2011 and Earlier / News

I-500 ... from T-shirts to the pits

Northport’s John Kalchik has gone from hawking race design T-shirts at the International 500 Snowmobile Race to being crew chief for the most successful driver.

The 42-year-old Omena businessman doesn’t boast about the little known fact, but he is proud to call Corey Davidson of Holt, Minn., his driver.

Davidson won his eighth I-500 a year ago, his seventh as the lead driver, and is back at Sault Ste. Marie qualifying for Saturday’s 44th annual looking for another victory.

Kalchik and Davidson first met in 1996 after Davidson’s victory in a different snowmobile race at the Soo. Kalchik sold him some T-shirts after the win.
JOHN KALCHIK poses at his work bench in his Omena Clean Care Shop where posters of Corey Davidson are quite visible.JOHN KALCHIK poses at his work bench in his Omena Clean Care Shop where posters of Corey Davidson are quite visible.
“A lot of people don’t know what I do up there because I lay pretty low,” said Kalchik, owner of Clean Car Care. “And some don’t understand the significance of this race. But it’s the Daytona 500 of snowmobile racing.”

Last year, Davidson and Travis Hjelle of Thief Rivers Falls, Minn., teamed up for their third I-500 victory. Davidson was on the XLT Engineering/Stud Boy sled when he took the lead for good with eight laps to go. There was a late caution flag that bunched the field, but Davidson used the Polaris Liberty engine power to pull away in the final laps and win by 4.2 seconds.

“Last year, our sled wasn’t fast, but attrition allowed us to win,” said Kalchik after back-to-back runner-up finishes.

Davidson’s other wins as a lead driver came in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2008. In 2005, after his sled was out of the race, Davidson helped the Gabe Bunke-led team win the race.

“We’re the Jimmie Johnson of the I-500,” Kalchik said. “I’ve had beer cans thrown at me at the finish line.

“And I’ve also had people stare at me and consider me a god. I’ve been yelled at and flipped off and even been told that I’m a cheating piece of whatever.”

Kalchik said he’ll do whatever he can, within the rules, to help Davidson win.

“No matter what your job, you try to do the best you can,” he said. “I don’t go there to help Corey finish fifth.

“I don’t go there to figure out how we can almost finish. I go there to win and that’s it.”

Watching Davidson cross the finish line in first is always a special moment, Kalchik said.

“For me there’s a tremendous satisfaction and not just for what we’ve accomplished, but for what I’ve done and all the people that have taught me things my whole life,” said Kalchik, who raced cars at the Cherry Speedway when he was 13. “All the way to the guys that taught me about welding and how to make a part strong.”

“It’s an unbelievable feeling being first to cross the finish line,” Davidson said. “Just knowing that you worked hard for it all year and did it.

“You out-smarted those guys.

Kalchik said every time Davidson is about to race, even if it’s a new sled, the machine is rebuilt.

“There are certain areas that need to be strengthened and modified,” he said. “The other reason is just to make sure that every nut and bolt and every rivet is right for qualifying.”

After qualifying, the crew spends 48 hours going over the machine again.

“We have a checklist,” Kalchik said. “If a hose is routed improperly, it’ll get redone. If a wire looks like it might chafe, it gets beefed up with a piece of some tape or wire tie.

“I’ll do that for an hour or so and then I’ll ask another crew guy to do the same thing.”

Having Davidson finish without the sled breaking down is satisfying, Kalchik said.

“To know, with 50 miles to go, that our main competition just blew a radiator hose and they are out of the race or their driver rode too hard because he was worried about something he should not have been — it’s a satisfying feeling,” Kalchik said.

Although Davidson said the key to his success is simple — “Drive as hard as you can” — Kalchik sometimes has to harness the enthusiasm.

“I’ve never had to say, slow down, because Corey and I have talked about that ahead of time,” he said. “Now it’s almost unspoken because he trusts my judgement on that.”

Competing in the I-500 can be a long day at the track as most races take eight hours to complete.

“It just depends on what is going on,” Kalchik said. “If the machine is struggling like it was last year, 500 miles seems like forever.

“If everything is going smooth and not just for your team, but the race itself, sometimes it feels like time flies by.

Kalchik said his team’s strategy is a simple one — don’t pit on green and don’t go a lap down.

“Without exception, every time Corey has won, he’s been at least a lap down at one point and we’ve pitted under green whether we wanted to or not,” Kalchik said with a smile.

Kalchik said he has a good idea each year who the teams to beat are.

“I know this might sound cocky, but I can literally tell him that if he’s in 10th, I can pretty much tell him the five guys in front of him that I don’t even have to worry about,” Kalchik said. “I hate to say that, but there’s only five or six teams that are capable of winning that race.”

Kalchik said letting drivers go who can’t win is better than burning oneself out.
Last year, Kalchik said it cost the frontrunners a victory.

“The guys in control of that race that were setting the pace, didn’t have that attitude or didn’t have someone telling them that,” Kalchik said. “They were racing each other when they didn’t have to race each other. They had the race won. Then they gave it away.”

Last year’s win was similar to the victory in 2003, when Davidson started 33rd and worked his way to the top five with 50 laps to go. The leader blew a belt.

“We have learned something every time out,” said Kalchik, including 2001 when the sled’s track heated up and Davidson dropped out of the race with 75 laps left. “The ice was just pure glass and the snowmobile needed lubricant.”

Some of the learning curve has been painful. A rookie crew member in 2009 unknowingly took the sled out for a spin after qualifying, costing Davidson a two-lap penalty. Davidson was on lap 502 when the checkered flag came out and finished second.

Kalchik, who first started going to the I-500 in 1989, got involved in the largest single day snowmobiling event in the world in 1996 when he and Jerry Spears, also of Northport, went up to the Soo amidst worries that the race might have to be cancelled due to too much snow.

Kalchik and Spears brought their shovels and helped make a path for the board to meet that night. After two hours of labor, the pair were asked to come in to the board meeting.

“I’m proud to been a volunteer in a race run entirely by volunteers,” Kalchik said. “A lot of people bust their butts to make sure it happens.

“And they’ve been doing it since 1969.”

Kalchik joined Davidson’s team in 1998 by sponsoring him in the I-500. He got others to sponsor Davidson like Stihl in 1999 and became crew chief a few years ago.

“John had been at the Soo a long time and he wanted to help,” said Davidson, recalling Kalchik’s addition. “John’s always keeping track of things like laps and mileage.

“And he tells me if I need to push it a little faster.”

By Mike Spencer
Of The Enterprise staff

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