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WDH 0116 Snowmobiles 01
Jeff Leffel of Stratford, mechanic for Levi LaVallee, welds a bracket at Polaris Industries in Rothschild on Tuesday. / Dan Young/Daily Herald Media
Levi LaVallee's name is embossed on the seat of one of his snowmobiles at Polaris Industries in Rothschild. / Dan Young/Daily Herald Media

About the Team LaVallee mechanics

Joe Havel, mechanic for Kyle Pallin

Hometown: Greenville
Years as mechanic: Two with Team LaVallee
Scott Wilczek, mechanic for Jake Scott

Hometown: Lublin
Years working as mechanic: 13
Jeff Leffel, lead mechanic for Levi LaVallee

Hometown: Stratford
Years as mechanic: 21

See the sleds perform

The Polaris race team will compete this weekend in Eagle River, and the following weekend at the X Games in Aspen, Colo.
AmsOil World Championship Snowmobile Derby

• Where: Eagle River Derby Track, 1311 North Railroad St., Eagle River
• When: Continues today through Sunday
The Winter X Games Snocross events

• Snowmobile Snocross Adaptive Final and Snowmobile Snocross Final
• When: 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 27 on ESPN

About sled modifications

• Suspension package for better landing control, $3,750
• Data acquisition system to monitor the engine while racing and climbing hills, $2,500
• Custom handlebars, hand guards, $410
• A hand-built aluminum gas tank and custom seat, $1,360
• Tracks and studs for better traction and grip on snowy trails, $2,500

The rig that will carry the Polaris snowmobiles to Aspen for the X Games. / Dan Young/Daily Herald Media
Scott Wilczek of Lublin, mechanic for Jake Scott, works on wiring on one of Wilczek's sleds at Polaris Industries in Rothschild on Tuesday. / Dan Young/Daily Herald Media
Joe Havel of Greenville, mechanic for Kyle Pallin, works on a suspension mechanism at Polaris Industries in Rothschild on Tuesday. / Dan Young/Daily Herald Media
Mechanics Joe Havel of Greenville, from left, Scott Wilczek of Lublin and Jeff Leffel of Stratford stand behind a snowmobile at Polaris Industries in Rothschild on Tuesday. / Dan Young/Daily Herald Media
Levi LaVallee performs a trick at the 2010 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo. / Contributed photo

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ROTHSCHILD — Tucked away behind the Cedar Creek Mall, not far from Gander Mountain, is a tiny, nondescript steel building in which three men labor every day.

Their only job: Make things go fast.

Not just any things. Snowmobiles. And not just any snowmobiles. Exclusively Polaris sleds.

More on snowmobiling: Snowmobiling news from around the state | Browse snowmobiling photos | Find a new trail to explore

The Rothschild shop is the only factory-sponsored performance shop Polaris runs in the United States, and three guys inside — Jeff Leffel, Joe Havel and Scott Wilczek — are responsible for making sure Polaris race machines are faster, more maneuverable and tougher than the snowmobiles fielded by Arctic Cat, Yamaha and Ski-Doo.

Some of their machines will be tearing around the track in Eagle River this weekend at the Amsoil World Championship Snowmobile Derby. But the three guys won’t be there to see them, because they are arriving today in Aspen, Colo., to ensure that Minnesota native Levi LaVallee and his teammates finish on top at next weekend’s worldwide Winter X Games competition.

To get Team LaVallee tuned to peak performance, the three men have toiled for thousands of hours. They’ve traveled all over the country, and Polaris has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All to make things go fast.

“I just love what I do, I don’t really think about it,” said Leffel, a Stratford native with 21 years of experience who has been LaVallee’s lead mechanic for the last six years. “I don’t really think about who I work for, I just do my best regardless of who’s on the sled.”

Going for gold

LaVallee, a Minnesota native, started Team LaVallee in 2009 and has won a total of seven Winter X Games medals — four of them gold.

This year, he will be the only athlete to compete in four snowmobile events at the games: SnoCross, speed and style, freestyle and best trick.

That means his sleds must be light enough, strong enough and fast enough to launch him off enormous ramps and soaring through the air or to tear around tracks at speeds that would be illegal in a car on the highway, and then to return their riders to the finish line safely.

Sometimes, that doesn’t happen. LaVallee hasn’t competed for two years as he has recovered from broken ribs and a punctured lung he suffered in a crash while jumping his snowmobile 361 feet — more than a football field in length. But this year, he’s back to try for gold in SnoCross — an event he has yet to win at the Winter X Games.

SnoCross was added to the X Games in 1998 and features riders racing 60 mph over 30-foot jumps and through tight turns. In past freestyle and trick events, LaVallee attempted a double back flip on a snowmobile. He also holds the record for longest snowmobile distance jump — 412 feet.

LaVallee doesn’t come by the Rothschild shop often, but the professional racer works closely with Leffel to customize his sled. Each machine gets about $12,000 to $15,000 in modifications, including custom seats and handlebars, data systems and track upgrades, all in the relentless pursuit of speed.

“I recommend (modifications or parts) that will help him, and if there’s something he needs or wants, he lets me know,” Leffel said. “I love modifying the sleds, and we work well together.”

How it all started

Tom Rager Jr. owns the Rothschild Polaris Race Shop with his father, Tom Rager Sr., and Bill Rader. The trio, who all worked for Ski-doo at the time, opened the shop in August 2000 when Polaris hired them to run its struggling race department.

Their only stipulation: keep the business in the Wausau area.

“Wausau is the perfect location; we’re centrally located and it’s small enough to be affordable, but we still have everything we need close by,” Rager said. “It was important for us to stay here.”

As the national race manager, Rager supports about 15 riders and three professional Polaris teams during races and tournaments throughout the season. Rager said teams hire their own mechanics based on industry connections and networking.

A life of competition

Havel, a Greenville native, is Kyle Pallin’s mechanic. He worked with motocross athletes before joining Team LaVallee two years ago and now spends about three months before race season every year customizing Pallin’s sleds.

The mechanics are in Aspen to help tune the machines and maintain and repair them between races. Havel went to the X Games with Team LaVallee last year and was surprised by the size of the event.

“It looks so big on TV, so expansive,” he said. “But really, it’s just a few runs of a ski hill, similar to a section of Granite Peak here.”

Wilczek just joined Team LaVallee this year, but has been working on sleds since 1999. He works for SnoCross alternate and Pro Lite rider Jake Scott.

He said every rider has two main sleds that arrive at the shop every spring to be modified. Each year, the riders get all-new sleds because by the end of a season, they’ve taken a pounding and need to be retired. The mechanics usually start tinkering with the sleds in August, working six 10-hour days each week to customize them to the athletes who will ride them.

Every week during the racing season, the mechanics tear apart the sleds for cleaning and to check each part to make sure it’s in working condition. The season lasts from about July to April, and after competitions begin at the end of November, the mechanics are on the road constantly.

“People don’t realize how much we travel,” Havel said. “We travel to the riders (in Minnesota) to test the sleds a few times a week, and after the X Games, we won’t be home for another month.”

From Aspen, Team LaVallee will travel to the Deadwood Snocross Shoot Out Feb. 1 in Deadwood, S.D., and the New York National on Feb. 22 in Allegany, N.Y.

Neither Wilczek nor Havel is married to anything except the machines and the quest for speed. Wilczek spends April through June at home in Lublin — about 70 miles east of Wausau — then lives in Weston apartments with Havel the rest of the year while they work for Team LaVallee. While at competitions, the mechanics stay in a team motor home.

“You just have to love it — the countless hours put in on the sleds and time on the road just wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t,” Wilczek said.

— Greater Wausau is coverage that celebrates the good things about life in the greater Wausau area and addresses community challenges. If you have a story idea, email Editor Mark Treinen at mtreinen@wdhprint.com or call 715-845-0655.

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