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 part two of the complete interview….
To see part 1 of the Bender interview, use this link: Tim Bender Part 1
SG: Aside from your great snowmobile racing career, you also made a run at auto racing, making it as far as what is now called the Nationwide Series before injuries derailed you there – between sleds and cars, do you miss competing?
BENDER: I miss competing for sure, take anybody who has been involved in competition their whole life and its difficult to take that out of them – you can look to Brett Favre for an example on that. What’s hard, from my perspective now as a team manager and a father of a racer, is I still get a lot of the adrenaline built up, but I don’t have a way to burn it off, so that’s not good sometimes. But the thing about the car racing was it was so hard to get the sponsorship to do it, and then once I had the sponsorship I was in a bad crash and wrecked my back – actually, the crash probably just finished it off, with all the damage I did to it racing snowmobiles. Sometimes I wish I would have gone back and tried it again after I got my back operated on but then I watch TV and see some guy make a stupid mistake and take out 15 cars, then it’s like, ‘You know, I don’t really miss it THAT much.’ That was the hardest part about car racing is that you were at the mercy of everybody on the track. When I got my own car and got into a couple instances like that, it was like, ‘you know what, I can’t afford to throw these things away like that.’ So that was the hard part about car racing. But when I was car racing, I had my highlights, like when I set the qualifying record at Atlanta – a record that still stands for the old configuration (of that track). So that’s pretty cool. I met a lot of great people and worked with a lot of great people down there. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
But then, you look at snowmobile racing, and there are guys that I raced against that are back out there racing the vintage stuff. I’m too old for that.
SG: Oh c’mon! You mean we’re not going to see you on the oval at Eagle River this year?!
TB: Well, I’ll be at Eagle River with the team for the snocross races, but that’s about it.
SG: You’ve stepped away from Bender Racing, but the brand still carries your name – does that feel odd sometimes, seeing your name on that business? Do you still do any testing or development of aftermarket products, for them or others?
BENDER: I told that to Terry (Paine) in 1997 – when I got the Busch ride, Terry was one of my suppliers, he built some of our silencers and some other things for us. We worked out a deal so I could go racing. I stayed on with them for a couple years, helping do some development on some product and stuff. They are back in my building now, actually. Half of my building is my race shop and the other half is Bender Racing. [Current Bender Racing owner] Rich [Daly] and I talk all the time and share ideas, he does some work for me and I do some for him. They do their own development stuff, but if they want to run something by me, I’m a phone call away or they can come find me in the shop.
SG: So are you involved in that business formally on any level any more, or involved on any other level of developing aftermarket products for snowmobiles?
TB: No. No aftermarket products. I get involved in quite a bit in changes that get made to the race sled for Polaris. What we’ll do is come up with something on our mods, and then race with it for awhile and prove it and then the race department takes that to Polaris and asks if they can get that incorporated on their race sled.
That’s one interesting thing: Back when I was racing, the only year I had a dedicated crew chief was 1992, and that was Rick Bates. Rick Bates now, of course, is the guy behind the IQ Chassis with the race sled, so I get to work with him still. He’s an amazing fabricator, was more than me.
SG: So, is working for the racing team your full-time gig, or do other side jobs help pay the bills.
BENDER: No, I work pretty much all year around for the team, including doing development in the summer. This year with the 100 percent mod sleds, with no stockers, I also build sleds and engines for the Dupont Judnick team, for Ross Martin and Mike Bauer. We work closely with those guys testing and sharing information with them. We worked together with them in the same shop before, before we were sharing information, and that wasn’t so much fun. Ross is an extremely talented racer, and it’s great to work with them because he does our equipment good – he does well with it. This summer we’re building eight mod sleds and 16 mod engines, so there’s a lot of work to that stuff.
SG: So aside from racing, what do you do for pleasure.
BENDER: I had never had a boat – my family never had one when I was younger or anything. So I bought a boat for the first time and on weekends we go down to a local reservoir, we go with some friends of ours and do a lot of relaxing. Then I got a Victory motorcycle I do a little bit of riding with, and we built a custom bike and showed it a little bit. But that was a little bit too low key for me – hanging out at the motorcycle show and showing it was kind of boring. It was fun for me to see what the other guys were building and how my stuff stacked up, but you can’t make any money at it. It takes too much to build one.
Another thing I got into, after hanging out with TJ and Levi for a few years, is I started to go to the gym, and I’m now probably in better shape than I was way back when I was racing. I go to the gym five days a week.
SG: Sounds like you truly ARE getting ready for Eagle River on the ice this winter…
BENDER: (laughs) No, there’s a big difference between lifting a few weights and racing a snowmobile, as some of my mechanics I worked with found out when I’d let them take one of my oval sleds out on the ice at the end of the year. They would realize why we’d get so much arm pump and why it took so much upper body strength to ride one. That’s one thing I’d really like to do is to get TJ and Brett out on an oval sled. And if I had my Vmax 4 Formula III sled, I would love for those guys to take a ride on it. But it’s actually at the hall of fame. They don’t have a clue at how much arm strength and stamina it takes to hang onto one of those things for 15 laps.
SNOW GOER: Being a racer yourself, you obviously had to race on a razor’s edge to win – as a dad, is it even difficult seeing your son Brett similarly hang out on the edge sometimes? Or do you get used to it after awhile?
BENDER: I don’t know if you ever get used to it, but I’m a little more better at it than some maybe some parents may be, since I did it myself. Brett has a lot of natural talent, he’s so smooth. Even when he is going fast, it looks like he’s not going that fast. But he’s has his share of get offs so, yeah, it is rather never racking. But when he starts well and the team down well, it is extremely worth it. But I enjoy it, because he and I get to do things together than a lot of other [fathers and sons] don’t get to experience together.
To see part 1 of the Bender interview, use this link: Tim Bender Part 1