A highly successful chapter in the history of the Polaris snowmobile racing program is nearing an end as Polaris Racing Manager Tom Rager, Sr., prepares for retirement at year’s end. Rager, who joined Polaris in August 2000 and has directed the racing program ever since, will be succeeded by his son, Tom Rager, Jr., who currently serves as Polaris Race Coordinator.
“It’s been a great career,” said the elder Rager. “I’ve watched my son grow and develop and he’s ready to take this thing on. He has worked hard.”
So has Tom Rager, Sr., who joined Polaris after spending over 15 years with the Ski-doo snowmobile racing program, including the final seven years as race manager. He has earned the respect of everyone in the industry, including owners of Polaris racing teams who have benefited from Rager’s ability to nurture a “farm system” of young racers who climb the ranks and become successful Pro racers.
“I think he’s the best race director in the business, hands down, no question about it,” said Scott Judnick, co-owner with his wife Colleen of Judnick Motorsports, a Polaris racing team for the past 11 years. “[Former Polaris CEO Tom] Tiller and [former GM Snowmobiles] Bob Nygaard knew what they were doing getting Tom, Sr., to come on board. They wanted to win and they wanted the best and knew what Sr. could bring to the table. Look at how the program has dominated for such a long time.”
Rager, Sr., joined Polaris along with his team of Racing Coordinator Bill Rader and Tom Rager, Jr., who originally focused on race sled technology and has remained a race team crew chief until this winter. The three formed a highly successful team known for treating teams fairly, successfully recruited young racers and helping to develop outstanding race sleds.
“We got involved with quality people like the Judnick and Hentges teams and Tim Bender, and we started building the program,” said Rager, Sr. “Then [the Polaris snowmobiling engineering team in] Roseau came through and built pretty much everything we wanted. The problem initially was that we were fighting with the [Ski-doo] REV [sled], which had just come out, but boy the guys in Roseau came through and built us a sled. Holy buckets, it’s still a good sled.”
Getting young terrain racers on Polaris sleds helped build a feeder program of future Pro racers.
“We just kept feeding the program and we knew in three, four years we were going to have a good crop,” Rager, Sr. said. “It’s fun to see success throughout the whole program, including terrain, ovals and hillclimb.”
“The whole thing that leads to success is surrounding yourself with the right people. We’ve got a tremendous team, in my mind. The race teams are the heart and soul of the whole program. We’re very careful about bringing a new race team on with Polaris, and they usually don’t leave.”
Among the highlights Rager, Sr., recalled from his years with Polaris was Carl Schibutzke scoring the first Pro victory for Polaris in a National snocross event in 2002 at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota. He also cherishes the first snocross points title ever won by a Polaris racer, TJ Gulla’s 2004-2005 Pro Stock championship.
Among the few low points during Rager’s dozen years with Polaris was Bill Rader’s battle with cancer and his passing away in February 2012. The two had been best friends for nearly 20 years, and coming to work without Rader around changed the landscape for the elder Rager.
“It hasn’t been the same for Sr. since Bill got sick and Bill passed away,” said Rager, Jr. “It’s not the same vibe for him.”
Rager, Jr., has seen his father’s leadership and accomplishments from up close.
“It’s going to be different without Sr.,” said his son. “The sport is going to miss him. I’m going to miss him. I’m lucky that I have such a legend in the sport that I can always go to for advice. I certainly plan on seeing him and spending a lot of time with him, even when he’s retired. The goal is to make this transition as smooth as possible.”
At year’s end, Rager, Jr., will assume the title of Polaris Racing Manager and his team will include Ben Hayes and Tony Swiontek, both of whom have been instrumental in development of successful Polaris race sleds and providing technical expertise to teams in every racing discipline.
Scott Judnick said of Rager, Sr.: “It’s going to be very hard for me to see him go and we’re going to miss him, but Jr. and his team are ready and they’re excited.”
“I think Jr. is going to do an outstanding job,” said Polaris snocross racer and team owner Levi LaVallee. “I was fortunate to have Jr. as my mechanic in my first year as a Pro and got to know him well. He has learned from the best and been side by side with his dad through everything. He’ll step right in and take off from where Tom, Sr., left the Polaris race department.”
LaVallee is among the many racers whose careers have developed under Tom Rager, Sr.
“Tom has been key in my career and in the careers of tons of other riders,” LaVallee said. “He’s really kind of like a father figure to the guys related to the racing department… He’s a really fair, honest guy and the more I deal with different people on different things with my team, the more I realize how awesome he is for being a straight forward guy.”
Rager, Sr., and his wife Janet plan to travel and even spend part of the winter in the south, a far cry from the snowy northern racetracks that have been his workplace for nearly 30 years.