The WPSA series was a big hit with crowds and racers alike this year, but it was the sideshow-the Quad Terrain Challenge-that really stole the show. And why not? It had machine-destroying rocks and formidable logs, and the racers-a mix of big names-were competing on near-stock utility ATVs, not the highly modified sport quads raced in the pro motocross class. The crowd-thrilling 4x4s really spotlighted each manufacturer's strengths as the racers rounded the obstacle-strewn field; the Can-Ams were the ones lining the front row at the first turn, but the Arctic Cats passed them in the rock beds. Mixed in this group were a smattering of Hondas, Kawasakis and Suzukis. With the QTC racers forced to use almost-stock machinery, bragging rights for the best utility ATV were at stake. Those ultimately went to Arctic Cat and Daryl Rath aboard an Arctic Cat 650 H1.
Of course, we wanted to ride this machine right away, and Arctic Cat media wrangler Kale Wainer was thinking on a parallel path. So shortly after we called to see if we could test Rath's QTC title winner, we got an invite to come to Minnesota, tour the Thief River Falls plant and ride the team's machines. OK, so we had to take turns with the rest of the collected media, but that was fine. We learned how to share sometime in kindergarten.
The tour of the plant was probably the highlight and unexpected bonus of the trip. Arctic Cat's facility is a study in progress with a blend of old and new manufacturing methods and technology. Our first lesson came in work-force availability and community interaction. The biggest employer in the area-its 1500 employees reside in a town with a population of about 8500-the company has had to turn to automation to make up for labor shortage in this sparsely populated region of the North Star State. That's not a bad thing in this day and age, and the company is slowly modernizing its methods and practices, often turning to the big names in Detroit to see how to mix man and machine effectively. After the introduction was over and our itinerary was explained, we broke into small groups and headed off to the various corners of AC's plant to see the assembly-line updating firsthand.
My group started in the new, state-of-the-art engine building-code-named Jaguar. It was so fresh and innovative that we journos were not permitted to break out our cameras. I'm guessing we were witnessing some proprietary processes that AC would rather the competition not see-just like we magazine types don't share story methods or ideas. Luckily, the engine assembly line was producing the 650 H1 during our tour. It was a remarkable process as each station had an assembler responsible for a small part of the engine and transmission. The modern component was the calibrated, computer-controlled assistance that allowed the tolerances to be exact. From this cutting-edge building we took a short walk to the main assembly hall and stepped back in time. I felt like I was in the Wonka Chocolate Factory-all that was missing were the snozberries and Oompa Loompas. In their place were a lot of steel and aluminum and a small army of workers making ATV and snowmobile construction look easy. Bins of parts bordered the lines while bumpers and whole snowmobiles slowly swayed along overhead to the next station, moving from paint closets to workers who would quickly bolt or hammer on the next item. Mixed in with the humans were robot welders, and off in one corner, teams of giant, yellow robot arms were busy riveting and welding together snowmobile chassis.
Several big, continuous and winding chains of parts slowly evolved into shiny new toys as they wove through the organized chaos of the sprawling plant. Our guide explained that the snowmobile line was the oldest and was more labor-intensive compared with the newer engine line. It certainly looked less streamlined and more cluttered-but the entire place was humming with activity and the ebb of partially built machinery. It was quite the treat to observe the skilled workers make short work of installing seat covers and bending steel tubes for bumpers. Watching stacks of parts in specially built trays convert into assembled machines rolling onto the dyno was pretty wild, and our delighted hosts were like proud parents showing off their offspring. We were glad to see the process and get a short lesson in assembly-line science. And we were even happier to spy AC's new diesel ATV-nude without plastic.
Once we partook in the quarterly barbecue that Arctic Cat throws for its employees, it was time to journey out into the chilly Minnesota air and across the street to the company's proving grounds and simulated QTC course.
Although the weather left something to be desired and was another reminder why housing costs are so high in Southern California, the clean ATVs parked by the support rig were begging to be abused. The dark ribbon of earth connecting each obstacle was the stuff that makes farmers salivate and ATV mechanics cringe. It was loamy and sticky, and test monkey Mike Newsom and I couldn't wait to dirty up the team's rides. We first headed out aboard Jesse West's #888 and soon discovered the biggest advantage of black plastic-it hides the dark Minnesota mud pretty well. Of course, trying to get good photos of this dark mass under gray skies was challenging, but I kept Newsom repeating his passes through the rock bed until we got it right. Fortunately, this is an area the Arctic Cat models excel in thanks to their big ground clearance. Climbing logs is another forte-as long as you get a good run and don't let up on the throttle too much. The set of timber arranged in three pairs with an odd one interspersed proved to be a formidable obstacle. But the long legs of the 650 H1 let us hop over it most of the time-when the slick mud didn't inhibit forward progress and we slid up and onto the logs.
These stock machines performed comparably to lightly modified units, thanks in part to their good, smooth and torquey power. The machines felt predictable and handled the whoops fairly well despite being big utilities, and they proved quite adept in the lumberyard when the wheels didn't spin excessively. The shifting gave us no problems and switching between 2WD and 4WD was a button away. Riding with the differential locked did make the steering effort high, but we did not need to lock the differential to negotiate the rocks or logs on the course. However, when it came to coercing the big girl to turn, we discovered a chink in the AC armor. The front outside wheel just pushed and felt like it was trying to tuck under the ATV. The racers told us to do the opposite of what feels natural and lean out-like on a dirt bike-or lay over the front to get the wheel to bite. One other weakness was water. The liquid was like kryptonite, causing the engines to sputter-even at a fairly meek pace and through low waves. And too much time in the water pits had the belts slipping, which, combined with the spitting and steaming engine, wasn't quite what we expected from a utility.
Arctic Cat also broke out a few Prowler side-by-sides. We never got a chance to ride them, but some of our colleagues and the racers on hand tackled the course in them. And things were looking mighty good as the Prowler cruised through the mud and over the logs, handling the rocks just fine, at least until part-time rental-car racer and full-time utility racer Kevin Johnston was at the helm-racers are almost as bad as editors-and it wasn't too long before an A-arm was ripped apart in the rock bed. But minor oops aside, the performance was impressive and we made a mental note to organize a side-by-side comparo later.
Apart from a smattering of Rath Racing bumpers and grab bars, aftermarket bars and no racks, these are bona fide stockers complete with all the idiosyncrasies found on the ones you can buy. One thing we uncovered that we liked was how much better Rath's machine performed with speed-like that of a modified race quad; think Bill Ballance's machine. The harder and faster we rode, the better response we got from the machine.
Hopefully the lessons learned on the race track will influence the designers and make the final product you see even better. After all, that's the justification of racing-research. Oh and bragging rights, of course. With the company getting into racing and learning those ropes, who knows what we'll see in 2008. For now, we're going to marvel at the WPSA course and be amazed at how easy the pros make it look.