Twenty five years ago, an up-and-coming racer from New York named Tim Bender swept into Eagle River and claimed his first of three consecutive Formula III World Championships on Yamaha race sleds. Choosing unique lines through the turns and running at gutsy speeds that many others didn’t even dare to match, Bender became a crowd favorite and racing legend who earned Hall Of Fame status. He dabbled in auto racing for awhile – and actually immediately preceded Matt Kenseth in his ride on what is now the Nationwide circuit — before a back injury ended his racing career. Oh, but he’s still at the snowmobile races every weekend, serving as the Team Manager for the Hentges Racing Polaris team.
This interview was conducted in early November, when Bender was preparing to move with his race team to the Upper Midwest. Excerpts appeared in the February 2012 issue of Snow Goer – here’s the first half of the complete interview. We’ll post part two tomorrow.
SNOW GOER: You won your first of three consecutive Formula III world championships at Eagle River in 1987 for Yamaha. What sticks with you about racing from that era?
TIM BENDER: I have lots of good memories [from that era], but Eagle River was my most favorite track of all, and the reason I liked it so much is that we were way down on horsepower with the Yamahas at that time – the Exciters and the Vmaxes, but not the Vmax 4. To be competitive with the other guys that had a lot more power than we did was tough to do,so we had to get through the corners a lot faster than they did. At Eagle River, that was an extreme challenge, but that helped us make up for some of the horsepower. It was real tricky getting around that place because the infield was so narrow and the corners were so tight.
I always did well at Eagle River because I drove the track much differently than a lot of other guys did. I made a different radius out of the corners, where in the center of the corner I was down below the bumps. The TSS front end system [on the Yamahas at the time] lifted the inside ski a lot. What I would do is I would hold that inside ski right up over the top of the [snow] bank way on the inside of the track and the right ski would be on smooth ice, because the bumps didn’t start until six or eight feet off of the bottom. On that smooth ice I could make up time rather than going through the bumps. I would start on the outside and dive all the way down on the bottom, so at the apex of the corner I would be closest to the [snow] bank. I was basically running all the way down on the infield almost.
SG: You’re still involved in snowmobile racing, now as a team manager. What does that entail?
BENDER: Being the team manager for Hentges Racing entails organizing everything for the team as well as doing all of the R&D work in the summer, we do the engine work and the chassis development, all of it done here at my place in Colden, New York. I’ve got some people out here that help – Sean Ray is our team engineer. And then I do all the work for where we are going to be when, and then run the team on a day-to-day basis. I move to Wisconsin in the winter and work out of Polaris’ factory race shop is Rothschild, Wisconsin. I move there from the first part of November and I will be there until about April 1. It’s kind of hard living away from home all of the time, but I’ve either been in North Carolina doing it or in the Midwest do it for many years, so I’m pretty used to it. At Hentges, Nate Hentges is our team owner and the riders are TJ Gulla, Brett Bender and Kody Kamm.
SG: What keeps you coming back to snowmobile racing?
BENDER: I like the competition. What I like about snowmobile racing over other forms of racing is that it’s a small, tightly knit group. We know everybody from every manufacturer and they know us. It’s a more friendly atmosphere than other kinds of racing that are a lot bigger and take a lot more money, and people are slicing each other’s throat for sponsors, it can get brutal. Snowmobile racing is more about being a part of a group.
SG: From an insider’s perspective, how has snowmobile racing changed over the years?
BENDER: Technically, the suspensions are better and the snowmobile itself is better, but it’s not really changed that much. I mean, it’s still got a CVT drive system and a two-stroke engine – all of those things are the same. We’re sitting up little higher, so they don’t get through the corners the same when you’re talking about oval sleds. Now, when I see the oval sleds racing at Valcourt, for example, they look weird to me because I’m used to seeing them sit up higher when I’m always around snocross sleds.
Another thing that has changed is that the riders don’t work on the sleds. When we were racing, we worked during the week, we tried to do a little training here and there, but we couldn’t really do much practicing they do now. And then, when you went to the races, you might have had somebody that helped you a little bit, as a mechanic or whatever. But I did a lot of the work myself, development-wise and also as a mechanic. Today, these guys are training or riding all of the time, they are in much, much better condition than we were – than I was, anyway. I didn’t spend nearly as much training because of all of the work I had to do and I had to do a lot of it myself. That’s probably the biggest difference between then and now.
SG: Do you think one way is better than another?
BENDER: No, I think ultimately you’d like to have a combination of the two. Unfortunately today, a lot of the younger guys don’t have a lot of interest in the mechanical part of it. Not a lot of young guys come along that have an interest in it overall. When I look for mechanics for the team, first of all it’s hard to find guys that can get away for the winter like this, so it pretty much has to be somebody that’s unattached, and then they have to be fairly sharp and be able to move quickly like we do during the racing season. We’ve been fortunate and found some guys that really do a great job for us. It takes a special kind of person to be able to leave six months out of the year and do it.
One thing that I do is to make sure that guys work on their own practice sleds. The No. 1 reason why is, during the week, we’re working on the racing sleds trying to make the best race sled we can, we don’t have time to do that. No. 2, if the driver has to work on his own practice sled, the better shape it will be kept in, plus he gets an appreciation for what it takes to do this.
That’s one of the things that’s changed over the years is the amount of parts that you change (now) is just crazy. These machines take such a beating that stuff doesn’t last real long. Back in my day, we made it last for the whole season or more. In some cases we’d try to use one sled for several seasons in a row, and you’d never think of doing that now, they take such a pounding. But, then again, the snocross that we did back in the day, the biggest jump was smaller than the smallest jump on the track today. But then, we were landing on ice, we didn’t have these landing ramps, but the sleds were half the travel. We made up our time going through the corners.