For Steve Houle, hardly a winter weekend has passed over the last 32 years that didn’t involve quality time with a snowmobile. The vast majority of those weekends have been at racetrack – he followed a mega-successful 19-year racing career with 13 seasons as the lead engine builder and tuner for snocross sensation Tucker Hibbert. Houle is more than a common wrench spinner, however. As the founder of Hot Seat Performance and Speedwerx, he has been involved in many successful snowmobilers – from common trail riders looking to get a boost of power and get more of that power to the ground to racers in all facets of the sport. We caught up with Houle in early November, before the snocross season started, for an interview. We ran excerpts from this interview in the February issue of Snow Goer magazine. Here are more words from Steve.
SNOW GOER: You have a long list of career accomplishments – in ovals, cross-country, snocross, ice lemans, etc. It would be impossible to list all of your wins here, but how you briefly describe your racing history?
STEVE HOULE: “Well, we started racing cross-country mainly in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Actually, my first race was a 250-mile cross-country race in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin. It was a one-day event, and there were 250-some machine there and I finished 10th or 11th. That got a few people’s attention and got me some help getting good equipment. Cross-country was the big thing at that point, and I guess it merged into ice lemans type racing – I don’t know if that was mostly driven by lack of snow or what – but for awhile ice lemans was a big thing. And then we got into oval racing when it cycled into that. Then we ran some enduro races along the way and some snocross races. Luckily we were pretty successful at all of the above.”
SNOW GOER: After winning a Formula III championship at Eagle River, at the end of your career you turned mainly to the original ISOC cross-country racing.
HOULE: “Yeah, ISOC was taking off. At that time, I was probably labeled mainly as an oval racer, but people forgot that we had some strong cross-country roots and it was fun to get back out there and compete with the Hibberts and the Pakes and those guys. I really enjoyed that kind of racing.”
SNOW GOER: So you’ve got this great racing career going — how does that lead you to Hot Seat Performance first in 1994 and then to Speedwerx in 1999?
HOULE: “I guess it started in oval racing too, but mainly when we got into ISOC racing, we always were able to take what we learned over the almost-20-year racing career and apply it to the machines. So we had fast equipment and the other racers, especially those on the same brand, were always asking for tips or pointers or ideas on how to get their machines to run [faster]. I know a lot of the western riders were coming [to the Upper Midwest] to run the snocross race at Quadna Mountain [in Hill City, Minnesota] and then they’d hang around and run some ice races too and they always needed a lot of help getting up to speed on that type of racing. You know, clutching and handling improvements, that sort of thing. So, next thing you know, we started building parts and selling them and it kind of went from there.”
SNOW GOER: People who followed your racing career remember you on Polaris and Yamaha sleds, but now I think you’re probably seen mostly as an Arctic Cat guy. Could have you ever anticipated that?
HOULE: “I didn’t anticipate it but I never really ruled it out. We started on Polaris racing cross-country, and our success there led to a five-year factory ride with Yamaha, with the so-called Dream Team or whatever you want to call it with [Tim] Bender, [Bobby] Donahue, [Guy] Useldinger and myself. Then [I went] back to Polaris and stayed with them for the rest of my racing career.”
SNOW GOER: Bringing us up to today, now many people – especially the younger set — probably recognize you most as the guy standing beside Tucker Hibbert before races. How did your relationship with Hibbert start and grow to the point where you’ve really been the guy behind so much of his success?
HOULE: “Well, [Hibbert’s original mechanic] Russ Ebert and I got to be good friends mainly during the ISOC times. We were competitors but we talked a lot and compared out thoughts on what it took to be successful. Then when Russ started Tucker in the Semi-Pro class we had some input on his clutching setups, and then started doing the engine tuning on the mod sleds. That led to a deal where, in the year 2000, we started building all Arctic Cat’s mod engine packages for snocross and hillclimbs, and we’ve been doing it ever since. I guess this is the 13th year now.
SNOW GOER: For a guy like you, who’s been at the racetrack for as many years as you have, what keeps you coming back?
HOULE: “Even though we’ve been doing it for close to 35 years, it seems like every day at the races, especially when you’re in an environment as competitive as snocross is right now, you still learn something every day. There’s institutional knowledge that you need, and we’ve acquired a lot of that, but at the same time we’re still learning things – new tuning tips or whatever that make you more competitive. A lot of the people that are involved in that snocross circuit right now building or tuning or whatever are the same guys that I used to be racing against in my race career. We’re still competing with each other.”
SNOW GOER: You guys build a lot of big horsepower at the shop, but we’re talking about clutching in this issue of Snow Goer: What have you learned over the years that has allowed you to become such a guru in this area? Does it all come down to trial and error? Are there mathematical theories you apply?
HOULE: “When you boil it down, clutching is way different than any other tuning aspect we deal with. There is a large amount of trial and error, and mathematics do come into play. But if you take a snocross race for instance, it’s really more about compromise than anything. The starts are extremely important, so you want to get a good holeshot, but you can’t just throw a drag racing clutch setup in there, because then the driver isn’t going to be able to backshift quick enough and clear the obstacles. If [the driver] has to come out of a corner and double into a big hole and come out with a lot of track speed, you have to have strong backshift in there. So compromise is a big thing. It boils down to being an artform that takes a lot of time to acquire all of the information, whether to change the clutch weights or a spring in the drive or the driver or the cam angle. You know, there are a lot of variables, and in most cases there are more than one way to get to a competitive setup with all of those tuning parts.”
SNOW GOER: Expand on that. There are only a handful of components that you can play with – springs, weights, helixes, etc. – but it’s amazing how many different combinations there really are, and how people can take two different theories and end up being close to the same place in the end.
HOULE: “The first thing you need to know is your engine package, you need to know where the torque peak is and where the horsepower peak is. The farther you can get those two numbers apart – you know, if you’ve got a 500 or 600 rpm spread between the torque peak and the horsepower peak – the clutching sweat spot is a bigger target. It’ll be easier to come up with a clutch setup that’ll perform well in that sort of engine situation. One of the biggest clutching nightmares was the old 440cc mod setups. They had small displacement and high RPM where the torque and horsepower peak were almost right on top of each other. It was really a narrow target to hit with the right clutching.
“As far as two combinations, if you have a clutch setup that you feel is spot on, you could probably lighten the clutch weights a little bit and run a slightly steeper cam angle in the drive and achieve a real similar setup. When you weigh out all of the combinations, it’s almost infinite what you can do.”
SNOW GOER: The example you give with running lighter weights and a steeper cam angle to get near the same setup makes it sound rather simple, but most of you guys that are in the pits are pretty smart guys who have worked on clutches for a long time. How can one guy’s setup still be better than another guy’s setup?
HOULE: “What you’re seeing is, you have different drivers who have different preferences. The driver input is a big part of it too. We’re talking mainly snocross now, but some drivers – maybe a less competitive driver who’s maybe only got one shot of winning the race, and that’s to get the holeshot – he’s maybe going to heavy it up and run closer to a drag racing setup to try to get the start and try to hold everybody off. But when you have a guy like Tucker for instance, he’s always fast at the end of the race and that’s because you have the machine setup where it’s not clutched too heavy. It’s going to backshift so he can clear all of the obstacles and as the track changes and gets rougher the machine’s going to get faster. Sometimes you give up a little bit on the start to do that but we have to give the driver what he wants. Sometimes that’s what he chooses. On a good day in the right conditions, we can get both – a strong start and a strong finish. But it’s hard to put the whole thing together. That’s why you sometimes see guys who get a lot of strong starts but they aren’t the guys who are the fastest ones on the track at the end of the race. It’s always that balancing act – that compromise – to get the best overall package.”
SNOW GOER: Is tuning become a lost art on a lot of racers because, (a) they’ve got guys like you around setting up their machines and (b) the sled have gotten better right out of the box?
HOULE: “To some extent, there’s a lot of racers now are mainly just racers. The guys who have been around a lot longer like me are more used to doing their own wrenching and driving their own machine at the same time. The younger group – don’t get me wrong, there are some who are interested in wrenching and learning too, but for the most part they are just the driver. When the machines are ready to go, they throw their helmet on and go out and go racing. When they are done with the race, they bring it back to the mechanic and you don’t see them again until the next race. But Danny Ebert is a good example. Dan has been in the shop with his dad since he was old enough to walk, and Dan watches really close everything that we do as far as the clutching and the tuning of the engines. We have good data acquisition equipment, everything is downloaded onto a computer after each race, and we analyze the data and he’s a big part of that. He’s learned a lot. If I wasn’t there, he could handle it. That’s probably what he’s going to do someday.”
SNOW GOER: Bringing it back to Joe Common Trail Rider, 20 years ago when somebody was buying a sled, there was a lot to be gained in the clutches from aftermarket performance shop, because the sleds didn’t necessarily come very well dialed-in from the factory. It seems like the factory setups are much better now. Does it make it harder to find gains? Is it more about specialization now when building clutch setups now?
HOULE: “Yeah, it’s definitely tougher, you have to work a lot harder to get the gains now. A lot of the OEMs pay attention to the things we’ve done in the past and they’ve started to utilize that technology to improve the setup of their machines. But as soon as new machines hit the market, we get a lot of feedback from customers. If they like or dislike something, we hear about it and then will work in those areas to try to improve their riding situation. There are still good gains to be had though. The machines are fast out of the box, but we’re still able to make them better and faster. It’s just more work than it used to be.”
SNOW GOER: Other than just saying, “buy all of your products at Speedwerx,” do you have any tips for somebody trying to learn a little something about clutching today? Particularly the trail rider? What would be a good place to start?
HOULE: “Well, if you really want to learn, the best way is to get your hand dirty. Get into the clutches and start with easy changes. Change the spring rate or something like that, and then go out and ride the machine back to back, and get a good seat-of-the-pants feel for what it’s doing. That’s the way most of the guys who are good at it have learned it. I don’t know if it’s something that is really teachable. You can teach the basic fundamentals of each component to somebody, but as far as teaching somebody how to brew up a complete setup without having the experience would be pretty difficult.”
SNOW GOER: They just have to get in there and keep trying different things themselves?
HOULE: “Yep, that’s the best way to learn.”