Remembering Thrill Team Founder & Master Promoter Ted Otto

Ted Otto, one of snowmobiling’s biggest promoters and a legendary flagman in oval racing circles, died on Saturday, September 12, 2015. Otto’s outsized personality and showmanship earned him many fans over the years. His dedication to snowmobiling was exhibited in many ways, including the fact that he traveled from sunny southern California to oval races in small towns on icy cold winter weekends for years to flag the races and interview the racers. Insiders also talked often about one of his unique quirks — he never wore a hat or gloves when flagging races as a part of his brotherhood with the actual racers. Otto was 80 when he died after a battle with bladder cancer.

From his efforts to start the incredible Polaris Thrill Team to the professionalism he brought to USSA oval racing, Ted Otto made a big dent in the sport of snowmobiling. Despite how the story below concludes, Ted did not in fact flag races until he died – he retired in 2008 – and he was in fact inducted into the Snowmobile Hall Of Fame in 2005. The article below first appeared in the February 1994 issue of Snow Goer magazine.

 

 

 Flashback: Ted Otto

The World According To Ted

Those who are even vaguely familiar with Ted Otto, the flagman at all USSA races, probably imagine he was born with a checkered flag or a microphone in his hand. It’s easy to envision him as a baby, holding a tiny checkered until his mother completes a diaper change, then waving the flag to punctuate the chore’s completion. Baby Otto might then try to interview his mother, asking how she managed to get that right-side pin through the thick cotton as he snuggled to roll over.

But Ted Otto wasn’t born into motorsports. He was on a different, highly successful career path before a weekend drive introduced him to racing. That introduction led to a deep involvement and a colorful presence in motorsports, particularly snowmobile racing. It’s a presence as colorful as Otto’s race flags –the ones he carries through airports in a metal case bearing stickers declaring that the case does not contain firearms.

Otto was born in Wenatchee, Washington, and he grew up with no real contact with motorsports. “There wasn’t much opportunity for motorsports where I lived,” he says. ‘We just rode bicycles like everyone else, and played a little with some homemade minibikes.”

Polaris Thrill Team
The Polaris Thrill Team, invented by the legendary Ted Otto.

By the time he studied broadcasting at Washington State University, he was already an experienced radio producer and broadcaster. In junior high school, he helped the local radio station set up for broadcast “remotes” from the school auditorium. In high school, he was working in the station’s music library , and began appearing on the air.

lmmediately after college he became news director for a radio and television station in Spokane, Washington. It was around 1957, and Ted Otto, the local anchormman, was a straight-shooting newsman, a far cry from today’s newsreaders who exchange small talk with their cohorts.

“In those days there was no such thing as clowning around on the news,” he says. “It was supposed to be serious. I had an appetite for news. I had (police and fire radio) monitors in my home on 24 hours a day. For some reason, I trained myself to sleep through the normal talk, but I would wake up for things like emergency calls.”

Calling him an ambulance chaser wouldn’t be appropriate because he often arrived at crash sites before the ambulance.

“I’d get a phone call from the dispatcher to tell me about an accident, but I was probably already dressed and headed out of the room,” he says.

That’s why his station gained a reputation for its scoops; it frequently showed film of emergency vehicles arriving at an emergency scene.

Otto took advanced first-aid training so he could offer help when he reached accidents before ambulance crews.

“Sometimes, if we could be of assistance, we didn’t shoot film until we had done what we could to assist. In other cases, when it wasn’t a serious emergency, the ambulance driver might see us right behind him, and he recognized us so we’d pass him so we could shoot film of them arriving at the scene and doing their job.”

One weekend he and a cameraman saw several motorcyclists riding through some woods. The bikers were zipping between the trees and over jumps at great speeds. “We saw it was some kind of organized event, we filmed it and did a story that night on how crazy these people were,” Otto recalls.

The motorcycle dealer who organized the races called Otto to invite the newsman to the next event. Otto not only got a story at that race, but also took some laps on one of the cycles. The ball was rolling. Ted Otto was becoming involved in motorsports.

Otto covered more and more motorcycle events: scrambles, time trials, flat-track races, you name it. The racers and organizers put Otto on bikes at each venue, and soon he was taking part in flat-track races. His involvement and expertise grew, and in 1965 Otto was the North American hill climb champion aboard a Triumph.

From Wheels To Tracks…

His motorcycle friends were also involved in snowmobiling, and Otto was a founding member of the Western Snowmobile Association (WSA) in the mid-60s. He was still the television news director, which meant that his passions – motorcycle and snowmobile racing – got lots of coverage on the nightly news.

Otto’s involvement with the WSA led him to West Yellowstone for the big Round-Up each March. The event focused on season-ending racing, but attracted lots of top brass from snowmobile manufacturing companies.

“Everyone came to West Yellowstone in March. It was the place to play,” Otto says. “The teams did a lot of testing of new equipment, and every management person who could figure out how to get there would be there with his wife so they could go riding during the week.”

Otto had soured slightly on the television station and its new management, but he had a lucrative side business in Spokane, a film processing business. That’s why he resisted overtures from Polaris.

“I met the Polaris people in West Yellowstone and they were looking for a public relations/promotion type of guy,” Otto says. They flew him to Roseau, Minnesota, to see the company’s operations, which were impressive, but the film business was good in Spokane.

Ted Otto“I told them they couldn’t afford me,” Otto recalled. Polaris wouldn’t take no for an answer and in 1968 he became advertising and sales promotion director at Polaris. The move to Roseau gave Otto some “culture shock. They were super people there, but I had been in much larger cities with much more to do, so it was a change. It turned out to be a great place for our kids.”

He was on the road so much – at races and shows – that people around Roseau hardly knew Ted, but they knew his wife, who gained fame as an excellent bowler.

“Everyone in town knew who she was but nobody knew who I was. My wife thought that was pretty funny. I recall one time in downtown Roseau when we were looking in a store window and we heard two women talking about us. One said, ‘Who’s that there?’ The second woman said, ‘That’s that Coco Otto, so I guess that must be her husband.’ My wife got a kick out of the fact that, for a change, she was the one being recognized.”

A Thrill A Minute…

Polaris needed to attract attention from snowmobilers, the Polaris Thrill Team was born, and Otto was in the midst of the action.

“We hit an era where things weren’t selling too well and we weren’t winning races,” Otto recalls. “We needed something to steal the publicity at events.”

Something spectacular was required. Otto had performed or seen stunts performed at motorcycle races, things like wheelie contests, jumping over cars, and his wheelying a bike through a burning wall. He wanted to adapt similar stunts to snowmobiling, and the Thrill Team did so, performing at races and festivals.

Otto had seen automobile stunt riders lay across the hood of a car that plowed through a burning wall. He performed the stunt while laying out over the hood of a snowmobile driven by a teammate.

Crashing through a mere flaming wall was hardly spectacular enough, so instead they crashed through a big box of burning wood not unlike a small house. The thrills came from the fact that after the sled broke through the first wall, it was temporarily out of sight before breaking through wall number two.

“If you went through too fast it was anticlimactic,” Otto says. “So you timed it so you were out of sight for a moment. There was nothing inside there – it was all being consumed by the fire – so you had to take a deep breath just before crashing through the first wall.”

The stunt usually went well, but one time Otto’s goggles weren’t seated properly inside his full-face helmet’s eye opening. When he broke the first wall with the top of his helmet, the goggles were dislodged and a piece of burning wood slipped inside the helmet.

The sled driver, Roger Dick, said Otto’s entire helmet looked like it was on fire. A cameraman filming the Thrill Team yanked the helmet off, but not before Otto was burned just under his eyes.

Otto would sometimes strap a mat to the back of his leather jacket and soak the mat with gas. Upon breaking through the flaming wall, the mat would catch on fire.

To the crowd, it looked like Otto’s entire suit was ablaze, and he would roll off the sled into the snow to extinguish the burning mat

Thrill Team members also jumped over cars and trucks, rolled sleds off ramps, and rode through the famous loop. These stunts generated several innovations Otto either originated or adapted from motorcycle racing. For instance, he outfitted team members in leather suits, shoulder pads, elbow pads, mouthpieces and full-faced helmets with topnotch chin straps.

“One of the guys said, ‘We don’t really need all this stuff, do we?’ I said no, but we did it for two reasons. For one thing, we’ll look like we’re doing something pretty dangerous, and because we are.”

Leathers weren’t uncommon for motorcycle racers, but they weren’t lined at the time, so snowmobile racers instead wore quilted snowmobile suits. The Thrill Team would race, perform stunts at intermissions between races, then race some more. Team members who stayed in their leathers for races held after intermission found they liked the suits’ protection.

“They found the leathers stopped the wind and if (a racer) got off (his machine during a race), it saved things pretty well,” Otto says.

Otto also specially marked the tachometer gauges on the machines so drivers could tell when their snowmobiles were producing the proper RPMs needed for stunts such as the loop ride. Because of track slippage, speedometer readings weren’t always reliable enough; the drivers needed to count on their tachs to know their engines were producing adequate power.

Otto had needle-like lines painted at the correct RPM point. When the tach’s needle slipped behind the painted stripe, the driver was on the money, and he knew as much with just a quick glance at -the dial.

“If you saw no needle, it was OK,” Otto said. “But if the needle was showing, it was a wipe-off.”

Of course, wipe-offs were common – just to build crowd interest and anticipation.

“If you’re going to do a so-called daredevil stunt, you’ve got to run through it. You can’t just go do it,” Otto says. “You’d approach a ramp or the loop and you’d run right by it. You’d wave off the run, maybe discuss it with someone to calculate your speed and approach. You’ve got to get the crowd on edge. You’ve got to build a little enthusiasm here.”

Mr. Flagman…

His method of revving up the crowd at the thrill team events runs counter to his philosophy regarding flagging races. In flagging, he plays it straight, attempting to be as consistent as possible from the start of one race to the next. He’s not trying to trick or surprise racers on the starting line. He simply wants them to go when he pulls his flag – not when they think he’s going to do so.

Otto started flagging snowmobile races while working for Polaris, and continued to do so after going to work for Yamaha. He made sure he could never be accused of favoring his company’s racers.

“I worked hard at being fair and I was probably harder on my own guys than on anyone else,” he says.

Ted Otto FlagIn his days as a racer, he studied a starter’s mannerisms so he could predict when the flag would fly.

“I used to get good starts because I used to concentrate on the flagman and try to read him,” he recalls. “I vowed that as a flagman, I wouldn’t let people do that. I don’t want to tip anybody off. The guys all tell me they cannot read me. Having been on a racetrack as many years as I have been, I know that racers get their race face on when they come to the line. They’re thinking of getting the jump and being the first to the first comer. It’s possible that, in the excitement, the clutch engages before the brain does, and then they’ve got to try to keep up with it.

“I try to settle the drivers. I try to do nothing different from race to race except the length of time from when I put the tip of the flag on the ice to when I pull it.

“The flagman is not an enemy of the racer,” Otto says. “A racer should just concentrate on the start and on where he’s headed. My job is to make sure the racetrack is as safe as possible for them. I’m looking out for their well-being here. I’m their friend.”

And the flag is his friend. Otto once made a wooden carrying case for his flags. He drilled holes in the side of the case so it could serve as a flag rack at the racetrack. Those holes drew the attention of airport

security.

“They asked me ‘What’s in the box?’ and I said, ‘It’s my pet boa constrictor. Do you want to see it?’ They said, ‘No, no that’s fine.’”

He now carries the flags in a metal gun case, one marked “Does Not Contain Firearms.” Otto owns three or four sets of flags, and has some unusual ones at hand during USSA races. There’s the one with a red circle and a slash covering a frowning, crying face.

“That’s the ‘No Whining’ flag,” Otto says.

The one with the picture of the goat is shown “when you’ve got people acting like a herd of goats, when you’ve got to chase them and things are going wrong. The goat flag tells them to get things together.”

He has two black flags, a solid black one and one with a large orange dot in the center.

The latter flag is a safety flag, shown to drivers who need to get off the track because of equipment problems such as broken ski tips or a lost snow flap.

The other black flag (gulp) is for conduct unbecoming a professional racer. “I’ll keep it furled up in my hand and point it at a driver as a warning, to tell him that I see what he’s doing and he’s pushing his luck with the things he’s doing out there. Sometimes they ask me after a race why I was pointing the black flag at them because they claim they weren’t doing anything wrong. That’s when I ask him to ‘please go get your sled demagnetized because it seems to be attracting everybody you’re near and they’re running into you.’”

It’s traditional that Otto does not wear gloves or a hat on the track – no matter how cold the weather. He says gloves make it harder to hold the flag sticks, and make it impossible for him to hold the silk of which the flags are made. His hands can get cold, but he says they feel a bit of heat corning out the sleeves of his leather jacket. If it’s not windy, he usually doesn’t get too cold because he’s moving around so much. Actually, it’s ironic that he never wears a hat because he’s got a collection of more

than 600 baseball-style caps.

“It’s funny because they’re all brand-new and have never been worn,” he said of hiscollection. “I don’t want to cover myself up because I use facial expressions so much to communicate with racers at the line. The more wrapped up you get, the more you don’t look like a human being. The racers get cold, too, and I’m showing them I’m aware of how cold it is.

“But now I’m in a bad spot,” he says laughing. “If I ever put a hat on now, I’m really going to hear it. The racers will be saying ‘he’s gotten old.’ They’ll be riding up to the line asking me what’s going on.”

Whether the fans in the stands realize it or not, Otto runs the show on the track. He frequently discusses matters with racers, pulling them aside to discuss a start, their passing, their equipment, and so forth.

Sometimes, though, the discussions look more important than they really are.

“If there’s a delay, I might say to a driver or someone at trackside, ‘We’ve got a couple of moments here. Let’s freak everyone out and make them think there’s something going on. Look serious. Nod your head.’ In reality, I might be saying to someone, ‘When you go across the track, would you bring me a cup of coffee?’”

Otto wears a microphone so he can communicate with race officials on the radio and so he can plug into the public-address system to share trackside news with fans.

“The best part of the race is on the two-way radio,” Otto laughed. “But we’ve got to speak in codes now because too many people are using scanners to listen in.”

Off the track, Otto is always communicating; it’s his business. Turn back the clock to the early 1970s: Otto left Polaris for Yamaha, moving to California in 1971. He oversaw lots of in-house video production work at Yamaha, and left the company in 1983 to devote full -time to his own business, TOP (Ted Otto Productions) Video.

“I work hard all summer and make enough money so I can ‘screw around’ all winter,” says Otto, who is a vice president and long-time director with USSA. “Anybody who thinks I’m making any money in snowmobiling should talk to my accountant.”

But that’s not to say that Otto doesn’t appreciate all the fame and glory snowmobiling has brought his way. “The snowmobile industry has been very good to me,” he says. It’s been one of the best things I’ve done. Our events take place in what is still rural America and the people are really good people. Snowmobiling’s a family thing. I’m flagging the kids now whose dads I flagged.

“The people are real, they’re fun to be around, they’re all just down-to-earth people. I enjoy it a lot.”

Considering all of the time and effort he has put into the sport, Otto would make an appropriate addition to the International Snowmobile Racing Hall Of Fame. But as long as he remains active, he isn’t eligible. And Otto says he plans to keep flagging until the day he dies.

 

Ted On The Go (sidebar)

Anaheim, California, (even if they do have their own hockey team now) seems like an unlikely home for a snowmobile race director. But that’s where Ted Otto lives. Each week throughout the winter he commutes to the Midwest to work at USSA races.

“The people around here (California) who know me just go, ‘Why do you do that?’ I tell them it’s fun. When it’s 60 degrees and we’re going out my wife (Jeannine) will say, ‘Aren’t you taking a jacket? ‘ And I’ll say, ‘Why, is it below zero?'”

On most race weekends, Otto boards a plane every Friday morning and flies to Minneapolis, then catches a connecting flight to towns closer to races. Otto meets the USSA race crew on Friday to prepare for the weekend and most Friday nights are spent at a local Chevrolet truck dealership doing promotional appearances that are part of the race circuit’s tie-in with Chevrolet.

Saturday mornings come early, especially for a flagman whose body clock is on California time.

“When I get up on Saturday, it’s really 5 a.m. for me,” Otto says. He works the races on Saturday and Sunday, and usually flies back to California Monday morning. He then edits videotape of the races, prepares a script and produces a three-minute race report for a variety of national cable television race programs. He has to be ·done by 6 p.m. Monday, when the tapes must be in the hands of the Fed Ex driver.

 

4 thoughts on “Remembering Thrill Team Founder & Master Promoter Ted Otto

  • Want to say thank you for your story of Ted’s career. I was lucky enough to race under him and know him as a person the last 30+ years. He really loved being involved with snowmobiling and getting to know the people involved in the sport. When Ted retired from flagging, he left a hole that hasn’t been filled yet. It didn’t matter what you raced ‘ he made you feel special when he interviewed you at the finish line. He is part of an era that has gone down as history and we won’t see ever again.
    Rest in Peace, Ted!
    you are missed, but not forgotten–
    An admirer….

    Reply
  • You will be missed…..Back in 1982 at cleveland ohio. on july 4th sunday I got to meet with Ted and we had a race there on superbikes… he was very kind and sorta put me in the spot light rthat day,ESPN aired the race as ted did the comentating …..a day I’ll never forget….thank you Ted for all your help,God Speed, RIP…..HK31

    Reply
  • I new Ted when we both worked at Yamaha in 1971, he was the PR man and I was the snowmobile truck driver. Ted taught me a lot about the industry and I will miss him. God bless you Ted, my you live in our memories.

    Reply
  • Ted and the Polaris Thrill Team made their appearance at our towns Snowmobile USSA Race Festival in 1970. Big Bend, WI. He flagged the races and then did the stunts with the Thrill Team. The Loop, The Jump over 3 cars, The Smash through the 2 wall On-Fire Building and the Snowmobile Roll Over with the Cage on the Snowmobile. Pretty cool stuff for a small town boy at 8 years old. My dad sold snowmobiles and was the Fire Chief and a Race Official so I had behind the scenes access. Dad took 8mm home movies and we converted the Thrill Team Show to CD so we might have the only LIVE Polaris Thrill Team Show live on CD Today??? Pretty Cool Stuff!!!

    Reply

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