EDITOR’S NOTE: In the February issue of Snow Goer magazine, we looked back on the interesting snowmobiles that were being built around the turn of the millenium, by brands that were all attempting to be the “fifth manufacturer” to join Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha in the snowmobile market. Here is the lead of that story, together with information on the FAST Blade. Following articles will focus on the Redline, Scorpion, Manta, Trail Roamer and other interesting snowmobiles of that era.
Parked in front of his TA Motorsports dealership on a sunny June day, the Redline Revolt, FAST Blade Stryker and Scorpion TKX snowmobiles owned by Rich Rothmund cast a long shadow, and slow passing drivers.
Each sled, created around the turn of the millennium, was the result of big dreams held by designers intent on making sleds that could go faster, ride smoother or jump farther than those available from existing manufacturers.
Now though, a short decade later, they reflect a quickly bygone era that includes broken dreams of designers and investors. To say that Rothmund was a believer in the late 1990s/early 2000s quest for a fifth manufacturer would be an understatement: He had checked into becoming a dealer for each brand.
Sitting here now, the Redline Revolt still seems futuristic. The angular Blade looks like an early generation REV-chassis Ski-Doo, with unique touches of grace and notably sculpted suspension systems. The Scorpion appears low slung and tough, and more dated than the other two.
Others collect sleds from the vintage era, but a lot of people have Sno Jets, Mercs and Rupps: Rothmund’s significantly more rare and contemporary collection tells a different tale. “Each of these sleds has stories to tell, that’s for sure,” Rothmund says.
The Dream Sled Era
The snowmobile industry has been down to four major snowmobile manufacturers since 1986, but the race to be the famous “fifth manufacturer” was a crowded field a decade ago.
First, in the mid 1990s the well-connected FAST Incorporated announced plans to launch Blade snowmobiles. Before it could release many details, however, a trio from Wisconsin and Michigan showed drawings of their planned rebirth of the Scorpion brand. In the meantime, A&D Boivin was tooling up for a single ski snow bike called Snow Hawk. Snow Goer got to ride the first Blade sleds on March 11, 1999. Exactly 8 days later, though, a California company showed up at the West Yellowstone Expo with the Redline Revolt, a radical-looking prototype snowmobile.
Meanwhile, the cockpit style of snowmobile was back in play, with Manta and Raider founder Bob Bracey announcing plans for the Trail Roamer, while at the same time K&K Enterprises pledged it was bringing back the original Manta concept. Even Honda was openly researching the market and let Snow Goer ride a stand-up model called the Moto-Sled. Though that machine was a miss, Honda’s leaders said the brand was definitely developing an over-snow product.
Against this backdrop, specialty mountain machines were making their first big mark – Goat, Crazy Mountain Xtreme, Tison, RMI and Northern Lites were among the most high-profile builders, but there were others. We’ll save their story for another day.
This was all happening as the snowmobile market was coming out of the roaring ’90s – new sleds sales were booming, enthusiasm was high and many dreamers were convinced that they could build better snowmobiles. The question for some snowmobile industry insiders wasn’t whether there would be a fifth manufacturer but rather how many of these so-called Dream Sleds would survive.
Time, of course, proved those optimists wrong. Consecutive low-snow winters, overproduction by the Big Four manufacturers, a stalling economy and some naivety on what was involved in getting ready for manufacturing, particularly financially, doomed each dream. But looking back now, the energy and enthusiasm those brands brought to the snowmobile market was exciting, and is worth revisiting.
The Plan: With racing championships and deep ties to sled designs of several major brands, brothers Gerard, David and Randy Karpik were famous to snowmobile industry insiders long before they started FAST Inc., and by the early 1990s they were already changing the sport.
Most notable was the coupled FAST M-10, a bolt-in aftermarket rear suspension that brought modern long-travel and premium ride quality to a whole new level. But innovative minds like theirs never stop, and in the mid 1990s they focused their attention on building a whole snowmobile.
The result was the Blade line of sleds. They featured the M-10 in back and the revolutionary SLA dual A-arm front suspension; an engine that was reverse mounted in the chassis, with the carbs forward; a more-forward and taller seating position; a comp-link stabilizer system; a driveline system that eliminated the jackshaft and chaincase; a driveshaft-mounted brake caliper; and a sub-400-pound claimed dry weight.
Power for the first model would come from a Polaris 700cc twin, part of a supply agreement that also resulted in the sled having Polaris handlebars. Later announced models would have longer track options plus 600- and 800-class two stroke options as well as a big four-stroke V-twin from S&S Cycles.
What Happened: Getting from concept to production for FAST, as with all of these brands, took longer than expected. While the existing snowmobile manufacturers with large engineering and manufacturing budgets had the Blade to watch and target, team FAST ironed out details.
Production of the Blade, according to David Karpik, peaked in the 2002-03 season when 240 units were produced. Unlike other brands, FAST actively joined the snowmobile manufacturing clique, doing the same SEA testing and certification as the four major manufacturers, showing up at industry events and even being a part of the annual Rode Reports/Snow Shoot testing event. Then, the money ran out.
“It went down quickly,” David Karpik recalls. “At one point in 2004, we had 50 employees. Three months later, we were down to six.” There were many causes.
“There were planes flying through buildings [the September 11th terrorist attack], the tech market crash, four or five years of bad snow, overproduction by the manufacturers – all of that stuff started to come together and take hold,” Karpik said.
That said, FAST is still building Blade snowmobiles to this day – Karpik described it as “a handful a year – enough to keep the lights on.” Each sled now is a custom build.
Looking Back Now: The Karpiks now look at a snowmobile market that has many features of the original Blade – from the engine mounting system to the brake, the positioning of the rider to the angular shape of the body panels. If imitation is indeed the ultimate form of flattery, the Karpiks have a lot to blush about, but that doesn’t pay the bills.
“It makes me feel sad. Yes, it is a compliment, but it also reminds you how difficult it is to play in a field of elephants,” David Karpik said. “We learned that if you’re not financially prepared for the fight, then you’re not prepared for the fight.”
The Collector’s View: Dream sled collector Rich Rothmund shopped for awhile and eventually found the right Blade to buy: a 2002 Blade Stryker for a 136-inch track and a 700-class Polaris engine Craigslist. It’s the only drivable sled of his unique collection.
“The front suspension on it is still equal to anything produced by anybody, it’s amazingly well handling and riding, it drives straight – that front suspension is a work of art,” Rothmund said. “The rear skid is soft and plush. It’s not necessarily a big bump skid, but at the time it was built I’m sure it was superior.”