Amsoil Duluth National Snocross is proof no dream is ever too bigTerry Mattson has some simple advice for any other aspiring dreamers out there, when the pundits and pragmatists tell you your dream will never work.
By: Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune
Terry Mattson has some simple advice for any other aspiring dreamers out there, when the pundits and pragmatists tell you your dream will never work.
“Don’t believe that,” Mattson said, flatly, and firmly.
Mattson is living proof of that.
Mattson, 51, is the outgoing president and CEO of Visit Duluth, the city’s tourism and convention bureau, and it’s no small coincidence Mattson isn’t leaving until after this weekend’s 22nd annual Amsoil Duluth National Snocross at Spirit Mountain.
After all, Mattson is one of the founders of the Duluth National, which quickly grew from humble beginnings in 1992 to the world’s largest three-day snowmobile event. At first, the idea of a snowmobile race each Thanksgiving weekend may have seemed absurd, but Mattson knew Spirit Mountain’s ability to make snow, and he knew that was best time to have the event there, just before the ski season kicked into high gear.
For people like Mattson, don’t tell them something can’t be done.
“If you have that kind of passion and energy, and somebody tells you it can’t work, you have to believe in your heart and your passion,” Mattson said.
One of Mattson’s passions is snowmobiles. Mattson was born in Ashland before moving to Superior as a child, where he graduated in 1980. He attended college at Wisconsin-Superior, where he played basketball for two years before concentrating on academics, focusing on business administration and journalism.
Mattson, along with fellow snowmobile racers Craig Hansen and Kirk Hibbert, came up with the idea for the Duluth National after attending the Giant Enduro in Finland.
The three had attended snowmobile races in the U.S. Oval and cross country racing were the norm. Quadna Resort in Hill City had staged snocross-style races, but it wasn’t the same. The three hadn’t seen anything like what they saw in Europe.
“These guys were flying. It was a spectacle,” Mattson said. “Collectively, we thought we could do this at Spirit Mountain. We saw great potential. The notion was that we could do it in winter, but from my experience, I knew it wouldn’t work.”
Mattson enlisted Denny Munson, the director of ski services at Spirit Mountain, as well as the late C.J. Ramstad, a snowmobile and ATV magazine publisher who could help promote the event to both the fans and large snowmobile manufacturers. Soon the dream became a reality.
“A lot of people thought, ‘How can you pull that off?’” Mattson said. “But all but three times now in 22 years we’ve been able to make adequate snow, if not a ton, by Thanksgiving, so that’s a pretty good track record. It’s allowed us to put another great event on the Duluth map.”
Mattson has previously stated the Duluth National will remain on Thanksgiving weekend until palm trees starting sprouting along Lake Superior.
With arguably the sport’s biggest race at the start of the season, the Duluth National is considered the Daytona 500 of snowmobile racing. In the snowmobile world, it’s a tradition like no other, with race teams often enjoying Thanksgiving dinner on the hill or at a nearby restaurant. The event helped create the sport, which in turn helped accelerate snowmobile suspension and engine development.
Ticket sales for the three-day event are consistently over 30,000, and part of what keeps the event from becoming even bigger are space constraints near the chalet at the top of the ski hill. The events growth has mirrored that of tourism in Duluth, with Mattson saying the direct impact of tourism in Duluth has gone from about $80 million 25 years ago to about $800 million today.
“Success breeds more success,” Mattson said. “You have to do your homework. You don’t want to take unnecessary risks, for sure, but events like the snocross and the Tall Ships festival are two examples that might seem farfetched, but I knew they’d work. You just had to do them right. You have to have the right people and resources backing you.”
With Bentlyville and hockey also in full swing, good luck finding a hotel in the Twin Ports this weekend.
Steve Scheuring, a longtime snocross racing team owner, said he always books his hotel rooms by June 1.
“The Duluth National is the kickoff to winter, and Terry Mattson is a big reason why,” Scheuring said. “It would drive me and a lot of other racing fans nuts to not have a race until after Christmas. I think a lot of the things Terry has done have gone unnoticed, even unappreciated, but he has always made sure everyone is taken care of. He’s been a catalyst for the sport.”
Saginaw native Carl Schubitzke, 32, grew up with the event. He is now the president and race director of the International Series of Champions, which sets up the track and sanctions this weekend’s racing action.
“Terry started this. He really did,” Schubitzke said. “You look back at events and how they’ve changed industries, and the Duluth National is that event. It’s the Super Bowl of our sport. We get racers and fans from all over the country and beyond. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s taken a lot of work by a lot of people, but this is really a credit to Terry’s work and what he’s built. Without him, this wouldn’t have been done. Period.”
After more than 20 years leading Duluth’s tourism bureau, Mattson’s final day at Visit Duluth is next Friday. He emphasizes he is not retiring. Mattson’s wife, Renee, is Spirit Mountain’s executive director, and he continues to see great potential for the area.
“This is the best place in the country to live,” Mattson said.
Mattson said it’s been a great run but he’s ready to apply his skills to another “adventure.” He emphasized that nothing gets done without teamwork, that no idea, no matter how farfetched, never comes to fruition without belief, hard work, and help.
“You don’t do it alone,” Mattson said. “It’s about connecting with the people who can make a difference, and building a team that is passionate about it. I think it’s that way in any success story, and that’s certainly the way it’s been here. It’s about developing those contacts and connecting with those people who can make dreams come true, and can make big things happen, even when other people don’t believe in it.”