Faster Than Ever
4:00 am
Fri January 17, 2014

Not Your Parents' Sled: Vintage Racing in the 21st Century

This weekend is the snowmobile World Championship, expected to draw tens of thousands.  But last weekend was the World Championship for vintage racing.  

Vintage snowmobiles come in all stripes.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

Vintage cars, vintage records…but vintage snowmobiles?  That I had not heard of before moving to the Northwoods. I was curious about what draws people to the sport, so I headed to the offices of the Eagle River derby track for the weekend of the vintage racing championship. 

I interrupt the busy office clamor with my request.  Audrey Decker is wearing a vintage snowmobile  – black sweater with orange stripes, and fluffy lambs wool boots. 

Audrey Decker's son Chuck runs the Eagle River Derby Track.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

“And you just want to go watch the races for a little bit – Elmer why don’t you take her up to the lower hot seat area.”

Elmer Jensen volunteers with the event, and hasn’t missed a derby since 1986.  The hot seat area is a warm room with big windows overlooking the race track.  Snowmobiles look like small bugs on the starting line of the half-mile track.   I ask Jensen why he thinks people like vintage racing.  

“I think it’s a little less expensive.  A lot of older sleds around and that.  It’s not as expensive as the champ 440 class that they’re gonna race next weekend…that’s pretty big dollar.  So it’s a little more affordable, so to speak.” 

So Elmer says, vintage racing is more approachable for the average Joe.  Then there’s the nostalgia factor...and there’s the opportunity for tinkering.  Here’s spectator Mark Vozka talking with us:

“Part of the fun of this was you were always working on em…It was always fun.  Work all week to get it going, and then – yep.  They weren’t so reliable.  They sure weren’t. Now they’re pretty bullet proof almost.”

Outside the race area, Wisconsin Rapids Todd Haske is getting his sled ready for the weekend racing.

“A '73, 440 Starfire, for the world championship.” 

Haske says he and his brother and dad are all on a racing team together.  His Starfire sled is painted with the American flag. 

Todd Haske is driving a 440 Starfire from 1973.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

“Back in the day when they were made they were only made to race one season and then they’d throw them away.  Very few of these vintage sleds made it this far – they made thousands of em back in the day but they were destroyed by the factories.”

So to keep it racing, it’s been heavily modified.  He says it now goes faster now than it originally would have.

“Way faster.   About a hundred miles an hour, top speed."

All that tinkering must be paying off.  For another look at snowmobile history, I head to the official Snowmobile Hall of Fame.  Here I meet Craig Marchbank, President of the organization. 

“Arctic cat, Polaris,  Yamaha, you’ve got scorpion right over here.  Boy we’ve got all kinds of stuff here.” 

Marchbank is also a vintage snowmobile mechanic for some of the race teams. 

The International Snowmobile Hall of Fame displays dozens of winning snowmobiles in St. Germain.
Credit Natalie Jablonski / WXPR News

“Usually the vintage meets, there’s no egos, everybody’s passionate.  Vintage snowmobiles is like vintage cars, seems to bring everybody together.”

The Hall of Fame is filled with snowmobiles from throughout the ages…from glitzy to ice-cream colored, the oldest one here that dates from 1936.  The rickety-looking machine was made by Carl Eliason, credited with the invention of the snowmobile right here in Vilas County. 

“This is what they used to get around on in the snow.  Made of a lot of leftover parts I believe…whatever they could find and make it out of.”

While admiring a turquoise cruiser model from several decades later, I meet vintage enthusiast Roy Morrison.   He drove 14 hours to get here from Canada, to see his first vintage world championship. 

“Everybody’s got their hobby.  Not everybody, but most people.  Old sleds is ours and Eagle River’s a big deal – better go before I get much older.”

Morrison confesses to having not one, but multiple barns full of vintage sleds…or projects, as he calls them.

“Not all in good shape by any means, but we got a lot of sleds.”

At least they take up less space than that many vintage cars.