Long before the John Wick action movies, there was a real-life badass with a similar name in the snowmobile world, singlehandedly striking fear in entire teams of racers in a border town event.
John Wicht III competed in many different forms of snowmobile racing, primarily on No. 52 Polaris sleds. But he became a legend and a future Snowmobile Hall Of Fame inductee due to his dominance on the sport’s most grueling 1-mile track. In 1988, Wicht became the first solo driver to win the 500-mile, 500-lap Soo I-500, an amazing fete at the time. He then followed that up with three more victories (1992, 1993 and 1995) plus four second-place finishes, one third and one fourth. To this day, he remains the only solo driver to win the race. The article below first appeared in Snow Week magazine – Snow Goer’s dearly departed racing publication – in 1989, after Wicht won his first Soo I-500.
Interview – John Wicht
Sitting Atop The Enduro World
The Wicht Racing Team has moved rapidly up the endurance racing ladder of success. Concentrating on the big daddy of them all, the Soo 500, they advanced from finishes of 14th, sixth and second to win it going away in 1988. Snow Week stopped by the shop one evening as John Wicht III was burning the midnight oil preparing his new Indy for the 1988-89 racing season. We asked some questions to uncover the technical secrets of success. John answered our questions without slowing down on the clutch he was working on.
SW: You go with one driver for the entire 500-mile event while most teams switch off drivers. What advantages do you see with a single driver?
WICHT: You get the feel of the sled and the track better with one driver. The track changes so often that you can miss the rough spots if you haven’t been out racing all the time. A new driver coming in doesn’t know where the bad spots are or where the good line is. In addition to the changing track, the sled’s handling changes as studs and carbides wear, and a new driver doesn’t know how fast he can push it. Besides, if you drive the sled yourself, you don’t have to split the winnings.
SW: What kind of machine do you like for the grueling 500-mile, six-hour Soo?
WICHT: We have found the Indy 650 to be the ultimate enduro racing sled. It is close to bulletproof with minor modifications, and it is the Clint Eastwood version of a snowmobile. Polaris has been real good about sharing set-up information with independent racers like me.
SW: What sort of top speeds do you see down the straights, and how does that translate to gearing changes for an event like the Soo?
WICHT: We go about 110 MPH down the straights, so you don’t want to be geared too deep. Our motor is set up to turn faster, so we take that into consideration. Also, you might want to gear higher for a cold track and lower for a warm one. You have to gear for 500 miles, not what the track starts out like.
SW: How important is suspension setup, and what kind of mods do you prefer for enduro racing?
WICHT: Suspension is really where that race is won. Your motor and clutching can be a little off, but if your suspension isn’t right, you can forget it. You’ve got to get around the corner and be coming out of the corners as fast as you can. After 200 miles the track is so rough that sleds are leaving the ice surface over the washboard.
That is where our Ohlin shocks really stand out. Olav Aaen introduced them to snowmobiling in the U.S., and they make such a difference you can’t believe it. The farther you get into the race, the more advantage the Ohlins have. At the beginning, on a smooth track, everybody is smooth through the corners. As the track becomes more beat up, better suspension equipment becomes more important
We go with the full travel of stock suspension. There again, a sled pulled down closer to the ice can be faster on a smooth track, but it can get into a lot of trouble when the going gets rough.
SW: What kind of motor and pipe you go with for enduros?
WICHT: The 650 Polaris three-cylinder has a lot more heavy pulling power and is a lot smoother so it doesn’t shake the sled apart. A twin of the same size creates a lot more vibration, which leads to reliability problems. We go with fairly moderate motor mod specs which Polaris developed for enduros rather than for maximum horsepower. You need to finish to win. We use Aaen pipes, which provide power while holding up to 500 miles of hard pounding. They make us competitive without radical motor mods.
SW: How many pit stops do you figure on for a long distance race like the Soo 500, and how important is the pit crew?
WICHT: The pit crew can win or lose the race for you. The number of stops depends on yellow flags. In addition to gas we fill the slide lube tank and give driver fresh goggles.
SW: What kind of maintenance do you plan to do while the race is in progress?
WICHT: We take a lot of care in putting the sled together and just hope that everything stays where it is supposed to. We check a few critical suspension and drivetrain parts to make sure they are tight, but basically we plan to run without switching sled parts.
SW: What sort of track studding do you prefer?
WICHT: We have had good luck Woody’s carbide studs mounted in rubber part of the track. They stay in the track, they don’t break and they hold up pretty well. We usually run about 300 studs spread out to give a maximum number of scratch lines.
SW: Do you use special skis?
WICHT: We use the stock OEM skis. We see some drivers running aluminum skis and even some Formula III equipment, but we have had good with stock steel skis. We also go stock Polaris track and windshield. A low windshield might be a little faster but a 110 MPH wind in your face doesn’t make you any faster by the end of race.
SW: What goes through your mind as you circle the track close to flat out nearly seven hours?
WICHT: Keep the sled alive. You’re hoping that it doesn’t blow a belt, hoping you don’t run out of gas, hoping that the machine doesn’t break and hoping somebody doesn’t run into you.
SW: What makes for a competitive enduro class entry?
WICHT: You need good sponsors who provide good, solid equipment and technical help to call on. A small independent team just can’t have all the answers, so it really helps to be able to call somebody like Polaris’ Ray Monsrud in Roseau, Minnesota, who keeps track of things that work. Even with good equipment, you need to put the time into preparing he sled. You also need excellent driving skills, because a lot of guys out on the track will know what they are doing. We have already mentioned the importance of good teamwork support. Besides all of that, you can always use a little luck!
SW: You mentioned putting time into the sled. How much time does it take to make a competitive endure sled?
WICHT: We have our engine work done by a specialist, so just looking at the chassis work, it takes at least 80 hours.
SW: How important is physical conditioning, and what kind of conditioning program do you have?
WICHT: Being in shape is the name of the game. Conditioning doesn’t show up too much at the beginning of the race, but in the last part – when everybody is tired – it’s the competitive edge. I start running four to six miles a day in the fall and work with the weights. I also do special muscle toning exercises to improve grip and stamina.
SW: What kind of hobbies do you enjoy during the off-season?
WICHT: We are really into tournament bass fishing. We fished the American Scholarship Tournaments this past season. Dad and I fished as a team and qualified for the American Scholarship Classic Championship in Jackson, Missouri.
SW: What are your plans for racing this year?
WICHT: We will hit a couple of the major enduro races, the Jeep 500 cross-country race, a few major Formula III snocrosses and F-III iovals, including Antigo, Wisconsin. We are fortunate to have real good sponsors in Aaen Performance, Forest Lake Motors, WMW Products, Northwest Machine Tool and Woody’s products. We will be looking for good races, close competition and a little luck!