Eighteen years ago, a 15-year-old kid competed in his first pro-level snocross event. It just happened to be the Winter X Games, and the kid – Tucker Hibbert – won the race in front of a star-packed field.
Hibbert went on to have a very storied career, which ended with his retirement announcement yesterday. What follows is the account in Snow Week magazine of Hibbert’s fete at that Winter X Games final on February 4, 2000, in Vermont.
(In typical Snow Week form, it was a very long and detailed story – below are 3,000 of the original story’s 5,000 words that detail everything from blow-by-blow accounts of each qualifying heat to other sidelights at the X Games – but it covers the final in detail and then post-race reactions from competitors. The original story included 10 photos, but they could not be scanned at a decent quality to be included in this package. All rights reserved by EPG Media.)
Generation Y Wins At Winter X
Feb. 2-4, 2000; West Dover Vermont; Story And Photos By John T. Prusak
Some day, many supposed earlier this year. Tucker Hibbert is going to grow up and give Blair Morgan a run.
Some day, others imagined, this 15-year-old semi-pro racer is going to take over the sport of snocross.
Welcome to the future.
Tucker Hibbert shocked everybody except maybe his sage father, Kirk Hibbert, by winning the most high-profile snocross race of the season, the ESPN Winter X Games at the Mt. Snow ski hill near West Dover, Vermont.
Using smart lines, an extremely powerful custom-built snowmobile and poise beyond his years, Tucker Hibbert led from start to finish and collected $20,000 for the six-lap effort — $10,000 from the Winter X Games and $10,000 in contingency from Arctic Cat.
Pre-race favorite Morgan battled from a slow start to claim the silver medal, while another upstart, 18-year-old TJ Gulla from South Hero, Vermont, claimed the bronze medal.
But the story of the week was clearly Tucker Hibbert from tiny Goodrich, Minnesota. He and Kirk Hibbert were the first father-son duo to ever compete in any Winter X Games event, making them the darlings of the ESPN/ESPN2/ABC television coverage. But it was Tucker Hibbert’s aggressive, controlled driving style that made him a favorite of many standing trackside. During Friday morning’s qualifying heats, Tucker Hibbert was one of the few drivers who tried different lines around the wide track. It paid off.
The .4-mile course started with a long uphill pull. Drivers then took a left turn and bounded over a couple of jumps on top of the ski hill. Another left turn pointed them back down the hill. A big kicker, dubbed “the grand summit plummet” by announcer Greg Creamer, provided huge air and was followed by a moguled section the rest of the way down the hill. A hard left then sent drivers toward a short chute to the tabletop jump at the start-finish line. Another left turn then drivers back up the hill for the start of another lap.[web editor note: a big section of the original print story from Snow Week is skipped here that covers qualifying heats, semi-finals and the last chance qualifier. Of particular interest to race fans of the time might be the names of the racers who DIDN’T make the final: Greg Hyde, Dennis Durmas, Brian Call, Doug Henry, David Brown, Tim Maki, Carl Kuster, Jesse Strege and Jeremy Crapo were all eliminated in the heats and Toni Haikonen, Noel Kohanski, Carl Schubitzke, Earl Reimer, Todd Wolff and Kent Ipsen were eliminated in the LCQ, and didn’t even make it to that . That was an all-star cast right that.
Tucker Goes For Gold
The overcast skies that dogged the first three days of the Winter X Games still dominated, leaving the racers with flat-light conditions as they prepared for possibly the biggest race of their season. A helicopter hovered overhead as all of the television cameramen took their places.
Before the race, we asked Tucker Hibbert if the butterflies had started.
“Yeah, I’m nervous, but I’m trying not to let it get to me,” Tucker Hibbert said. Asked who he had to watch out for in the final, he responded, “”Everybody, it’s going to be a dog fight out there.”
Other racers were keeping their eyes on Morgan, Vincent, Eckstrom, Tate and Tucker Hibbert. The short race and nature of the course made the holeshot paramount in importance, and Tucker Hibbert, Eckstrom and Tate had been getting the best launches so far.
But could a 15-year-old kid avoid mistakes in such a high-profile race?
“Hey, he’s a racer,” one competitor responded. “Remember, Tucker does a ton of motocross. This is nothing to him.”
All the drivers were introduced before the crowd, with Morgan and Vincent getting the biggest ovations. Tucker Hibbert’s support was nearly as strong, and he gained extra attention from the crowd gathered at the top of the hill.
When the green flag was finally waved, Tucker Hibbert launched hard from the left side of the pack and immediately had a sled length over the rest of the pack. While others battled through the first chicane, Hibbert had clear sailing in front of him and kept the throttle pinned until he reached the top of the hill.
At the back, there was a big surprise and some paint swapping. The surprise came when Morgan’s No. 7c Cat came off the starting line dead last. His ride then climbed the hill in everybody else’s snow dust. This is not where anybody expected Morgan to be.
The main paint swapping was between Eckstrom and Scheele. The two sleds tangled where the track narrowed and they got caught up together. It was just a momentary thing, but it was enough to put them at the rear with Morgan.
Back at the front, the youngest driver in the final opened an amazing lead, and the sled that was closest to him was directed by the race’s second youngest driver, Gulla. Tucker Hibbert took the last tum on top of the track and bounded down the hill on his D&D-powered/Stud Boy-supported ride with the yellow Ski-Doo of 18-year-old Gulla behind.
As the drivers completed the first lap, it was Tucker Hibbert, then Gulla, Tate and John. Defending champ Vincent came next, followed by the hard-charging Morgan, who passed four sleds on the first lap. Kirk Hibbert, Crapo, Eckstrom and Scheele rounded out the field.
Tucker Hibbert again showcased his sled’s superior power up the hill and then picked a smart line down the hill to extend his lead to 3 seconds over Gulla. Tate tried a wide line to look for a way around Gulla, but behind him John’s factory-backed Polaris tumbled down the hill. John got crossed up, came up short on a double and stuffed his sled into a hole. He laid on the track trying to catch his breath while the rest of the sleds roared past.
“I had doubled there the last time, but I was a little more to the left this time,” John explained later. “I just whacked it and then I started cartwheeling. It knocked the wind out of me and I got a bruised back, but that’s it.”
After Tucker Hibbert, Gulla and Tate crossed the start/finish line, Vincent and rival Morgan completed lap two side-by-side. Next came Kirk Hibbert, then Crapo and Eckstrom side-by-side, then Scheele.
Young Hibbert continued to drive smart and fast up front but others behind him were pushing hard to keep on pace. In fact, some may have been pushing too hard. Vincent got crossed up coming down the hill and careened through the yellow-flag zone created by John’s crash the previous lap. Both Vincent and his sled flew into the infield. Vincent quickly got to his feet, but his ride looked like a horse that had enough of its cowboy. It stayed on its track and gained speed as it went down the hill on the smooth infield. Vincent sprinted after his steed, which was headed for the barn, er, pits.
Vincent finally caught his sled at the bottom of the hill, quickly plugged in his tether and rejoined the race in ninth behind Scheele.
Tucker Hibbert was halfway to the checkered in this short six-lap race, and he appeared very composed. He was choosing smart lines, driving fast but yet very alert and controlled as he extended his lead.
Morgan ran the hardest laps. He scrubbed some speed off of Tate when he passed him, then he quickly closed on Gulla and undercut another Ski-Doo. The man called Superman, and Tucker Hibbert’s racing hero and buddy, had moved into second, though he was 7 seconds back. Next came Gulla and Tate, then a slight gap back to Kirk Hibbert and Crapo, then Eckstrom, Scheele and Vincent.
Tucker Hibbert took his usual glance back at the top of the hill and saw Morgan’s Cat in his wake. Morgan wasn’t close, but he was closer than Gulla had been the previous lap, and he was, of course, Blair Morgan. So Tucker Hibbert turned his driving back up a notch, catching huge air off of a downhill flyaway and then found a smooth line down the rest of the hill. He took the white flag as a helpless Morgan left the last turn of the lap.
Next came the uphill, Tucker Hibbert’s strength. His mod consistently screamed up the hill faster than anybody, and he extended his lead over Morgan again. Morgan closed slightly on top of the hill, but Tucker Hibbert again used the huge air/smooth line combination down the hill. He was untouchable.
In the last tum, Tucker Hibbert squared up, glanced back at Morgan and shook his head in disbelief. He then launched over the finish line jump and attempted a heel clicker in front of the crowd. The heels didn’t quite touch, but the landing was as perfect as everything else had been on this day for Hibbert.
Morgan followed, with Gulla taking the final podium spot. Then came Tate, Kirk Hibbert, Crapo, Eckstrom, Vincent and Scheele.
Tucker Hibbert pulled to a stop just past tum one and was greeted first by a hearty hug from Morgan. Father Kirk Hibbert and Cat Race Manager Brian Sturgeon followed, then other drivers joined in the celebration.
A Star Is Born
When he returned with the checkered flag after a victory lap, Tucker Hibbert was swarmed. Racers offered their congratulations; TV cameras came from all directions; microphones were thrust before him; kids his age and younger elbowed forward for autographs; flash bulbs popped; the PA announcer screamed; and a circle of several hundred people closed in tighter, and tighter, on the top three drivers.
For the first time at the X Games, the 15- year-old appeared to be a little rattled. “Is this all a little overwhelming?” we asked.
“Yeah. A lot,” Tucker Hibbert said with a shy smile.
His strategy for the race was simple.
“Just get out, set a pace and keep riding hard and don’t let off,” Tucker Hibbert said.
“I looked back and saw that Ski-Doo [driven by Gulla] but I didn’t know who it was. But I saw that I had pulled a little bit of a lead, and there was no way I was going to back off.
‘Then I looked back about a lap later and I saw Blair was coming on hard, so I just put the hammer down again,” Tucker Hibbert continued. “But he caught up pretty good at the end there, so there was no letting off.”
His father, on the other hand, was absolutely beaming.
“When he got the holeshot, I found myself trying to watch him and make sure that he did get the holeshot for sure and I kind of bobbled a little bit and almost forgot that I was racing for a second,” Kirk Hibbert said. “I was so excited when he got the holeshot, I knew he’d have a shot if he got a good start.”
Then the elder Hibbert had to concentrate on his own race.
“After the start, there were so many sleds between us that I never saw him again,” Kirk Hibbert said. “The only thing I knew was that I never saw him beside the track anywhere, so I knew he was up there somewhere.
“All season I felt that he’s had a shot,” Kirk Hibbert continued. “He’s been so dedicated and so focused, I knew he had a shot at it. Russ [Ebert] built him such a nice piece of equipment. It’s tailored just to work for him. It’s a good team – Russ and Tucker are a hell of a team.”
Tucker Hibbert, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as sure about his chances heading into the Winter X Games.
“I didn’t know that this was coming my way,” Tucker Hibbert said. “I just wanted to come here and have fun. I qualified at Duluth pretty well, so I knew where I stood with everyone, and it turned out really well.”
Does this make him want to tum pro soon?
“Boy, I don’t know,” Hibbert said with a laugh. “I was pretty nervous all weekend. I don’t know if l’m ready for that yet. We’ll see – maybe next year.”
For his effort, Tucker Hibbert wins $10,000 from the X Games, plus $10,000 in contingency money from Arctic Cat. Not a bad payday. Asked on national television about his spending plans, Tucker Hibbert gave a cool answer. “I think I might go to college;’ he offered.
All over the country, mothers and fathers grinned.
For the second straight year at the Winter X Games, snocross superstar Blair Morgan got a bad start and found it impossible to recover in this short, made-for-TV race.
“Yeah, I got another silver,” Morgan said, “but it’s pretty cool, though, coming to second from dead last. But it’s pretty tough, especially with such a short race. But now I’ve got two silvers – maybe they’ll let me turn in these two for a gold!
“I wish it were at least eight laps. I think I could have reeled him in,” Morgan continued. “It was tough. I was battling with Vincent for a little bit until he fell off. It was hard to see, and everybody was just going for it.”
So what happened on the start?
“Oh, I was just sleeping or something,” Morgan said. “I was getting awesome starts all morning long, and I thought I had it. It’s really tricky with the flag these days. [Flagman Brian Rust] is always different, which is good. But I wasn’t awake, I guess.
“I still thought I could win it, even though it was really short. I had to just make a lot of passes at the beginning just to get to the front real quick. There was a lot of dust, I couldn’t see real good. It was tough.”
But while the perfectionist Morgan might have been disappointed with his second consecutive silver medal, third place Gulla was elated with his bronze.
“Oh man, I’m pumped. It’s practically my hometown. I can’t believe it,” Gulla said 10 minutes after the race. “My heart’s still racing. I still haven’t calmed down. I’m still sweating, I think.”
It almost didn’t come to pass. First, Gulla got into the Winter X Games as a provisional pick by WSA and X Games officials. He crashed in the X Games qualifier at the WSA event in Shakopee, Minnesota, but his Vermont address helped him get a spot.
Then the first-year pro was fortunate to make the semifinals. A carburetor fell off in a qualifying race, relegating him to last place in his heat race, but only seven of the eight sleds scheduled for his heat made it to the starting line. If he had finished eighth in that heat, Brian Call, not Gulla, would have advanced.
Finally, when Gulla was sitting before the crowd during driver introductions minutes before the final, the owner of the competing Amsoil/Scheuring Speed Sports Ski-Doo team pointed out a problem on Gulla’s SC-I 0 II skid frame.
“The coupler flipped upside down on one of the landings on the big jump. We were sitting here and [Steve Scheuring] came up behind me and said, ‘Hey, look at your spring,’” Gulla recalled. “So we had to change that before we could go out l didn’t go out for the recon lap because we had to fix that, but it got me going. I was all hyped because we were in a hurry and stuff. It got the adrenaline going.”
Then Gulla, a first-year WSA pro but a racer with a dozen years of motocross experience, got a good start and tried to hold his spot.
“I tried to stay with [Hibbert] but he was a little bit faster than I was. I knew Blair was going to be hard to keep off me, but I tried to just stay calm and ride smooth,” Gulla said. “Maurice [Murray] from Ski-Doo came over right before the race and said, ‘You have just as good of a chance of getting this as anybody else,’” Gulla said. “You know, it’s true. Look at Tucker Hibbert – he’s a semi-pro rider and he went out and won it.”
In the end, Scheuring’s good sportsmanship may have earned him some respect, but it kept one of his drivers, Justin Tate, off the podium. Tate finished fourth.
“Oh! [Tucker Hibbert’s] sled just took off up the hill. His sled was fast!” an impressed Tate said. “I was just trying to get around Gulla and then Blair came into play. He just kind of gave me a little nub, but it was enough to slow me down.”
Kirk Hibbert finished fifth, but he was in no mood to talk about his own accomplishments.
“I’m as excited and thrilled as I was when I won my first 1-500,” Kirk Hibbert said of seeing his son win, “or maybe more so. There’s something about when your kids do good. It’s really made me pretty emotionally happy,” Hibbert said, staring off into the distance with a glow, and maybe even a tear, in his eye. The quiet Idaho native was pleased beyond words.
WINTER X GAMES
WEST DOVER, VERMONT FEBRUARY 2-4, 2000
Pro Open: 1. Tucker Hibbert (Cat); 2. Blair Morgan (Cat); 3. TJ Gulla (Doo); 4. Justin Tate (Doo); 5. Kirk Hibbert (Cat); 6. Kurtis Crapo (Pol); 7. Dennis Eckstrom (Doo); 8. Chris Vincent (Doo); 9. Aaron Scheele (Cat); 10. Trevor John (Pol).
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