Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series.
When Gary Foster retired from Hormel in 1984, he didn’t want to stop working.
He just wanted to channel his energy elsewhere.
For the better part of the last 40 years, Foster has been riding his vintage snowmobiles competitively in and around Iowa. As his accolades grew, so did his stature in the racing community.
Foster still finds it hard to put a number on the number of races he’s competed in, but a rough calculation was around 400.
The number of victories and championships? Let’s just say numerous.
Foster is not one to boast or brag, so the humble 82-year old driver just says, “It’s been a lot.”
The snowmobile guru started racing competitively in 1982, and ever since, he has been a big part of snowmobile drag racing.
When Foster’s daughter, Ann, married Joe Thelen in 2007, Joe quickly became a frequent passenger on Foster’s snowmobile journeys.
“It’s just amazing how nimble and strong as he is out there,” Thelen said. “A lot of times, it’s just me and him lifting the snowmobile. He’s very sharp and hardworking and knows what’s going on.
“He can out work any of us.”
Foster continues to win to this day. He just took a race in Waconia, Minn., and had two victories in Okoboji last year.
“He wins a lot of the time,” Thelen said. “A lot of the racers will talk to him and (seek advice). They’ll give him phone calls and just talk to him.”
Thelen, who has been making trips with Foster for 10-plus years, says the veteran racer deserves credit for his unending work ethic and a willingness to help.
“He is very honest and likes the simple things,” Thelen said. “When he does something, he wants to do it well. He’s very humble.
“He does his talking on the track and lets the sled do it for him.”
Ann has enjoyed seeing her dad help other competitors.
“The people in the racing circle are an extension of family for my dad,” Ann said. “Some knew my brother, too (Tom, who passed away in 1984). These people — his friends and surrogate family — mean the world to my dad.
“He likes the younger racers to be involved in the sport.”
Foster doesn’t race for accolades or awards. He does it because he has a passion for snowmobiling.
“It just makes you feel good and proud that you set a good example,” Foster said.
Friends and opponents appreciate his perspective.
“Back when Gary first started, snowmobile racing was big,” said Chad McCoskey. “It wasn’t uncommon to see 300 to 400 people racing. It’s not quite as big now as in the 1980s or 90s, but at some of the bigger shows, there can be anywhere from 100 to 150 people that are still participating.”
Here is what a few of the snowmobile drivers have to say about Foster:
(Point and Shoot Drag Racing)
“I have know Gary since the early 1990’s,” Kruger said. “That’s when my brother Tracy and I started getting serious about snowmobile drag racing. We were young and Gary as a very experienced racer at that time, and it showed. We never beat him back then and I remember when we came to a new race, and Gary was there, we already excepted we were going to get beat, he was that good.
“It wasn’t until the later years that I personally became friends with him. He lost a son, and after a few years, he restored his son’s race sled. He had my brother Tracy repaint it. Two years later my brother (Tracy) was killed in a home invasion. Gary and I have been great friends ever since. We both have that loss in our lives, and I think that is what brought us together.”
“In his later years we have gotten Gary to finally share some of his secrets that has made him such a tough competitor,” Kruger said. “He is very meticulous on how he set up his sleds for racing. In his early years he has beaten some of the top names in racing at the World Series Ice Drags. Gary was known more in the Iowa and Minnesota area, but top racers from Michigan never heard of him until he showed up at the big races that brought racers from all over.
“Dave Dunigan was a big time racer from Michigan. Dave had lots of money and sponsorship backing. Gary was able to beat him at the world Series race. The joke after that race was, Dave told his friends he got beat by some Hog Farmer from Iowa. I don’t think Gary ever raised hogs, but Dave didn’t take to kind of getting beat by someone he has never heard of.”
I put on a race here in Waseca MN every Febuary, as a memorial race to my brother and nephew,“ Kruger said. “Gary has been here every year, and his sleds are still winning today. He is a great friend, tough competitor, and a fun guy to hang around with after the races.
“He spoke about hanging it all up in the near future. I hate to see it come to an end as it has been such a big part of his life. I think it has kept him going after his wife passed away a few years back. He is truly will be missed by many if he chooses to quit, although I can still see him coming to the races as a spectator.”
Paul Hanson (friend and opponent of Foster)
“I’m 66 years old and I’ve learned a lot from him. He kind of adopted me as a son,” Hanson said. “He has had the same sled since we first met, and even if he had a lot of money, you wouldn’t know it.
“When I first met him at Coralville, we were racing against each other. When we were racing at 750 (feet) toward the end of the race, he would just speed by me. We would look around and say, ‘Who the heck is that ahead of me?'”
Hanson admires Foster’s drive.
“He is a pretty good friend and competitor,” Hanson said. “We were very competitive with everyone and each other. Gary is very good with tuning and knows how to do it.”
Phil Allen (who used to ride with Foster)
“He was always a leader and a winner. If you asked him a question, he always had an answer,” Allen said. “He is still at the top of his sport, and I don’t know what else he has to prove. Some people like to brag and roll up to races with stickers saying how many races they’ve won on the side of their trailer. Gary has a black trailer with nothing on the side.
“When he pulled up, though you knew he was there.
“He’s still running the exact same snowmobile and everyone has been chasing him. Nobody has caught him. It’s a tough game to stay ahead in snowmobiles. The distance has changed from 750 (feet) to 660 to 500 now. Gary has just adjusted to all of that. He is a wonderful man; he would stop and talk to anyone and everyone and help whoever needed.”
Chad McCoskey (friend and competitor, originally from Independence who currently resides in Indianola)
“I met Gary in the early 90s,” McCoskey said. “What I’ve always liked about Gary is he is very straight-forward. The thing that made me gravitate toward Gary was that is very polite and nice to everyone. He’s very friendly.
“He’s always willing to help people on the track. Whatever happened on the track stayed on the track. He’s a great sportsman. His sportsmanship was very stellar and always very noticeable.
“People that are in their 60s wouldn’t get on something like that. My grandma always said, ‘If you keep moving and your joints are staying limber, you’ll live longer.’ She lived to be 101. He is very inspiring. Even at my age of 42, I have aches and pains, then I think about Gary and wonder why I’m complaining. He stays driven and is an inspiration to us all.”
Jeff Frye (friend of Foster)
“I met him when I was 18 and first started riding competitvely,” Frye said. “Gary shows up to win … he’s not there for a participation trophy. The three most important tools in his bag are, 1) A 3/4 square of oak, almost 18 inches long; 2) a piece of steel bar; 3) and a paint stick with marks to check his fuel. He’s very old school.
“Gary is a great guy who loves his country and family. I wish there was more Americans like him. He went to a race with me where he was helping me and not riding. We had to carry the sleds a long ways. I was getting tired toward the end of the day and I asked how he was and he said he wasn’t tired. I’m almost half his age and he was keeping up with me. His enthusiasm is above anybody else.”