HIBBING — Two local snowmobile racers will be competing in a world-class event in Wyoming later this month.
Korey (K.J.) Johnson and Tyler Watson, both of Hibbing, will leave on March 19 for Jackson Hole, Wyo., where they will compete in the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climbs. It will be the third year for Johnson competing in the event while it will be Watson’s first year. It is a personal invite only event.
Johnson, 24, of Hibbing, said the event will be conducted from March 22-25. He said he competes in the sport throughout the tri-state area of the Midwest, and he assists in running a race series that does hill climbing and hill cross races throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Johnson said hill climb racing consists of a single racer negotiating a pre-set course that presents different challenges on the way to the top of the hill. The racer who reaches the top with the best time is declared the winner. Much like a downhill ski course, racers must negotiate through gates that vary in location and width.
“Going uphill, when you get into some of the steeper races, makes it a lot tougher for the turning,” Johnson said. “Most if not all corners in hill climb are off-camber where it makes you lean out from the direction that you want to turn.”
Johnson has raced snowmobiles for 14 years, but strayed away from the sport due to the lack of snow in Northern Minnesota in recent winters. However, since he had a nice mountain sled and nothing to do with it, he decided to enter a professional hill climb near Duluth and he liked it. He currently races through COR Powersports.
“I understood the sport, but I had no experience and I got thrown right into the Pro Class,” Johnson said. “I came out with a top five in one class and a top 10 in my other class. That was five years ago and I have been racing professionally ever since. It takes a lot to race at the professional level and it is a lot of work outside of the racing.
“You win races in the garage and you don’t win them at the track. You can do whatever you want at the track but it all matters how much time and energy you put into care outside of the actual race itself.”
Johnson – who also races in Watercross – manages Team Johnson/Bischoff Racing (JBR) which was started with Bischoff.
“We started racing together and it started growing, and the next year we took on another racer – Tyler Watson of Hibbing – who bought some of our old sleds and wanted to get into racing as well,” Johnson said. “Then just this year we took on a Sno-Cross racer in Jori Hughes of Tower who is in his first year of racing.”
In order to succeed in hill climb racing, Johnson said a racer obviously has to go fast among other things.
“You have to nail your corners and try not to slow down and stay in the quickest line,” Johnson explained. “You can’t look at the next gate that you are about to go through; you have to set yourself up for the gate after that leaving that gate. You don’t want to go through one gate and be too far to the right and then you have to turn all the way back to the left.
“You have to keep your head up, look uphill and try to set yourself up to have more sway and more groove instead of sharp breaks and turns, and trying to keep your speed up, especially being that it is a hill climb, it can really dog your speed. Even a little bit of braking can be enough to slow your momentum so much that it could be a second, and that could be the entire race right there.”
Johnson will be racing in three classes at Jackson Hole, to include Stock, Improved Stock and Mod. He races one machine in all three classes which he said puts an emphasis on rider ability.
“Hill climbing is a sport that is really based on rider ability where I can compete in classes that my sled isn’t the best for, and my goals there are just to get the best finishes that I can,” Johnson said. “I don’t expect to win it, but to go out there and know that I did my best and put up finishes that show it, that would be my goal.”
Johnson said the hills in the Midwest that host climbing races are basically the steepest that can be found. A couple of the hills are located in Bessemer, Mich., and Lutsen, Minn. He said during the competition at Jackson Hole, he will need to climb about 1,800 feet in about a third of a mile.
“Every time I have gone up Jackson Hole I have had to pop my ears. Being in your helmet, you get this weird feeling where you have to pop your ears,” he explained.
Johnson, who raced dirt bikes for many years, said racing has been his life for 14 years.
“I put my all into racing year in and year out,” Johnson said. “That’s where the team comes in handy as it makes it so much easier to divvy up responsibilities and splitting up costs. Everybody brings something to the table whether it is support or a truck or something else.”
Sponsors who assist Johnson and his team include Palmer’s Tavern, Hardee’s of Hibbing, Dynamic Garage Doors, Mohawk Salvage, IBW Local No. 294, Suburban Equipment Inc., Triple Nine Optics, Bikeman Performance, Ride Minnesota, Dozer’s Bar, Digital Link, Fly Racing, Snap Vinyl Signs, and Polaris 365.