Keith Curtis Interview
Keith Curtis is kind of like the Tiger Woods of hillclimb racing, minus all the scandal. Like Tiger, he has dominated his respective sport at a young age, earning over 140 1st place finishes, 51 King titles, and 27 World Championships in his short career. Unlike Tiger, he still has backing from a host of heavy-hitting sponsors!
Although racing is his main gig, Keith has also found time here and there to put together a few awe-inspiring backcountry segments in films such as Fourcast2 and the 509 Volume series.
Whether he’s punching up a rutted, trenched hillclimb racecourse or slaying ultra-technical lines in the backcountry, Keith’s riding is always super-impressive and exciting to watch.
We managed to catchup with Keith for a quick interview on his way to Afton, WY last week for the second RMSHA hillclimb race of the season. With the big Polaris 2016 reveal looming on the horizon, we wanted to get his impression having ridden the next AXYS chassis, and find out how things were going so far in the race season.
Checkout this great video from last weekend’s race in Afton, where Keith ended up putting together some impressive wins.
Mountain Sledder – Have you had the chance to get much seat time on the new Polaris 2016 AXYS prototype?
Keith Curtis – Yes, I’ve had probably 6 or 7 full days on it, and it’s made a huge difference.
MS – What can you tell us about it?
KC – It’s a total transformation. [Polaris] made one huge leap from the IQ to the Pro-RMK, and then they made another huge jump from the Pro-RMK to the new Axys. The feel is somewhat close to a Pro-RMK, so you can adapt pretty quickly to the Axys. I really like that. I hopped on the Axys, and it makes riding just that much easier, and I could adapt to it really quickly.
The best word that I could use to describe the new Axys is ‘alive’. And what I mean by alive is that it is lifted making it really easy to initiate a turn and really easy to tip on edge. It’s also a lot more forgiving, if you’re getting stuck, or climbing a hill or losing your balance, it is a lot easier to recover than the current chassis. There are a few reasons for that—the rider is actually 1 3/8” higher. They raised the running boards and they raised the lower A-Arm mount for the spindle, so the entire sled is basically lifted 1 3/8”. That makes a huge difference as far as the leverage point for tipping it over, and it feels really good. They’ve also changed the geometry in the skid, and call it ‘instantaneous lift’. What they mean by that is that it comes out of the snow even better than the current Pro platform, which is pretty incredible.
MS – What about the new track?
KC – So before it was a 2.4” Series track, and now it’s a 2.6” which is a little bit stiffer but it’s actually lighter. It’s a good track for all-around conditions—you know, wet snow, dry snow, icy snow, [spring] snow. It seems to work really well in several different applications. To me, that’s the best all-around track.
MS – What are some of the highlights about the new Polaris Axys platform? Is there one feature that stands out as your favourite?
KC – I would say the best feature is just how easy it is to ride. It just feels alive, nimble and responsive. Super easy to ride, I would say that is the biggest thing.
Beyond that, the new engine is awesome as well. It has a lightweight crank in it, and it lost over 2 pounds just in the crank. It gives it that light feeling in the front, and you’re able to really feel that while you’re riding it. An 800 feels more like a 600 for motor weight. The new 800 pulls hard—it pulls significantly more clutching than the old 800.
On top of all that, they lightened it up another 9lbs. They just went through the entire machine and took out weight wherever they could without sacrificing any rigidity or strength. They actually strengthened up a couple of areas. And what’s cool about that is that it’s 408lbs, and it’s got a big can on it. If you put a lightweight can on it, you could be right around that 400lb mark.
The new Axys body and the sidepanels are a lot narrower and would fit inside of the current Pro platform, which should give better sidehilling capabilities—you won’t wash out and can sidehill even steeper stuff, which is really nice when you’re sidehilling areas that don’t have 3 feet of snow. When you’re trying to hold an edge in certain conditions, it will definitely make things a little easier when you’re not washing out.
MS – Do you think the average sledder will notice a big different from the current RMK-Pro chassis, and will it help them to be a more proficient rider?
KC – Absolutely. I think what most people will notice is how easy the sled is to ride jumping from the Pro to the Axys. It’s a major upgrade, they did a complete revamp on the sled.
MS – Let’s talk about your racing season. You’ve dominated the RMSHA circuit for years now under normal winter conditions, but this has been an unusually warm winter. What were the conditions like at Bear Lake, and how did it affect your first race of the season?
KC – Snow conditions were definitely on the limited side. There was maybe a foot and half on the hill. So that makes it tough because you’re down to the dirt and ice and sagebrush and rocks right away, and it’s kind of unpredictable in a way, racing in that type of conditions. You’re trying to sidehill on ice and rock and dirt rather than snow, and I don’t as a racer practice in an environment like that, I go practice in a lot of snow. It’s always kind of tricky racing in low snow conditions like that and it’s unpredictable but, you know, it’s a season opener and I’m glad the race happened but I’m excited to move on to areas that have more snow and technicality.
MS – You’re on your way to Afton, WY right now. Are you expecting more of the same there, and how do you prepare for that?
KC – I think Afton is going to be a little better than Bear Lake, but then again there are more obstacles on the hill as far as stumps and trees and things like that. I think all-in-all Afton will be sitting better for snow because they are a north-facing slope and a little bit higher altitude. I think there should be a little more snow and the snow should hold up better. As far as preparing for the conditions when you’re racing on ice and rock and dirt, I guess if you wanted to you could go setup a course and get it down to rock and dirt but that’s not really my style. You’re kind of taking chances every time you race on something like that. But basically, you just want to get as much seat time as you can before you go to these races.
MS – For those not familiar with all of the different RMSHA classes, what is the difference between and King of the Hill and King of Kings?
KC – The only hill you can win King of Kings at is in Jackson Hole. That is where the Stock King winner, Improved King winner, and Mod King winner run against each other. At all of the other hillclimbs, there is just a Stock King winner, Improved King winner, and Mod King winner. But at Jackson they take those three Kings and run them against each other. The winner takes King of Kings. But you have to run the sled you won the King on. So most of the time the Mod King winner wins King of Kings, obviously because the sled is modified, but it happens every once in a while that the stock 800 sled wins because the conditions are tough, the trenches are deep and sometimes the stock sled is easier to manage in that type of environment. King of Kings is the top honor throughout the entire year. You can win Stock King, Improved King, and Mod King at all the other races but King of Kings is where it’s at.
MS – What kind of modifications go into your 800 Modified and Open Modified class sleds?
KC – The biggest improvement I make on a sled is putting a Boondocker turbo on there. It gives it huge power gains of course, going from 150hp to 250hp. Some of the other big changes I make are putting on Skinz Protective Gear Airframe running boards and a custom gas tank and seat that they made for me. EZ Ryde suspension makes a world of difference going up the mountain, absorbs holes and handles the racecourse really well. And I run my signature Fox coil-over shocks, which are new for this year, not even really on the market yet, but I run them on my mod sleds.
MS – Speaking of your signature Fox shock, what did you want to put into it that makes it different from existing aftermarket shocks?
KC – The adjustability. The mountain bike and motorcycle worlds have all these adjustable features where on a snowmobile shock there is just the conventional compression control. That just didn’t really cut it for me, so when Fox approached me and we started talking about rebound control and dual-compression control, you can pretty much count me in because it’s important to have the adjustability and be able to adjust the sleds suspension like you need to. It’s a high-end shock that’s very adjustable. It not only works well on the rac course, but you can also ride it in the backcountry and pound down trail with it, jump with it.
MS – What time difference on the course do all your mods make?
KC – It all depends on the racecourse. Typically anywhere from 2 seconds to 10 seconds, depending on how long the course is, how many straight areas there are, how technical it is. If there are areas where you can spool out the turbo and you can make up a few seconds on each straightaway, time adds up pretty fast. The turbo helps mostly on the straighter areas, but that being said, sometimes you need that extra power to get you up and over obstacles in a short distance.
MS – What’s your favourite class to race?
KC – Probably Modified 800. I think that is actually the biggest class too. It’s one of the more competitive classes, and there are a lot of high-end sleds in there—a lot of money. Stock 800 is another really awesome class, it’s probably even more competitive because of the fact that all the OEMs build their 800 tailored toward hillclimbing, so the manufacturers really want to see you win that stock class, because that means a lot to their company. If their 800 wins the Stock 800 class, well results speak for themselves.
MS – With your busy racing schedule, when do you find time to go freeriding?
KC – The first part of the race season I’m really busy getting sleds ready to roll, parts ordered up and getting everything on-track and ready to go. Once that first race hits and the sleds are ready to go, I have a little more time to go play in the backcountry. I ride probably 3-4 days a week, somewhere around there, depending on how the snow is and where I’m at. We also have bye weekends and I normally go riding on my weekends off. So I get a fair amount of time in the backcountry for sure. Racing keeps me busy enough where I focus on racing, and in the backcountry I just get to go out and have fun.
I did also recently put on a KC711 riding camp with 2 junior racers and 1 semi-pro racer, which was really rewarding for me, being able to teach the young talent to improve and build their confidence and hopefully do better on the racecourse.
MS – Would you rather spend a day charging up a hillclimb course, or playing in the backcountry?
KC – You know, there’s nothing like winning an event. Taking on that first place title, or winning a King title—nothing gets my adrenaline pumping like that does. So I’d probably have to go with racing. And then go hit up that powder day after the race!
MS – Do you have a favourite area that you like to explore when you’re not training or racing?
KC – Yes, absolutely. Seeley Lake, Montana. By far my favourite zone to ride in. It’s really playful, there are lines as technical as you want to get. There are big mountains but its more shelf-y, big rock, and you can pull off some really nice sidehills. It’s full of obstacles like rocks and ledges you can go up with steep little pulls and pitches. You guys up in Canada get a lot of snow up there, and I feel like Seeley is that area in the Northwest that gets that perfect consistency of snow where it’s not too hard but it’s not too soft. Just being able to hold a sidehill without your front end falling in like parts of Colorado, and then you don’t get the cement like California and that area. I’ve ridden all over the place and it’s definitely my favorite. I really like that technical aspect of riding and racing.
Special thanks to Keith for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us. Good luck to team KC711 for the rest of your race season!
To keep up to date with Keith’s activities on and off the racecourse, check out https://www.facebook.com/kc711 or kc711.com
Here’s a highlight clip from the first RMSHA race of the season at Bear Lake.