Remember when Team Highland ruled the ice oval

July 14, 2016

TEAM HIGHLAND CELEBRATES AFTER WINNING THE 1982 TRAVERSE CITY T.C. 250.

TEAM HIGHLAND CELEBRATES AFTER WINNING THE 1982 TRAVERSE CITY T.C. 250.

By Steve Landon

Authors Note: I have been fortunate to be a part of oval track enduro snowmobile racing both as a spectator, writer and photographer for a number of publications and newspapers since the late 1970’s. Had it not been for a little race team called “Team Highland” giving me my first chance to cover a snowmobile race in Marion as a member of the media I might have never pursued the career I have today.

“Team Highland” was one of the finest race teams I had ever had the honor of working with. Late team owner Basil Niver was the type of person you could always count on to lend a helping hand to anyone in need both on and off the track. He was always honest and never hesitant to give his opinion when he agreed or disagreed about a particular subject. His old fashion values and work ethic was without a doubt the key behind the team’s successful racing career and certainly an inspiration to anyone fortunate enough to have known him.

One crisp autumn afternoon a number of years ago I went over to the old “Team Highland” semi trailer to pick up a vintage sled that had been stored inside. The old girl (trailer) with her fading paint and rusty doors was still standing proud, waiting for her crew’s return. I could almost hear voices from her past as I stood by Basil’s old workbench. It was one visit that brought back a lot of great memories. “Team Highland” was indeed a class act that did more for enduro snowmobile racing than anyone will ever realize.

Recently I dusted off some old photos and revised a few stories about this fine small town race Team. Although it been nearly 33 years since the original “Team Highland” ruled the ice I felt it was time to share the story with a generation of readers who may not have known the tale of this legendary group.

IN THE BEGINNING

The sport of snowmobiling and racing was still in its infancy in 1968 when Basil and Francis Niver opened their Arctic Cat dealership on 115 outside of Marion, Little did they know that shop would become home to one of the Winningest teams in the history of endurance snowmobile racing.

Founded in the early 1970’s, Team Highland won 15 races, as well as several sprint races, the prestigious “Triple Crown” of enduro snowmobile racing and an incredible five Midwest International Racing Association (MIRA) season point championships.
Sadly, the 1984 season marked the end of “Team Highland’s” run that spanned more than a decade. At age 65 Basil Niver had accomplished what few team owners have or ever would accomplish in the world of motorsports.

From the mid 1970’s through the end of their career a visitor to Niver’s Highland Sport Shop Arctic Cat dealership would have been awestruck by the trophies and pictures that traced the team’s history of wins and memories. Basil was always quick to point out that it had taken a lot of work and, most of all, teamwork to achieve the awards he so proudly displayed.
Team Highland came into existence in the early 1970’s when Basil and hunting buddy Dave Yarhouse of Evart, Mich., tuned up an Arctic Cat Puma and entered a snowmobile hill climb. They had been bitten by the racing bug and soon began to enter oval track, sprint races and an occasional cross-country race whenever possible.

TOM ST. JOHN POWERS THE “HIGHLAND SPECIAL” TO ANOTHER VICTORY. ST. JOHN CONTINUED TO RUN SNO PRO ARCTIC CATS UNDER SLED #9  FOR A FEW MORE YEARS FOLLOWING THE  TEAMS RETIREMENT.

TOM ST. JOHN POWERS THE “HIGHLAND SPECIAL” TO ANOTHER VICTORY. ST. JOHN CONTINUED TO RUN SNO PRO ARCTIC CATS UNDER SLED #9
FOR A FEW MORE YEARS FOLLOWING THE
TEAMS RETIREMENT.

In 1974 Basil and Dave went up against the factory racing teams at the World Snowmobile Olympus sprint races in Ironwood, Mich., Much to the surprise of just about everyone on hand, they grabbed the Governors Cup and two medals. One thing was clear the “Highland Sport Shop Race Team” was for real!

The following year, 1975, Niver and Yarhouse enlisted the help of family members and moved on to the oval track enduro circuit. They continued to race under the “Highland Sport Shop Race Team” banner eventually changing it to ”Team Highland”. They stenciled their name on an old wooden trailer and added Basil’s son Don and son in-law Jim Ryan Jr. to the pit crew. Success was not far off for the team, in fact they won the State High Point Championship their very first season on the circuit. In 1976 there second year, they won the Alpena Thunder Bay 250, the season High Point Championship and the Triple Crown of enduro racing which consisted of races in Alpena, Traverse City and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Before long the old trailer was replaced with a sharp looking Semi-trailer complete with a workshop and sleeping quarters. The rig was unique to snowmobile racing at the time and proved very popular with fans.

The 1977 season looked good for the Highland crew who were expected to rule the iced ovals of the enduro circuit once again. Rule is exactly what they did going on to win their third straight season point championship along with the Alpena Thunder Bay 250. Sadly the title run would be without driver Dave Yarhouse at the helm of the team’s Arctic Cat.

During time trials at Alpena, Yarhouse was involved in an accident that left him with multiple fractures that kept him in the hospital during the race. In the true spirit of teamwork Dave was not to be left out of the action. He kept in contact with the team via C.B. Radio from his hospital bed helping the crew as well as drivers Dan Hayes and Roger Britt whenever possible.

Britt joined the team prior to Dave’s accident, he remained with them through their retirement. Prior to joining Highland Britt, a farmer from Turner, MI had been racing at various local races since 1969. He later teamed up with Tom St. John and proved to be a prominent figure in the team’s success.

Tom St. John of Midland, Mich., had been racing in one form or another since age seven. He joined Team Highland purely by accident. While doing an insulation job in the Marion area one fall day, he decided to visit Basil’s dealership.
“Arctic Cat had just put out a new sled and I wanted to get Basil’s opinion on it,” explained St. John. “The rest is history.”

One thing led to another and St. John agreed to drive for the team. Prior to joining Team Highland, St. John had been involved in sprint racing and had won the Alpena-Thunder Bay 250 in 1971. With the exception of a few brief farewell laps run at Lincoln in 1984 by Dave Yarhouse the main body of drivers consisted of Roger Britt and Tom St. John until the teams’ retirement.

Back when Arctic Cat ceased operations in the early 1980’s many drivers and race teams thought it was the end of the line and began looking for new equipment to stay competitive. Not one to give up easily Basil and “Team Highland” would go on to win the Lincoln Lions 250, North American Cup at Eagle River and the MIRA High Point Championship – with a 1980 Sno-Pro Arctic Cat. Through it all the team’s faith in Arctic Cat never wavered.

Perhaps one of racing biggest duals came in the late 1970’s and early eighties when the battle was between Dan Kirts of Benner Racing and Team Highland. Week after week these two teams put on one of the most exciting shows in racing.
Sometimes other teams were left wondering why they even showed up to race this hard to beat duo. The classic battles are still talked about today from fans and old drivers who were fortunate enough to be around.

Despite having such a winning record Niver’s only regret was not having won the Soo I-500 in Sault Ste. Marie Mich. His last chance sadly ended with a blown engine after leading most of the 1984 I-500. Driver Roger Britt was running a smooth race when he lost the sled in some loose ice, unhurt Britt climb back on and continued racing not realizing that his sleds radiator hose had been severed in the accident until it was too late, the loss of coolant spelled the end to Niver’s I-500 hopes.

Even with the Soo I-500 loss it will be hard for any diehard race fan to forget “Team Highland” and the many drivers that etched their names in the ice under Basil’s command. Drivers like Dan Hayes, Roger Britt, Dave Yarhouse, Roger Avram, Alan McQuestion, Steve Bilacic, Larry Ranson, Dan Swiler and of course the ever-young Tom St. John, all give us memories that will live forever.

TEAMWORK

Teamwork was a trademark of “Team Highland”. From day one, the family had been involved with everything from lap counting to monitoring the coffee pot. Similar to Indy Car or NASCAR racing, enduro crews stand at the ready waiting for that all-important pit stop where a few seconds too long can make the difference between victory and second place.

Teamwork at Highland went far beyond the confines of the team’s pit area. Each weekend you could find Basil working on other sleds even if he wasn’t quite ready with his own. Helping the competition is not unusual in enduro racing. From the days of “Team Highland” to the present enduro teams have and continue to help each other.

An example of Niver’s willingness to help others came in 1983. While working to get his own sled ready for a race, Basil was asked to help out a fellow team that was having difficulty preparing a clutch. Unable to fix it, Basil simply handed the guy a new clutch with the instructions to bring it back at the end of the race. The competing driver was simply speechless. Basil’s explanation was simple: “We need them, they are our tomorrow around here so I help out where and when I can.”
It was because of that hard work and teamwork that “Team Highland” will never be forgotten.

IN ONE OF HIGHLAND’S FEW DISCOURAGING  MOMENTS, BASIL ATTEMPTS TO BREATHE LIFE  BACK INTO A DYING MOTOR.

IN ONE OF HIGHLAND’S FEW DISCOURAGING
MOMENTS, BASIL ATTEMPTS TO BREATHE LIFE
BACK INTO A DYING MOTOR.

SECRET TO SUCCESS

According to team members, Team Highland’s success had a lot to do with Basil, “the man with the golden wrench” or “the “Bear”, as his family and friends knew him. His ever-loyal crew and outstanding drivers were truly the glue that led the team to greatness. Basil also gave a great deal of credit to Arctic Cat’s Roger Skime who was always at the ready to answer any questions that might have come up.

HALL OF FAME

“Team Highland” received a special honor when it became the first full race team to be inducted into “The Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame” during induction ceremonies held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, November, 14, 1992.

The Hall of Fame was established nine years earlier to recognize past and present Michigan residents who have contributed to motor sports both on and off the track.

The induction came after three years of pursuit by former “Team Highland” driver Roger Britt. A member of the Motor Sports Hall of Fame Board of Directors, Britt, worked to have the full team inducted into the hall. In the past only individuals not team or groups were inducted. Thanks to his efforts and those of others, every member of the Highland Team became a part of Michigan’s proud motor sports history.

“I feel really honored to be a part of the Hall of Fame, our team worked hard over the years and it’s nice to know all of them will get the recognition they deserve, not just one individual. Our racing success was certainly a team effort. Roger Britt and a number of other people worked hard to get our team inducted, we owe all of them our deepest appreciation,” said Basil Niver following the induction ceremony.

While the team has been nominated they have yet to enter the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St. Germain, Wisconsin.

SELLING THE SHOP

In August of 1990 Basil and Francis sold their Arctic Cat dealership to Dennis and Sandy Tomczak, closing the final chapter of one of snowmobiling most colorful careers.

At age 72 Basil wanted to run life at a little slower pace, however, Dennis Tomczak said Basil was always willing to lend a helping hand as he worked his way through the first year as a dealer and Formula 56 class racer.

Tomczak and Basil had gone snowmobiling together over the years, when Dennis approached him about buying the dealership Basil admitted he honestly could not think of a better person to have taken over his business. He was very confident in the new owners and trusted them to continue the Highland name that had long been recognized for excellence on both the track and trail.

Prior to purchasing Highland Sport Shop Tomczak and his wife owned a semi-truck body shop. As avid snowmobiler’s they were looking to diversify, the purchase of a dealership seemed to be just the right move.

They’re tremendous people, I’m happy to have been lucky enough to have known them”, Dennis said.

Looking back how did Niver feel about the new faster performance sleds on the market at the time of his retirement? “I think the industry has gone too far and they’re building too much power. It is quite common knowledge that anything sliding is out of control, a snowmachine slides, so with all that power about the only place you can come close to running it safe is on a lake or a race track, it’s just a lot of power – Niver once said”.

Under the ownership of Dennis Tomczak the business was known as Team Highland Power Sports. Eventually Basil’s original shop was replaced with a new state of the art facility at the same location. Sadly the business no longer exists, a victim of Michigan’s sluggish economy.

GOOD BYE TO A CHAMPION

Perhaps one of the saddest days in the sport of enduro snowmobile racing came on July 25, 1996 when “Team Highland” said goodbye to their leader and team mentor Basil Niver. Basil lived life to the fullest in everything he did.

Mr. Niver was in the United States Marine Corps from 1944-46. He served in action in World War II in Okinawa and the islands in the Armored Tank Division.

EVEN AT REST BASIL NIVERS LOVE FOR SNOWMOBILE RACING LIVES.

EVEN AT REST BASIL NIVERS LOVE FOR SNOWMOBILE RACING LIVES.

He worked in Detroit as a tool and die foreman before his military service. He then moved to Marion, Michigan where he built an auto repair garage on M-115. He established Niver’s Transport Petroleum Company and Highland Sport Shop. He was operating Marion Sand and Gravel Excavating in Marion, Michigan at the time of his passing Basil was an expert marksman and shot in rifle competition for many years. He loved outdoor sports and anything mechanical. Mr. Niver sponsored and was mechanic of Team Highland Arctic Cat Snowmobile Race Team.

He was a charter member of the Marion VFW Post No. 6015 the National Rifle Association The Osceola County Republican Party and lifetime honorary member of the Midwest International Snowmobile Racing Association – M.I.R.A.

Basil’s racing legacy lives on even in death. A visitor to his gravesite will find his faithful #6 Arctic Cat etched on his headstone. Above his name is a pair of crossed checkered flags a fitting tribute to a true champion on and off the track.

CONCLUSION

“Team Highland” was indeed a gem among motor sports teams. While few may achieve the record they enjoyed – the legacy they left behind will no doubt inspire racers and teams of all ages for many years to come.

In 2009 Basil’s son Don along with son Brian, family and former team members built a new semi race trailer using materials and equipment from the original rig now used for storage. It is painted identical to the original trailer complete with sleeping quarters. At the A-1 Swap & Show in New Lothrop, MI in November 2009 the team was honored for their incredible career and tours were given of the rig complete with old tools and photos and original race sleds from teams amazing career. sadly it would be the last time all of them would be together in one place. Basil son Don Niver passed away in January 2011.
Today a new generation of drivers carry on the “Team Highland” tradition racing in vintage and current oval track snowmobile competition. Many race each year on the Marion Fairgrounds oval during the Marion Snowfest in February as well as on other tracks around Michigan. There is no doubt Basil and Don Niver are looking down from heaven encouraging the next generation on each and every lap.

IN 2009 TEAM HIGLAND WAS HONORED AT THE A-1 SWAP AND SHOW. DRIVERS, TEAM MEMBERS, SLEDS AND A RECONSTRUCTED  REPLICA Of THE  FAMOUS HIGHLAND SEMI WAS ON DISPLAY.

IN 2009 TEAM HIGLAND WAS HONORED AT THE A-1 SWAP AND SHOW. DRIVERS, TEAM MEMBERS, SLEDS AND A RECONSTRUCTED
REPLICA Of THE
FAMOUS HIGHLAND SEMI WAS ON DISPLAY.





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2 Responses to Remember when Team Highland ruled the ice oval

  1. BILL LABELLE Reply

    January 31, 2019 at 2:09 am

    I just read this article, albeit a few years late. I remember Team Highland very well, I should, I used to ride with Roger Britt a bit when he wasn’t racing. He and I and a few others would ride the trails north of Tawas at speeds that others wouldn’t believe. Having said all that, Roger wasn’t only great on the track but a good person as well. If you really want to do a nostalgic story, one on the racing history of AuGres area (including Turner, Twining, and Augres) would be a good one. That area was, and still is loaded with racing talent. Guys such as myself, although I didn’t win any state championships, I did over a period of years win 160 trophies, not to mention the times I took $ instead of a trophy. There were others such as Ken McLean, Greg Dewald, The Schuettes, Olars, etal that were big in the scene back then. One thing of note with Roger though, he won a state championship on a King Kat 4 cylinder machine that to this day I can’t figure out how he did it. That machine was so heavy, and Roger (as you know) is very big, it really was quite amazing. Getting back to the Augres racing legacy, we still have one individual who upholds that tradition, Troy Dewald is getting it done today. As you can see, there is a lot of history in that area, and still is today, and I think it would be an interesting story, although I realize it isn’t Marion or surrounding areas, but fasinating one and the same.

  2. Ray Fouch Reply

    November 13, 2018 at 7:31 pm

    Such incredibly fond memories of team highland. They were a total class act!

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