CORMORANT, Minn. - It's early in the fishing season on Big Cormorant Lake and a group of childhood friends is about to remind local residents why they were once considered the town's noisy little hooligans.
With cameras rolling, CJ Lotzer straddles a snowmobile parked on the rocky shore. Equipped with a crash helmet, sunglasses and a life jacket, he guns the throttle and powers into the water. The snow machine doesn't sink. Instead, Lotzer streaks across the lake's glassy surface at a high rate of speed. The Arctic Cat's two-stroke engine is wailing and stunned anglers are cheering.
"Insane! That's incredible," Lotzer's cousin, Ben Roth, cries into the microphone.
And so goes another boys-and-their-toys video made by the "CBoys" — five outdoors-loving gear heads who have wheelied and crashed their way into YouTube stardom on the lakes and back roads of Becker County, south of Detroit Lakes.
The boys own an ever-growing fleet of souped-up snowmobiles, gnarly dirt bikes, quads, side-by-sides, Go-Karts, stunt cars, modified streetcars and Jet Skis that are central to their work. For partying and cruising on weekends, they rock a stretch limousine bought on Facebook for $3,500. The Cboys live a life of serious fun.
Now in their early to mid-20s, Lotzer, Roth, Ryan Iwerks, Micah Sandman and Ken Matthees are making piles of money with no support from day jobs. They profit from a run-and-gun brand of motorized action clips spliced together for the shortest of attention spans.
Self-taught and all-consumed by video production and merchandise sales, the co-creators achieved a major milestone this week by attracting their one millionth YouTube subscriber. The mark strengthened their national standing and won recognition from YouTube officials in San Bruno, Calif.
"Things are finally panning out," Sandman said a couple of weeks before reaching the goal.
Hits keep coming
No highlight reel of the group's 250 videos would be complete without the launch of a Jet Ski and rider over a gravel road — from one pond to another. Staged in 2019 using a homemade ramp, the stunt drew an unfriendly response from the Department of Natural Resources. Their rider, who crashed into the landing pond, was ultimately ticketed for not wearing a life jacket.
The CBoys once drove a teensy Smart car into a swimming pool during a failed jump. They later incorporated the vehicle into their private dirt track as an obstacle. They outfitted another Smart car with monster truck tires and a train horn. Anything for a laugh.
Nearly 3 million people have watched a video of Lotzer whirling around on a freshly frozen Minnesota lake in a shifter kart. Joining him on thin ice was dirt bike rider Evan Sheff, a friend admired by the CBoys for his fearlessness and skill.
On campus at North Dakota State University, one of their episodes followed a friend who eluded police after madly spinning doughnuts in a shifter kart. He was dressed in a hospital gown, crash helmet and boots.
"We're just kind of filming our lives," Sandman said.
Sandman filmed the first rudimentary CBoys videos in 2016 with a beat-up cellphone. To edit, the group used free internet software. It was a weekend hobby inspired by watching YouTube car videos, and it morphed into footage of their own hijinks. Matthees, for instance, blew up a snowmobile with fireworks.
"Word got around that we were fun to hang out with, and whenever we'd do something fun on the weekend we'd film it," Roth said.
Lotzer remembers when CBoysTV had seven subscribers and four of them were his own accounts. There were seven original members, and each chipped in $40 to buy a rundown Oldsmobile. Sandman said the purchase was an awakening. They spray-painted the Olds and ran it into the ground because they could.
"It was ours and we ripped around in it,'' Sandman said. "That's something we did many times because why not? It was just too fun."
By the spring of 2018, everyone quit college or quit their side job to meet the burgeoning demands of video and merchandise. As they attracted hundreds of thousands of followers, YouTube sold advertising around their spots. The paychecks from California now make up 35% of their income. Fans contribute much of the rest through online purchases of hats, hoodies, stickers, T-shirts and other stuff. Another sliver of income comes from product promotions.
Signs of prosperity
The CBoys don't talk much about money. They declined to say what they paid for the 75,000-square-foot headquarters building they bought last year. The space — located on the outskirts of Cormorant — contains an expansive shop, editing tables, a bar, offices and a warehouse. Interior renovations were added this month for $75,000.
The boys also purchased five new snowmobiles this month, including modified exhaust pipes for two of them. Another sign of prosperity? The CBoys have sponsored at least a dozen hefty giveaways to fans. Dirt bikes, quads and snowmobiles have gone to sweepstakes winners who earn chances for the prizes when buying merchandise.
Randy Iwerks, Ryan's father, said he never doubted that the boys would give it their all to succeed as YouTubers. He joined them once on an off-trail snowmobile ride in Wyoming.
"They ran into fans who recognized them and that's when I knew this was 100% real," he said.
Gathered for an interview at their shop, all five CBoys nodded in agreement when Lotzer explained their golden rule for making videos: "Anything boring or the least bit slow gets cut out."
Camera shots by drone are now common in their finished work as well as overlays of blues or hip-hop music. But YouTube watchers can be turned off by anything that's overproduced, they said. And while the boys regularly wow their audience with long wheelies, smoky burnouts, high-speed drifting and risky jumps, they also highlight wipeouts and failures.
"We're not pro riders and they don't want us to be," Roth said.
Key to their appeal, they said, is their friendship, gusto for the outdoors, and Minnesota's four seasons of scenery change. And while they've continued to have minor brushes with the law — including a $175 ticket this month for "careless operation" of streetcars on a frozen lake — they pride themselves on not putting others in danger or becoming a nuisance.
"They've come a long way from being just a group of boys piddling around," said Tom Olson, a community leader in Cormorant.
He watched them grow up as owner of The Cormorant Store, a gas station, bait outlet and convenience stop that now doubles as a CBoys landmark.
The boys listened to Olson when he suggested they get more involved in the community. They started a toy drive, joined the annual car show, and bought a booth at the Cormorant Daze celebration.
"People used to say they're just a bunch of kids tearing it up. Hellions, you know," Olson said.
In his analysis, the CBoys are magic on YouTube because people covet or relate to their upbringing.
"You can't tell me that if you lived in a rural area you didn't tear around on a mini bike or whatever," Olson said. "The only difference between us then ... is the cameras."