snowmobile posters and patches that led to a spiral staircase and his drawing room, where from scratch, he created a TV panel that dropped from the ceiling at the push of a button. Here, he also sat to draw up his plans for mechanical engineering and architecture.
    The staircase first takes you to his main floor where upon arrival, the first thing to catch your eye was a room divider that separated his dining and living rooms. What made this divider so interesting was that it was an attractive boxed set of shelves displaying all the prototype Bombardier engines he was involved in designing and/or testing in races over the course of his career, all polished and painted like the works of fine art they were. Twenty-seven in total, if I remember correctly. A feature his wife might not have tolerated for long, had he ever had time for one. The furnishings of a true bachelor pad! He had a homemade panel of knobs and toggles next to his stereo system that also controlled his lighting and vertical window blinds. Outside and below his West window he pointed and said, “From right here is where I took the picture of the two snowmobiles on the frozen pond below for the cover of my book, ‘The Collector’s Guide to Ski-Doo Snowmobiles.'”
    Last year, he updated me on a plaque he so proudly displayed on the wall near the stairs that he received when he was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame. He had a grin from ear to ear as he pointed it out to me, I don’t think anything else made him prouder.
    The top of the stairs ended at a small, roughly 8×8 room with windows all around he referred to as his “smoking room” (although if you knew Phil, every room was his smoking room because he was rarely without a lit cigarette). Here was just a LazyBoy chair and a small end table to support his ashtray where he liked to just sit and watch the deer graze in his yard above the rest of the house. The coolest part of this room was yet another of his ingenious creations; at the push of yet another button, the floor would close over the top of the staircase by a series of triangular panels similar to those of the aperture of a camera lens. Impressive!
    I liked Phil, I can’t imagine how anyone who had ever met him couldn’t. I always looked forward to my annual visits which always concluded business with socializing. I had made a few “pop-in” visits between just for fun and interest.
    This year, I was excited to see he was once again on my schedule to get the maintenance done on his boiler system. I was eager to arrive and spend some time chatting with the man whose mind I admired. I regretted that I hadn’t made a personal visit since a year ago. When I pulled up his driveway, his familiar Ranger pickup was accompanied by a second vehicle and a couple outside I didn’t recognize. I had that strange, eerie inner feeling something wasn’t right. The man approached me, I reached out my hand and introduced myself, and before he could introduce himself I asked, “Where’s Phil?”
    The man informed me that Phil had passed away just a few weeks ago, and that he was his brother, Paul. Now I really regretted that I hadn’t taken the time earlier to make that intended extra visit. But I am glad that I had the honor to have known him as briefly as I did, and I had always enjoyed telling others about him. He was a true genius, and an all-around nice man. He will be surely missed by myself and anyone who was lucky enough to have known him.

    – Paul Suomela

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