The year was 1995. Jim Phelan, current owner of Thunderstruck Films, came home from studying at Optometry school in Forest Grove, Oregon to see his family and friends in Helena, Montana.
A couple of his friends, Tony Sabol and Mark Coverdell, had recently purchased snowmobiles. His trip home in February of ’95 guaranteed tons of snow in the Gravelley Mountains near Virginia City, MT. Tony invited Jim down to try snowmobiling for the time. Jim arrived in Virginia City to find an amazing machine parked and waiting for him to ride. Jim had packed up his winter gear… Pack boots, an old winter coat, and some torn gloves. Since he did not have a helmet, Tony borrowed him one… A Metallic gold full flip-up front helmet with sparkles and chipped paint. Perfect!!
The machine sitting and waiting for Jim to jump on was a Polaris 340cc Trail Indy 2-up. Tony had recently purchased a Polaris XLT which he was modifying with loud pipes and deep-lug tracks.
The first ride Jim ever went on was amazing. Being in the gorgeous mountains of Montana was almost heaven for Jim. He ran out of gas over and over and each time Tony or Mark invited him to ride he jumped at the chance. By March of 1995, Jim Phelan was addicted to snowmobiling. So much so that he snow-checked his first sled. A 1996 Arctic Cat Powder Special 580cc.
Jim was always a “photographer” at heart, borrowing his Dad’s Canon AE-1 (so advanced, it’s simple), buying a 70-300mm lens for it and traveling the gorgeous state taking pictures of wildlife and cityscapes. By the time Jim met Tony, he had already taken photography classes and was joining the Carroll College photography class: this was the fall of 1989. Jim carried his Dad’s Canon camera everywhere, including on this first snowmobiling trip. The pictures Jim and Tony saw when they got them developed were amazing. HUGE jumps (3-4 feet high :), massive carves (if we got one ski out of the snow for even a second we celebrated), and epic cornice drops (again, 3-4 feet). All these amazing pictures drove Jim to buy his first Video Camera.
It was a sweet little handheld that recorded S-VHS video to MINI (compact) VHS tapes… Yep. That’s how Jim Phelan started Thunderstruck. Jim bought 2 S-VHS VCRs, an adapter so the Mini-VHS tapes could play in the VCRs, and he started editing footage that he and Tony and Mark had compiled over the season. Being fresh out of Optometry school, Jim used his Ophthalmoscope (a scope used to look into the back of a patient’s eyes) in his editing of his first film. He would print the titles on white paper, lay the paper on the floor, focus the video camera on the words/paper, turn off the lights, and then shine the scope’s round, bright light over the titles for effect. Yep, it was super cool!
By April Jim had met Trennis and Wendall Baer, friends of Mark Coverdell’s who also began a love of sledding. Trennis showed up for the first ride up by Choteau, Montana (Teton) on a Yamaha 340 Excel! No kidding… He now owns 1200cc twins with huge turbos, but he had to start somewhere!! More photos and video. And more. Mark was riding a Cat EXT 580. Trennis would point his 0.5 inch lug track up hill and at full throttle would still slide backwards down the hill! What a fun time!
By summer, 1995, Jim had lots of really silly footage and he decided to put it to music and have the guys in the film over for the first ever “Premiere”. Jim had titled the film VIRGINIA CITY VACATION and the stars of the film, Tony, Mark, Jim, Wendall and Trennis thought it was the bomb!! Excitement built over the summer as the guys set aside all their cash to purchase their new sleds for the following winter!
Christmas 1995 rolled around and all the guys had their new sleds. Powder Specials and EXTs everywhere and Tony kept his XLT. What a ball! The guys all branched out in the areas they rode, adding Lincoln, MT (The Copper Creek Bowls) and West Yellowstone (Lion’s Head) to their riding zones. Soon there was addiction in everyone’s minds…. Summer could not go by fast enough until the guys got their new sleds and ripped up the mountains. Jim took the footage from the “580” season and edited it into a funny little movie called BIG SKY X-TREME 1997. Over 30 copies of this film were produced, all on VHS of course because DVDs had not really been invented yet!
1997 brought out the Arctic Cat Powder Extremes. These were 600cc triples that we thought ripped and slashed! We added triple pipes and longer, deeper-lug tracks and took these sleds into nowhere-land! Although we had already slayed every bowl in both Lincoln and West Yellowstone with our 580s, it was a whole new ball game with the 600s. Louder… Faster… Climbed higher… AWESOME! As with any fun sport, new riders started hanging around and lo and behold, Jim had another bunch of footage by the end of the 2007 season. He went back to his VCRs and started editing again.
Tape to tape, tons of pausing and rewinding. If I remember correctly, there was over 30 hours of raw footage (most of it horrible!) for Jim to go through. And thus was born Jim’s third film, THUNDER MOUNTAIN EXTREME. Almost 90 copies of this film flew off of local dealer’s shelves, all recorded tape-to-tape at Jim’s house with folded covers printed on Jim’s home full-color inkjet printer. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Jim would sit in his house every night printing (one full color page used to take about 20 minutes!) and folding the covers to fit over the VHS tapes! He would buy Avery labels and print on them and stick them to each film. Thus was born Jim’s new business, BIG SKY X-TREME SNOWMOBILING PRODUCTIONS.
After registering Big Sky X-treme Snowmobiling Productions (BSX) with the Secretary of State, Jim had his business. And he had a plan. To sell tens of thousands of snowmobiling videos world wide… Little did he know an explosion was about to take place.
1998 brought the addition of several Arctic Cat Thundercats, 1000cc triple monsters, to the riding team. Trennis, Wendall, Tony and Jim all had Thundercats. It also brought the addition of the first Mini-DV camera to the Team. Yep, Jim was filming in digital!! The BIG SKY X-TREME TEAM took their monster sleds and cameras into the mountains and quickly got reputations for being crazy and able to do just about anything on our sleds. They never were jumpers, we really liked to climb right from the beginning. Their reputation started spreading statewide, and by mid season 1998 competition from other riders in the state of Montana brought all the big sleds to the Copper Creek Bowls. Crazy Mountain Extremes, Ski-Doo Mach Z triples, they all came and raced the bowls with the BSX team. What a blast. These sleds took punishment!! Racing over and over straight up the bowls all spring long!! So many good people and friends were made and many of them are still good friends today!
Summer 1998 rolled around and Jim decided to try making another movie. By this time, with digital footage and lots of it, Jim needed to upgrade his “Editing Suite”. Luckily, his job as a Private-Practice Optometrist in Helena was treating him very well and he went out and bought a new computer and a titling machine. The computer could edit the footage from his Mini-DVD camera and the titling machine would add titles right over the footage!! SWEET!!! And in August, 1998, Jim’s 4th film, ROCKY MOUNTAIN THUNDER, hit the dealerships.
Jim dubbed VHS copies and folded covers for 100 copies of Rocky Mountain Thunder (RMT) in August and sent them out to dealerships on consignment. But by mid-September, the dealerships were sold out. Jim had sold his first 100 VHS tapes in one season!! But what now? One of the dealerships ordered 30 copies alone! Calls were coming in from dealers statewide and into Idaho for this “Rocky Mountain Thunder” film! Jim had no choice but to contact a VHS duplicator and have the tapes professionally dubbed, printed and shrink-wrapped. Jim ordered 300 more copies. He put 10 copies of RMT away in storage and sold and gave away the other 290 copies.
Jim was a very hum-ho guy back them. He had started BSX on the principles of LOVE OF THE SPORT and it just so happened he carried cameras everywhere he went. The guys had fun riding and wrecking and watching the finished films Jim put out… but a trip to Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho to sell some copies of RMT to the dealers there changed Jim’s life forever. He walked into one of the local dealerships out there with a copy of RMT in his pocket. This dealership had a multitude of TV screens running snowmobiling videos on them!! Jim first thought, “Cool, they already have my films in stock!” but then he heard the song playing on the video. It was a Metallica song. And Jim did not use Metallica songs on his film. He watched the film for a minute or 2 before he realized it was SOMEONE ELSE’S film!! WHAT?!?!? Someone else made snowmobiling films too?????
Jim asked the salesperson what the film was called. It was an old Marc Fry Film. The EXTREME TEAM (Marc Fry’s Riding buddies) were blazing up the screens, and Jim got a bit excited, but then got a bit depressed. He should have done his homework. Not only were there other snowmobile films already in existence, one of them (The Extreme Team) had a name JUST LIKE JIM’S (Big Sky X-treme Team)!!!
The dealership said they were allegiant to Marc Fry and Jim walked out without a sale. Dejected but with renewed enthusiasm, Jim went to the next dealership… They also had snowmobile films already for sale. SLEDNECKS and 2-STROKE COLD SMOKE. Wow. Jim had some work to do and some changes to make.
The 1998 Thundercats ran so well that they were the first sleds the Big Sky X-treme Team kept for more than 1 year. They filmed all year in 1999 with these sleds again, but this time they did not put a movie together. Jim was still thinking.
By the year 2000, Jim had lots of great footage but nothing to do with it. Some of the guys had purchased the year 2000 Thundercats, but they did not run like the 1998 Thundercats did. These Thundercats… Thundercats…. Jim had an epiphany! He would call the next film THUNDERSTRUCK because of all the Thundercats in it!!
And THUNDERSTRUCK was born. Since Big Sky X-treme Snowmobiling Productions was already filed as his business name, Jim kept that and did a DBA name of Thunderstruck Films. THUNDERSTRUCK FILMS was born. TEAM THUNDERSTRUCK was born. No more confusion with the Extreme Team from Washington.
Now it was time to enter the market of snowmobiling films and run with it. Jim started contacting sponsors, showing them RMT and praying he could strum up some cash to produce a new film. He quickly realized that cash is everyone’s friend and no one wants to give it away. In lieu of cash, many companies he contacted promised free gear and oil and such for the riders. Jim thought, OK, that’s cool.
BUT THEN, NEAR TRAGEDY… Team Thunderstruck loaded up and hit the West Yellowstone Expo in March of 2001. We set up a booth-inside-of-a-booth with Orion Trailers and Sleds selling copies of RMT. Jim and the guys loaded up on a sunny day and headed for Lion’s Head, about 10 miles west of the Expo. The day went without incident until afternoon when Trennis Baer tried climbing a now famous chute and the wind-loaded snow at the top broke loose. A large and very fast avalanche ensued and Trennis was buried. We found him and dug him out in time but it truly was a life-changing experience for all of us. Lots of tears were shed and lots of lives re-born. We vowed to one another to study avalanches and how and why they happen. And although if you’re in the backcountry you are in avalanche country and we learned everything we possibly could, another avalanche would come down a year later and change Jim’s life forever again…
Then the call came. It was October, 2001.
“Hello, this is Jim.”
“Is this Jim from Big Sky X-treme?”
“Yes it is.”
“This is Wade Durbin calling from Western Power Sports, do you have a few minutes?”
Jim was all ears. He listened as Wade talked about the sled film industry and how he and someone he worked with that thought RMT had potential. Wade wondered if Jim was going to produce another film in the near future. Jim told Wade he had tons of GREAT footage and would love to produce a another film. Wade told Jim that if he did produce one, Western Power Sports and Fly Racing (owned by WPS) wanted to be the primary Sponsors of the film.
BOOM. The explosion Jim had been waiting for just happened…
August 2002 saw the release of a film called THUNDERSTRUCK (which included Trennis’ world-famous footage of his avalanche), with WPS and Fly Racing logos flying proudly on the cover. By this time DVDs had overtaken VHS in sales but Jim still had to order some VHS. What to do? How many to order? Jim took a leap of faith and ordered 2500 VHS and 2000 DVDs. Yes, 4500 copies!
From 400 copies of RMT to 4500 of Thunderstruck?? Was he crazy? What was he thinking??
On August 12, 2002, every dream of a home-based, supplemental-income business came true for Jim Phelan. Western Power Sports, a major snowmobiling gear distributor, order 1000 copies of Thunderstruck on VHS and 300 copies on DVD…
1300 copies… One distributor. WOW. And then the phone started ringing… Impact, an Extreme Sports Film Distribution Company, called from California. They wanted 1200 copies of VHS and 1375 copies of the DVD!!! THUNDERSTRUCK was an instant smash!
TO BE CONTINUED……