The final weekend of snowmobile snocross racing for the 2016-17 will begin in a few hours, as this is being written, and for the first time in a long time there’s actually an intriguing battle at the top of the point standings to determine the Pro Open champion on the ISOC Amsoil Championship Series. But if somebody looks behind the numbers, there are even more stories to tell.
Going into the weekend, which will include three rounds of racing and thus a potential of 177 points if a competitor wins all of their heat races and the finals, Ski-Doo racer Tim Tremblay holds a strong 28 point lead (653 points) over second place Polaris rider Kody Kamm (625 points), with four-time defending champion and Arctic Cat legend Tucker Hibbert 44 points back (609 points on the season) in third.
So, just glancing at the standings after 14 rounds, the casual fan might think that Tremblay has been cleaning up and collecting wins all year, Kamm has been running really well and Hibbert, by his standards, has been lagging, and there’s certainly some truth to that. But consider this:
Through 14 rounds of racing, Tremblay has just 1 victory, Kamm has 3 and Hibbert has 6 wins. Yes, Tremblay has had 8 podium (meaning, top 3) finishes this year, including 6 second-place finishes, but Hibbert has had 9 podiums and Kamm has 7. None of the three racers has missed a final or suffered an injury. So what gives?
(This weekend will also determine the season championship in the fantasy Snowmobile Racing Challenge game, but you can even sign up for this one round. Click here to play.)
The Magic Of Points Races
Let’s start with this huge caveat: All of the racers and race teams know the rules going into the season, so in no way is this article intended to take anything away from the point leader or claim that anybody is being cheated.
However, with pretty much any points race in motorsports, there are odd twists and turns. NASCAR fans may remember the 2003 championship season of Matt Kenseth, when he won just 1 of the season’s 36 races, and led just 354 of the season’s 10,668 laps, but his consistency throughout the season (including 25 top 10 finishes) allowed him to collect the most season points and win the championship. Some folks complained, noting for instance that Ryan Newman won 8 races that year and led 1,173 laps, but Kenseth’s name is on the trophy and in the history books.
So, getting back to snocross and Tremblay’s impressive points lead, there are two layers to it.
First, Tremblay’s worst finish this season was his one seventh-place finish at Iowa in the most recent round of racing. Hibbert, meanwhile, had one 10th and one 12th place finish at the races in Shakopee, Minnesota, in January, when Hibbert and his team were reeling after the death of a very close friend, young Hunter Houle, in a cross-country racing incident.
But still, even with those two low finishes, over the course of the season Hibbert’s average finish was a 3.43 this year while Tremblay’s was a 3.36, and Hibbert had 5 more wins in Pro Open finals – and usually wins pay extra points. Moreover, Kamm’s average finish this year is 4.67, and he had one 12th and one 13th, and even he’s ahead of Hibbert. How does Hibbert end up behind Kamm headed into the final weekend?
That’s where one more layer of the onion needs to be peeled back.
A couple of years ago, the host ISOC Amsoil Championship Snocross series changed two things related to Pro Open finals and points to try to make the finals more competitive – some have referred to it as “the Tucker Hibbert rule.”
Previously, whichever racer had the best combined finishes in their heat races got the first choice of where he wanted to line up in the final. Well, Hibbert was winning a ton of heats, and thus was able to always select the best starting spot. He’d often then get the holeshot, lead every lap of the race and storm away to the victory, and that turned many fans off. The results almost seemed predetermined. It’s a problem faced at many local car racing tracks across the country, and many of them for years have created systems to put faster cars in the middle or back of the pack to try to force them to come through traffic to earn a victory.
So ISOC decided to flip the top 9 heat qualifiers when it came to picking starting line positions – meaning whoever finished 9th overall in points earned in the heat races on a given day would choose his starting position first, and the person who did best in the heats would pick ninth. Some folks worried, however, that a racer might sandbag in heat races in order to gain a better starting position for the more-important (and higher-paying) final. To prevent that, the race circuit switched its season points system and gave bonus points to racers who won their heat races.
And that, this year anyway, is where Hibbert fell behind.
Case in point: At what was technically “round 2” of the race season (though it was held after round 6 at Shakopee after being postponed by weather), Hibbert won the final in grand fashion and Tremblay finished fourth. But for the day, Hibbert collected just 46 points while Tremblay earned 52. That’s because Tremblay swept his heat races and collected points while Hibbert lagged behind there. Turning to a Kamm example, the following week at Deadwood, South Dakota, Kamm finished second in the Friday night final and Hibbert fourth, but Kamm earned a whopping 17 additional points – 56 compared to 39 – because of his superior performance in the heat races.
For fans who have just been watching the finals on CBS Sports or on the online webcast, Hibbert has had a much better season, certainly, than Kamm in particular. But in terms of a total performance every single time he’s on the track, Kamm has actually outperformed Hibbert, or at least that’s what the season points say.
We’re going to say it one more time, in case anybody missed the earlier caveat: Everybody knew the rules going in, and nobody is saying that Tremblay hasn’t earned his spot at the top of the standings, or Kamm his. And, those three racers are truly the class of the field, combined soaking up 24 of the season’s 42 podium finishes. Other than them, Lincoln Lemieux had five and Ross Martin had five, other than that nobody ended up “on the box” as the say more than twice.
We’re guessing Hibbert will be pushing hard to earn his 11th championship this weekend – we’ll be watching the live webcast, will you? In the meantime, here’s a list of this year’s podium finishers by event.
Round 1, Duluth: 1) Lincoln Lemieux; 2) Tim Tremblay; 3) Tucker Hibbert
Round 2, Duluth (held at Shakopee): 1) Hibbert; 2) Ross Martin; 3) Kody Kamm
Round 3, Colorado: 1) Hibbert; 2) Tremblay; 3) Kamm
Round 4, Colorado: 1) Hibbert; 2) Tremblay; 3) Martin
Round 5, Shakopee: 1) Elias Ishoel; 2) Martin; 3) Tremblay
Round 6, Shakopee: 1) Kamm; 2) Logan Christian; 3) Adam Renheim
Round 7, Deadwood: 1) Martin; 2) Kamm; 3) Ryan Springer
Round 8, Deadwood: 1) Hibbert; 2) Tremblay; 3) Kyle Pallin
Round 9, New York: 1) Tremblay; 2) Hibbert; 3) Kamm
Round 10, New York: 1) Hibbert; 2) Martin; 3) Lemieux
Round 11, Mt. Pleasant: 1) Kamm; 2) Tremblay; 3) Lemieux
Round 12, Mt. Pleasant: 1) Hibbert; 2) Tremblay; 3) Ishoel
Round 13, Iowa: 1) Lemieux; 2) Pallin; 3) Renheim
Round 14, Iowa: 1) Kamm; 2) Hibbert; 3) Lemieux