After Elias Ishoel wrapped up his fourth consecutive points championship on the ISOC Amsoil Championship Snocross series in March, an intense debate was initiated among Snow Goer family and friends about where this young racer fits among the greatest to ever participate in the “modern” form of snocross racing – meaning the deep-snow, big bumps sort of racing that the sport evolved into in the early 1990s.
That discussion blossomed into this: The Top 10 Snocross Racers Of All Time list. It was created after polling many top snocross industry “insiders” including select race circuit officials, factory race directors, major team owners, media personnel, aftermarket industry leaders and others who were involved very directly in the sport over the past 30 years. We combined their input with an intense review of past race results and points standings to finalize our rankings. In addition, we also created an online poll and let fans create their own list. Read about No. 4 on our list below, then check out the write-ups on No. 10 Dennis “DJ” Eckstrom, No. 9 Kirk Hibbert, No. 8 Chris Vincent , No. 7 Robbie Malinoski, No. 6 Tim Tremblay and No. 5 Ross Martin by clicking on their names. Also, make sure to check back to see the rest of the list as it is unveiled over the next week.
No. 4: Toni Haikonen
For a shining moment in time, one racer made us realize that our snowmobile racing lives had changed forever.
Before Blair Morgan fully completed bringing the stand-up, rider-forward riding style to snocross racing, Toni “The Flying Finn” Haikonen introduced it to North America starting in 1993. Toni had style and grace when on the track. He dazzled the crowds, notched many first-in-history victories and truly caused everybody on the track to “up their game” when it came to the big air aspect of the sport.
CLAIM TO SNOCROSS FAME: Through a friendship with Craig Hansen made racing in Scandinavia, Haikonen showed up in the fall of 1993 at the snocross races at Duluth and Quadna looking to race, but without much of a plan. He showcased his talents at Duluth using a borrowed, unstudded Ski-Doo against the Pros and caught some attention. Over the course of the next week, he hooked-up with the Karpik brothers of FAST Inc. fame, who got his sled (the otherwise not-very-competitive F-chassis MXZ) dialed-in better for Quadna. Toni went out and won the Dash For Cash there ahead of legends like Jack Struthers, Toby Ashley and Kirk Hibbert who were on far better equipment.
With that, Haikonen went back to Europe and mopped up trophies and cash for the rest of that year before returning to North America the following fall. That’s when his career on this side of the Atlantic took off like a rocket riding for FAST Inc. on the 1W sleds (which meant “No. 1 in the World”). He won Pro Open and finished second to Struthers in Pro Stock on opening weekend of 1994-95, then followed it up with Pro Lite and Pro Open victories the next weekend at Quadna. That in turn was followed by two more victories at Barrie, Ontario, and then a second to Struthers on New Year’s Day in the ISOC Brainerd 200 — which was basically a cross-country race with a few bumpy sections. He was competitive in ISOC cross-country races, but when the events went to ski hills or similar venues that featured deep snow and big air, he was able to truly showcase his talents. That was exhibited when Haikonen won what many consider the first high-profile “big-air snocross” – the 1995 Canterbury Super Enduro.
MOMENT IN TIME: Haikonen had a flair for the dramatic, and that was maybe best exhibited at the very first Winter X Games to include snowmobile racing in 1998. Now competing on the No. 06 Ski-Doo, Haikonen barely made it into the final in Crested Butte, Colorado, after first crashing in a heat race and then overcoming a severely bruised heel to narrowly hold off Brad Pake in the last chance qualifier (LCQ).
On green in the final, Haikonen launched toward the front but then got tangled up in a crash with Greg Hyde and Kurtis Crapo at the top of the first hill. The race was reflagged and restarted, with Haikonen, Hyde and Crapo starting in the second row, behind the other seven finalists. It didn’t matter. Haikonen flew into the lead again on the first lap. He overcame another red flag and re-start a couple of laps later, then held off an all-star crew of racers and won by a large margin. Here’s how Vince Castellanos described the final lap for Snow Week magazine back in the day:
“With an enormous, 10-second lead, Haikonen waved to the crowd while triumphantly finishing the last lap. He took the checkered flag with a fist raised well ahead of Dennis Burks, Per Berggren, Greg Hyde and Aaron Scheele and pulled into staging, arms over his head. Mobbed by his crew, he was carried off on their shoulders.”
BALLOTING: Haikonen finished as high as second on one of our “expert” ballots but didn’t even crack the Top 10 on four other ballots. On the fan voting, he finished fourth.
TONI TODAY: Haikonen’s last win came in 2000 on an Arctic Cat, and he retired after the 2002 season. He was inducted in the racing-oriented Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 2012. On social media, he’ll still comment on snocross related events from time-to-time. He’s currently living in Finland and works as a software development engineer.
WORDS WITH TONI: Haikonen didn’t want to do an on-camera video chat, but he did answer some of our questions through text.
“There were so many things that went on and happened during my career that I could write a book about,” Haikonen said, adding that “most people have no clue what went on behind the scenes. I feel the most valuable thing I did was to be able to come across the pond with no money and go race on Ski-Doo, against everyone’s advice and against all odds of being able to win or even qualify on it. [The MXZ race sled in the F2000 chassis] was considering a piece of junk [at the time] and there were probably less than 10 Ski-Doos of several hundred entries at the first Spirit Mountain race.”
Haikonen’s career was affected by injuries, but he proved to be tough.
“I broke my back after the 1995 West Yellowstone when I got landed on, which made me a lot slower. Despite this fact I was still able to pull off wins. There were times I wasn’t able to walk but I still had to go race and earn money for the family. I believe I was the first snocross racer who got paid to race only snocross, also I was the first to win X Games, the first one in the Hall of Fame and across the finish line.
“As a child, I was brought up and taught to play fair and respect others,” Haikonen added later. “I was able to win by playing fair and was fast enough that I never had to intentionally take anyone out. After all, I am glad I did it and along the way made some life-long friends.”
WATCH!: We’ve posted the video from the original Canterbury Super Enduro below… It was a two-hour race, with a bumpy front stretch and an iced backstretch. Just watching those guys on the sleds of that era with limited suspension hammer those bumps makes our entire bodies hurt!
Editor’s Note: Every issue of Snow Goer magazine includes in-depth sled reports and comparisons, aftermarket gear and accessories reviews, riding destination articles, do-it-yourself repair information, snowmobile technology and more! This story is from the November 2021 issue’s Cold Tested department. Subscribe to Snow Goer now to receive issues delivered to your door or your computer for a low cost.