Freestyle snocross hoping to follow freestyle motocrosss

It’s 5:30 a.m. on a Friday in February, and freestyle snocrossers Chris Burandt, Tim Needles, Heath Frisby and Sam Carver rub sleep from their eyes and prepare to meet the press – by flying 55 feet through the air on snowmobiles. As the foursome rests in the bowels of Salt Lake City’s Delta Center, crews from every local network television affiliate set up on the arena floor, which is covered with tons of snow and three ramps. By 10:30, the riders will be interviewed for area morning shows and cameras will capture the aerial daredevils skying 25 feet high while performing gymnastic maneuvers. Compelling footage indeed.
Welcome to the world of the International Freestyle Snocross Association (IFSA) and its fledgling FSX Tour. The brainchild of promoter Grant Reeves, who is also instrumental in the Indoor Super Snocross series, the IFSA is associated with Clear Channel Entertainment and closely patterned after Clear Channel’s successful International Freestyle Motocross Association (IFMA).
Though there have been one-off freestyle contests and frequent demos at indoor events, the FSX Tour is the first freestyle snocross series, and it hopes to follow in the footsteps of freestyle motocross (FMX).
FMX quickly caught the attention of action and motorsports enthusiasts. Big sponsors, big salaries and prime placement in both ESPN’s X and Winter X Games along with television coverage on Fox Sports and elsewhere has blossomed for FMX in just a few short years.
Geographical limitations will keep freestyle snocross from enjoying the same popularity, but can it come close?
“We know what happened with FMX,” says Burandt, who at 24 is one of the oldest competitors. “We’ve seen corporate sponsors get involved; we’ve seen them get TV. If we can achieve just some of what they’ve achieved, we’ll be successful.”
Attracting Attention
“We’re a new property with a brand name, and we’re taking steps to grow it,” says Reeves. “If you average nearly 10,000 spectators a weekend and tag in TV, that appeals to potential advertisers. When we go to a market, we get calls after the show from potential local sponsors who want to be involved.”
One hurdle is convincing companies they can reach customers as effectively with freestyle as with racing. “We’re sort of competing with racing,” acknowledges Jimmy Fejes, one of the tour’s most dynamic performers.
“But freestyle is completely different. We’re built and designed to please the fans. At events, we’re on the microphone; we’re in front of the fans alone. The announcers are talking about us and our clothes and our sleds and our sponsors. A racer can’t come close to our exposure unless they win.”
“It’s a side of snowmobiling that people rarely see,” says jumper Dan Adams. “And instead of 50 guys running around a track with a 4-inch sponsor sticker on their sled you’ve got one guy with everybody’s attention right on him for a couple of minutes.”
Reaction in the snowmobile industry to freestyle generally has been good, though the positive reviews don’t necessarily translate to sponsorship dollars. “We got a wait-and-see answer from some in the industry,” says Reeves. “Some aren’t sure we’re the image they want to present.”
And there’s no doubt that concern about freestyle’s extreme tricks and possible influence on careless backcountry riding exists in the industry. “Freestyle is cool and entertaining for the people, but it can be a catch-22 for us,” says Ski-Doo racing’s Steve Cowing. “It’s great exposure, but is it the kind of exposure that’s good for the sport? The competitors are excellent athletes and doing neat, creative things, but Ski-Doo is taking a cautious approach towards it.”
Ski-Doo certainly isn’t alone, but factory support for freestyle has come from Arctic Cat and Yamaha. “It is a dicey area because of liability,” admits John Tranby, Arctic Cat’s director of marketing and communications, “but we believe the team we’re supporting is very well-run and responsible.
“We like to explore other areas, and freestyle’s obviously a crowd favorite and appears to be growing,” he continues. “We’re taking it slowly and making sure it represents everyone’s best interests, and so far we believe it is.”
Freestylers even traveled to Thief River Falls, Minn., in January of 2003 and performed a jumping demonstration in the Arctic Cat parking lot. “The whole factory got out at 3:30 so they could watch and it was a huge hit,” Tranby says. “Everyone loved it.”
While Yamaha has cut its involvement in other forms of racing, most notably snocross, the company is sponsoring the 21-year-old Fejes. “Freestyle snocross is a great new venue that appeals to a younger demographic than the typical snowmobile demo,” explains Mike Doughty, Yamaha’s snowmobile product manager. “People think it’s exciting and a good product, and we’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about Jimmy. He’s a great spokesperson and we’re very pleased to have him.”
Coldwave and Parts Unlimited are among other industry believers. “It looked like a new and exciting venture and we wanted to get in on the ground floor,” says Bruce Schumacher, Parts Unlimited’s snowmobile product manager. “From everything we’ve heard the first year was successful, and we’ll be continuing our involvement.
Freestyle’s Future
Despite solid attendance at the FSX Tour’s three indoor shows (there were also three outdoor contests), Reeves admits the series failed to make money in 2002-03. “We had start-up costs like ramps, trucks, logistics and equipment, but the events certainly show the potential to make money,” he says. “We actually surpassed our projections in terms of attendance, sponsorship support and rider interest.”
For 2003-04, Reeves is promising an even more ambitious program and says that current non-endemic sponsors like Kicker sound systems and Flagstar Bank will return. “We’ve had 17 buildings contact us about holding an event, and we’re planning a 10-event [all indoor] schedule right now,” he claims, adding that shows will be held from Alaska to the East Coast. “Our biggest battle is maintaining current relationships, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as we continue getting positive media exposure. Jimmy Fejes is a great example: He’s been in every major snowmobile magazine and on TV or in the paper of every city we went to. In the Western U.S., Arctic Cat and Yamaha received more publicity from freestyle than snocross.”
And both of those factories plan on continuing their support. “We think Grant did a great job,” says Doughty. “I think he’s got some good ideas for the future, and freestyle is new, it’s fresh and it’s cutting edge. When freestyle motocross first started, I thought, ‘This will be gone in the blink of an eye,’ but I’ve been really surprised at how popular it’s become. We believe there’s some of that same potential for freestyle snocross.”
Though the circuit didn’t make money, many of the riders did. “I got paid, so I’m signing on for next year,” says Burandt. “There was some turmoil with management and judging and those issues have to be resolved, but I thought for a first year tour everything went well and the crowd response was awesome.”
At the Salt Lake City show, about 9,000 enthusiastic fans turned out over the two nights. “The folks there were electric,” Burandt says. “They were so into it.” Each evening ended with a 40-minute autograph session, and the freestylers didn’t stop signing until every fan was satisfied.
The contest winner that Saturday night in February was 16-year-old Lee Stuart. The young Canadian’s parents run a snocross circuit, but Lee gave up a promising racing career to concentrate on freestyle. “It’s so hard to get noticed racing,” he says, fresh off hoisting the winner’s trophy before 5,000 spectators. “There are thousands of racers and only 15 of us. This is much better exposure for me.”

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button