Lincoln Lemieux was at home in West Barnet, Vt., in May when he received a text from his girlfriend saying that Tucker Hibbert had retired from snocross racing at age 33.
Lemieux was shocked.
Hibbert was the Michael Jordan of the sport, the all-time winningest rider who Lemieux idolized growing up. Later, Lemieux competed against Hibbert on the Amsoil Championship Snocross series.
The series kicks off with the 27th annual Amsoil Duluth National Snocross today through Sunday at Spirit Mountain, and the fact Hibbert won't be there racing hasn't sunken in for fans and racers alike.
Lemieux, a Ski-doo rider, along with Polaris rider Kody Kamm and Arctic Cat rider Logan Christian, are among a handful or riders who are favored to take the top spot in a wide-open race this year.
"It's pretty crazy," Lemieux said of Hibbert's retirement. "It opens up a spot on the podium every weekend, for sure, because he was so consistent and so fast. Last year he had one of the best seasons ever. He went out on top."
Just how dominating was Hibbert?
He captured his 11th Pro title last season, winning 11 of 17 finals and 27 of his 34 qualifying races. He kick-started the season last Thanksgiving by sweeping the Duluth National Pro titles for the sixth time in his career.
Who's going to fill those snow boots?
"I hope it's me," Lemieux said. "I think I'm one of the hardest workers, and I'm in better shape. I train as hard as I can."
Lemieux, who turns 25 on Sunday, has three wins over the last two seasons and was the only Ski-doo rider to win last year. In fact, only three riders won last year: Hibbert (11 wins), Kamm (five) and Lemieux (one).
Lemieux finished fifth in the points last season and should benefit from an improved sled.
"Ski-doo really did their homework," team owner Steve Scheuring said. "They came out with a fantastic sled. I feel 10 times more confident going into this year. Lemieux has always had the talent and work ethic, and now he's got the sled to back it up. I truly believe Lincoln will be the one filling Tucker's shoes."
Kamm was second in points last season, Christian was third and Petter Narsa was fourth. Kamm, 24, could be the heir apparent, having won the points championship in 2017 and coming off a strong end to last year, while the 26-year-old Christian will carry the Arctic Cat banner with Hibbert no longer in the fold. Then you can't count out veterans like Lemieux's old Scheuring Speed Sports teammate Tim Tremblay, 32, and Kyle Pallin, 27.
"Any of those guys could be really fast," Lemieux said. "I think it's going to be a really good season, with a lot of battling between different people."
There should certainly be more parity.
Hibbert leaves snocross as its most decorated racer. He burst onto the scene in 2000 by winning Winter X Games gold at age 15 and won at the Duluth National in his professional debut that fall. The News Tribune headline aptly read, "Kids Stuff." In his 18 years on the circuit, Hibbert won 138 of the 235 national events he entered in addition to 10 Winter X Games gold medals. He was so dominant, the Amsoil Championship Snocross series even adopted the so-called "Tucker Hibbert Rule," which made it harder for top qualifiers by inverting the starting order for the final.
Lemieux said he will miss that competition, even though it will mean more wins and podium finishes for the rest of the riders. Lemieux knew how difficult it was to beat the king of the hill, but when you did, it made it that much better.
"I beat him a few times, and it was just so satisfying when you did beat him," Lemieux said.
Hibbert's father, "Captain" Kirk Hibbert, also was an accomplished snocross racer.
"Honestly, I was a little disappointed, to be honest," Lemieux said of hearing the news of Hibbert's retirement. "He drove everyone to be better, to create better sleds, to have a better riding style, to have a better form of themselves. And when you beat him, you knew you were really accomplishing something. You were beating the best. You're still driving to be the best you can be, but he just pushed you to another level."
AMSOIL DULUTH NATIONAL SNOCROSS
- What: 27th annual world's largest three-day snowmobile race
- When: Today-Sunday
- Where: Spirit Mountain
- Tonight's featured event: $10,000-to-win Amsoil Dominator
- Forecast: High temperature of 41 today with a chance of evening showers; 36 for Saturday and 25 for Sunday
- Tickets: Adults, $40-$43 per day or $75 package; ages 6-12, $35 and $55; 5 and under free
- Shuttle service: From Proctor fairgrounds for $10 per car; from Powerhouse Bar for $7 per person, $15 for weekend