December 5, 2010

Between The Gates



Catching up with one of the fastest drivers in pro hillclimbing

Everybody has good days. Keith Curtis just piles them up 
seasons at a time.

Check out his stats: On the Rocky Mountain Snowmobile 
Hillclimb Circuit, Curtis entered 34 total classes over seven different 
events. He had 20 first-place finishes, four seconds and 
two thirds. That’s 26 top-three finishes out of 34 tries. 

And that was just last season.

Curtis, a full-time student at University of Montana Western, 
is entering his fifth season as a RMSHA pro driver—his fourth 
as a Polaris-backed rider. His first competitive hillclimb was at a 
Maverick Mountain event in 1998 near Polaris, Montana. Curtis 
finished well, and whatever happened that weekend had him 
hooked. 

He hit a full string of Montana State Snowmobile Hillclimb 
Association (MSSHA) events the next year. Brian Lovaas and 
Benny Finicum let Curtis ride along with them to the races. He 
ran in the MSSHA races for a while with those two and Chris 
Johnson, Colt Becker, Jesse Besecker & Dustin Rebich. Curtis 
says he looked up to guys like Shane Hart for the way he dominated 
races. Curtis wanted to dominate events like Hart, but he 
was smart enough to realize that those things take time. Hart 
was a seasoned veteran racer, and Curtis was an up-and-coming 
pro. The one thing Curtis may not have realized at the time is 
that his career would take the fast track to dominance.

His last MSSHA race was in ’06 at the Lost Trail Ski Area in 
southwestern Montana, near Curtis’ hometown of Dillon. A handful 
of RMSHA pros like Beukelman, Markovich and Zollingers 
were using the small MSSHA event as a chance to clean house
and show the divide between the two circuits. And everyone 
expected nothing short of that. Curtis had raced the World 
Championship hillclimb at Jackson Hole that spring on a MSSHA 
invite and got smoked. But Curtis had different plans of defending 
his home turf at the Lost Trail hillclimb. The big names 
showed up and saw Curtis win Mod 600, Mod 700 and Mod 800, 
also laying down the fastest time on the mountain of the day. 
Corey Markovich beat Curtis out for Mod King for the weekend, 
but by then Curtis’ eyes were set on something bigger: the full 
RMSHA circuit.

There are a few races that stick out like orange marker tape 
in Curtis’ career. Last winter, at the RMSHA Lost Trail hillclimb, 
Keith entered five classes and took home five first-place trophies 
plus Stock and Mod Kings of the Hill—a double crown. 

But the crowning event so far in his career as a pro came at 
the one race where the world seems to be watching—Jackson 
Hole. 

Two years after his first-ever invite to Snow King Mountain, 
Curtis showed up at Jackson in 2008 with Polaris factory support 
and left the mountain with his name among the Jackson 
Hole elites. 

Curtis had qualified first in Stock 600, Stock 700 and Stock 
800 during Saturday’s runs, putting him last on the hill for each 
class during Sunday’s finals. He scoped out the mountain as 
each racer in his classes made their runs. He had his line picked 
out when he rolled his sled to the starting platform at the bottom 
of the hill for his Stock 600 run. He remembers his sled 
being a little down on rpm because he didn’t know any better 
to re-clutch for Jackson’s elevation. Even so, he managed 
a smooth run up the hill, easily winning the class. In fact, he 
almost came to a complete stop mid-mountain during that run, 
but managed to get going and lay down a lightning-fast run to 
the top timing lights. 

Curtis says right after he found out he won the class, he 
shifted into a focused and determined state for the rest of the 
day. He talked to Brett Bateman about the way his sleds were 
running. Bateman changed the clutching in his 600, 700 and 800 
sleds. Curtis says he owes him still to this day for giving his sleds 
a competitive edge that day.

His Stock 700 run went as well as his Stock 600, winning by a 
good margin. 

As for Stock 800, it’s probably the most competitive class in 
the circuit. And with the number of drivers that had been on the 
hill from the start of the weekend up until Curtis’ run in the Stock 
800 final, the hill was torn up. But he was on a roll and won the 
class. His fourth and final class—Stock 1000—was his only falter 
of the weekend, finishing fourth after getting hung up in the infamous 
Rock Garden near the top of the mountain. 

Curtis was focused on his King runs. Each class win gives a 
driver a shot at King of the Hill in respectively Stock, Improved 
Stock or Modified. Then, the three King of the Hill winners 
square off for one final run each to determine King of Kings—the 
ultimate trophy to take home from an event as big as Jackson. 

Curtis’ three Stock wins gave him three runs at Stock King of 
the Hill. 

“My first run was on my Stock 600 and I was ready to rally. I 
was making a smoking run until I made it across the first cat track 
and took a wrong turn because 
the course was changed. I still 
remember (Tom) Roby telling me 
they changed the course but I 
wasn’t exactly sure where to go. 
I tried pulling the sled back on 
the course and about went over 
the handle bars,” Curtis explains. 

He went back to the staging 
area, grabbed his 700 and 
made his second run. “This run 
was a little rough and not as 
smooth as I would have liked. I 
was out by a couple seconds so 
I knew I needed to step it up on 
my 800.”

Curtis remembers coming 
down off the mountain 
on his 700. He had three 
consecutive runs for Stock 
King, and the crowd waited 
with almost as much anticipation 
as the other drivers to see what Curtis would do with his 
final shot at the Stock King title. 

“I reached the bottom of the hill and my dad had my 800 
warmed up and ready to go,” Curtis said. “Rick Ward was on 
the starting line and I will never forget the words he told me: 
‘You know you can take a minute and get your breathe back if 
you need.’”

Curtis took Ward’s advice, and sat at the bottom of the hill 
while the anticipation built around his final run. Nobody really 
knew who Keith Curtis was, but here on a sunny Sunday afternoon, 
he had every set of eyes at the World Championship hillclimb 
staring him down. Curtis’ 800 King run topped the times 
set by Roby and Vincent Clark, and both of the veteran drivers 
congratulated Curtis when he reached the top of the course.

“Those two were standing there when I reached the top, and 
I was so stoked I forgot what to talk about when the announcer 
interviewed me,” Curtis said. “But I did manage to thank my 
sponsors.”

But Curtis’ day wasn’t over. He had to point his sled at 
the course one more time—the eighth time he would climb 
Exhibition run that day. 

He lined up next to Les Keller and Kyle Tapio—the Improved 
Mod and Mod King winners of the day. The three would shoot it 
out for the coveted King of Kings title. And Curtis was up first. 

“I had another nice smooth run, almost as fast as my Stock 
King run. I had a good line picked out from my previous runs, 
which helped. The rock garden was getting nasty but I managed 
to wheelie up and over 
it,” Curtis said of making it to 
the top timing lights. “I heard 
Keller coming up and I was 
nervous because both his and 
Tapio’s sled had major motor 
improvements over my stocker. 
I heard his motor die when 
he got hung up on the rock 
garden. Next was Tapio on his turbo. He 
was rallying like he always does and then 
I heard his motor die at the rock garden. 
Once that happened I knew I had it.”

A relative newcomer in a sport dominated 
by a short list of regulars, Curtis 
had swept three of his four classes, won 
Stock King of the Hill and then beat out 
two mod sleds for King of Kings. 

“I still get a strange cloud 9 feeling 
when I think about that Sunday in 
Jackson Hole. I remember pretty much 
every detail like it happened yesterday. 
The snow was phenomenal and it felt so 
great to win those titles and I was proud 
to represent Polaris like I did the first year 
they picked me up for sponsorship. After 
the event was all said and done I asked 
myself. Did I really just win five World 
Championship Titles? And since that day 
I have learned a whole lot about sponsorship. 
If it wasn’t for my great sponsor base 
I would have never been on top of that 
mountain claiming the “King of Kings” 
title. All of my Polaris sleds ran great and 
felt great. I couldn’t have asked for better 
equipment. That is by far the most memorable 
event of my career.”

Aside from the RMSHA events, Curtis 
does a lot of backcountry riding. 

“One area I practice quite often is 
around my parents’ cabin near Polaris, 
MT. It’s more mellow riding but I have a 
blast going fast anywhere I go. I sometimes 
set up courses with Les Keller, Mike 
and Tyler Crockett, and Casey jump in 
Kalispell, Mt. We try to make the course 
challenging and once we get sick of 
practicing we go free ride. When I am joy 
riding I just go have fun but sometimes if 
something pops in my head about racing 
improvements I pursue it. Something that 
comes with free riding is more seat time 
which helps me on the race course. I like 
a variety of riding, anything from nasty 
hillclimbing through trees to meadow riding 
and trail riding. I feel that if you limit 
yourself to one type of riding it will limit 
your ability to ride in diverse areas. I like 
creek beds, It is fun cutting a line right 
above a creek bed. Makes it a little more 
interested when there is a consequence 
right below you.”

Always up for a challenge, Curtis will 
be competing in five classes again this 
season on the RMSHA circuit. He’ll run in 
Stock 600, Stock 700, Stock 800, Stock 
1000 and Mod 800.

Curtis’ sponsors for the season has 
grown to include Polaris Industries, 
Boondockers, EZ Ryde Suspension, 
Walker Evans, Black Diamond Extreme, 
Stud Boy, Starting Line Products, 
Adventure Cycle & Sled, Klim, SCS 
Vinyl Works, Napa Auto Parts, Western 
Power Sports/Fly Racing, Kold Kutter, 
CentennialLivestock.com/High Quality 
Beef, Carl’s Cycle Sales, V-Force, 
V-Notch Racing, Avid Products, ARS FX, 
Montaqua, 509 Goggles, Skinz Protective 
Gear and Avivest.






Wahl Brothers Racing
49'er Inn & Suites


Search SnoWest
| Promotional Offers | Contact Us | Subscription Service | Advertise | Media Kit | Picture of the Week | Content Archive |
© 2014 SnoWest® Magazine Published by Harris Publishing, Inc.