James Johnstad of Minnesota is used to defying the odds to reach his goals. The 18-year-old FFA member is a two-time National Snocross champion, but that title hasn’t come easily.
Raised on his family’s 7,000-acre farm near the tiny town of Beltrami (population 101), James spends his summers working sun-up to sundown helping his father David and older brother Andrew raise wheat, soybeans, sugarbeets and corn. David took over the family farm at the young age of 16 when his father Jim (James’ grandfather) was killed in a car accident.
David’s strong work ethic, which has helped the farm grow from 1,000 acres in 1971 to 7,000 acres today, has clearly been passed down to James, who balances his farm work with snocross, football, FFA and school. And he still manages to be on the honor roll.
He started participating in snocross when he was 10 years old, having watched his older brother excel in the sport. By age 12, James was racing in national competitions. At 15, he won two national championships in both the 14-15 and 16-17 age classes.
“Snocross is a lot like motorcross racing, except you’re on a snowmobile racing on snow and ice,” James explains. “There are lots of jumps and tight corners, and there are 12 to 15 racers on the track at one time.”
Race locations vary from outdoor tracks and ski hills to indoor domes and soccer stadiums. James competes in several states, including Michigan, New York and Wisconsin.
“I try to get people to come watch the races if it’s not going to be too cold,” James says, and then laughs. “They get kind of scared if it’s 30 below zero outside.”
“I have to work hard all summer to get to play in the winter, but it’s totally worth it.”
Like any sport, snocross has risks, and James knows that all too well. He has overcome injuries to his back and right thumb, and in February 2011, spectators at a race in Detroit held their breath as they watched James get run over by his own sled after a crash. Fortunately, he was pulled out from beneath the sled unharmed.
“The first person to run to the sled was his older brother Andrew, who lifted the sled and gave me a thumbs up to indicate James was okay,” says Marie Johnstad, his mother.
James says his mom and dad, along with Andrew and his older sister Kristina, are his biggest supporters and fans.
“It was a very proud moment when James won both national championships in snocross,” Marie says. “He has earned his way, and it shows as he is signed to race for Polaris with Judnick Motorsports again this coming season.”
But snocross isn’t the only thing that makes James’ parents beam with pride.
“We’re so proud of James in so many ways – we are proud of his willingness to help with whatever needs to be done on the farm. He drives the combine during grain harvest and is capable of doing any job on the farm,” Marie says. “We are proud of his eagerness to learn all about farming. Dave especially appreciates James’ knowledge about technology as farming becomes more technology dependent.”
After high school, James plans to attend college at North Dakota State University as an agronomy major and then come back home to work the family’s farm. He says he enjoys farming because he likes working with his hands and finds the new technology on tractors fascinating.
“I’m proud to be from a small town, where everyone’s a familiar face,” he says. “My graduating class is only 45 people, but I think you learn a lot more at a young age when you grow up in a small town.”
During the upcoming 2011-2012 snocross season, James hopes to qualify for the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo., which consists of the top 24 snocross riders in the world. James’ brother Andrew raced in the Winter X Games six times before retiring from snocross, and last year James missed qualifying by only a few places. The event will be televised on ESPN in late January.
“Once you win at nationals, it puts a big target on your back,” says James, with a competitive edge in his voice. “People really want to beat you.”
Want to follow James in upcoming races?
Check out his Facebook page (James Johnstad #154), which he updates with each new race.