Perhaps one of the most colorful characters in the history of snowmobiling, Dorothy Mercer was truly unique. She finished third in the grueling I-500 cross-country race in a field of 300 racers, dominated select classes on the oval track and set speed run records, once clocked at more than 138 mph. And, legend has it, she could drink, hang with and curse with “the boys” as well as she could race them.
The article below, printed in the December 1992 issue of Snow Goer magazine, mentions that she wasn’t in the Snowmobile Hall of Fame, but she actually earned that honor shortly after it was published, in January of 1993, at the age of 48. Mercer died at age 65, n March 9, 2007, from complications from diabetes. Her stay in the snowmobile market as a Polaris factory racer was relatively short, but to those who knew her, her impact was immense.
Flashback Dorothy Mercer
Fastest Woman On Snow, Living At Speed
Published in the December 1992 issue of Snow Goer magazine
There is always a sparkle in her eye, and something rotten in the back of her mind that could scare the hell out of the boys from Roseau. She is from Lake Tahoe, Nevada, has been a casino card dealer and keno writer. She has ridden wild horses, dabbled in real estate, and was a legend before she was 25.
Dorothy Mercer believes in living hard.
She has worked in bakeries, gift shops, drug stores. She has checked hats and ushered in a theater. She has worked in a ditch wielding a shovel. She taught snow skiing and scuba diving, ran a water ski school and for awhile, studied business at the University of Nevada, Reno. But, in 1960, she bailed out of academia to join the ski team at Squaw Valley and the drinkers and partiers on the lake’s gorgeous north shore.
If she had wanted to control her hedonistic tendencies, it would have been no problem for her to qualify for a place on the 1960 Olympic Ski Team. But “Merce” didn’t pay much attention to order. And she didn’t pay much attention to rules, either. That bothers a former fiancé, it worries her beautiful and gentle mother, Carol, and has always inspired her older sister, Ella Mae Porter and niece and nephew, Frankie and Johnny.
Dorothy Mercer had fun and raced anything she could get her hands or feet on. She won some money at a casino in the mid-1960s, was a little bored, and bought a Polaris snowmobile. She raced against the men in the West, and beat most into embarrassment.
By 1970 she talked herself into a ride on Polaris’ speed sled, the X-2 at Lake Tahoe, and became the fastest woman on a snowmobile running at 107.01 mph. Within a year she was the first woman on a factory team, working for Polaris, and at her first race she blew the competition into the snow banks, winning four classes without breaking out in a sweat.
Merce’s wins to her competition were infuriating. Her first year with the factory, she won four races each – everything she entered – at Ironwood, Peterborough and Rhinelander. At Eagle River she took two out of two. She was 16th at the end of her first Winnipeg/St. Paul 500-mile race, the first woman ever to finish, and the following year came in third of 300 (and 298 men). To add insult to injury, she set the fastest time for the fourth and last day, taking the checkered flag before all the rest, including the event’s overall winner, Ski-Doo’s Yvon Duhamel and her own mechanic running in second place, Wesley Pesek.
In January 1973, she broke three world speed records at Boonville. In Class V, she drove an 800cc Polaris to 109.2 MPH. She took the X-2 to 112.6 MPH, 1/10th of a second faster than teammate, Jim Bernat. She broke the records in Class II at 77.9 MPH, and Class I at 73.3. On another occasion she took the Polaris Dragster, the X-3, to a women’s world speed record of 138.7 MPH.
“Yvon Duhamel’s machine was fastest,” Merce says. “He had a car engine in the Ski-Doo that only beat me by about a mile an hour. Ours had two 795s, all strictly snowmobile components.”
Surprisingly, she’s not in Snowmobiling’s Hall of Fame. Maybe somebody’s asleep at the sports hall of records. Dorothy Mercer is, without any doubt, the best woman snowmobile racer in the history of the sport.
Merce quit racing for Polaris in 1973, but never quit snowmobiling. In her back yard at Tahoe, she has six of her racing sleds parked in the corner. “I used to ride all the time,” she says. “It was ‘Let’s go Merce,’ so I’d take a flock of people with me and all they ‘d do is break everything and then I would spend all kinds of time fixing it. At the time I was unaware of how much parts and stuff cost. I just didn’t know!”
She laughs, hard, but because she couldn’t say no to her numerous friends she took the clutches out of them. “I didn’t have to lie to them, I could tell them, ‘The snowmobiles are broke.”‘
In 1973 a story on Mercer said, “Dorothy Mercer is 29 and she doesn’t like it. She has the feeling that her strength will sap, her courage fail, and that she will be left in the corner, just the remains of a tired, old broad.”
It hasn’t happened. Even though she’s had operations on both her shoulders. Even though her legs have been sucked into the pipes of a racing boat. Even though she’s wrecked a couple of motorcycles.
She looks much the same as she did on the Yellowstone track in 1972. Round face with big blue eyes, carefully-coifed messy hair (she cut the braid around that time), broad shoulders, slim hips. She sounds the same, cussing out the competition and encouraging the sick, lame and stupid. She acts the same, spending much of her money to feed the creatures around the lake.
“Every morning I go out on the back deck and feed the wild pigeons, doves, blackbirds,blue jays, orioles, chickadees.” She buys chicken scratch and sunflower seeds in 100-pound bags and feeds it to birds and ground squirrels, tree squirrels, and chipmunks.
“Mother would be upset if she knew how much it cost me, but I don’t drink anymore so I figure I can spend some of my money on the birds.”
In the last couple of decades Merce has stayed around Tahoe, living close to the beach in Incline Village. For several years she worked at the local golf course, mowing fairways and greens in summer, clearing snow inwinter. She fed ground hogs and squirrels.
“That took me almost an hour a day and cost me $14 a week.”
After she quit the golf course, she went to work for the Washoe County road department, running heavy equipment. She worked there six years but got seriously hurt. “I gotcaught between a plough frame and the plough on a big 966 Cat. The thing was parked, had a dead battery and I was told to go to get cables from another piece of equipment.
“Now I knew better than to walk between that, but it was the only way to go, and just when I went in there the guy up in the cab threw the seat forward and it hit the lever and the ram started coming down on me. It bent me over and I was screaming and yelling and another guy saw what was happening so he threw the seat back again to stop it. It couldn’t retract because the battery was dead. He threw it back to stop it and the other guy threw the seat forward again. It screwed me all up, really bad, my back and neck.”
On the first shoulder surgery they cut the end of the bone off, but because she started favoring the other arm, that one suffered too and she had another operation. “My clavicles on both sides have been cut off and the muscles relaced. You are never the same. When the barometric pressure changes, I suffer.”
She could be on disability, but she prefers to work because she enjoys spending money. “My nut’s a little bit large and I couldn’t live on that.” Her doctor suggested alternate employment.
“It was a shame. I was a girl and had to go through a lot of bull to get that job and I’m qualified to operate 38 different pieces of heavy equipment.” She was examined on everything. Even though guys could go down and get a job by saying they could run the machinery, she had to be tested.
“They took me out to the Red Rock area and sprinkled red sand on white sand. I had to take that big piece of equipment and separate just the red sand, no white sand, you know. It was very difficult for me to get the job but I loved it. I passed everything.”
After the accident, a doctor recommended that the state retrain her for something milder. “They do everything by the book,” she sighs. “They never checked me out to see what I might be interested in or what I would be good at. They placed me in the Reno Library and the only thing I had in common with anything there were the drunks that would come in off the street to have a nap.”
Washoe County was training her to become a librarian. She found it amusing for about six weeks, then quit and went to work at the Hyatt Lake Tahoe as assistant keno manager. She wasn’t there two hours before she realized why she had quit the job when she had a similar one a few years earlier.
“I couldn’t deal with it because it was very corporate. When I worked in the early days I worked for friends, people who owned casinos. I dealt with one person. I didn’t have to go to meetings and get brainwashed like I did at the Hyatt. I didn’t have to follow a little book. I didn’t have to go through a back door. I didn’t have to park my car 500 miles from the club.”
As assistant manager she had a lot of benefits, but she has never thought much of people with fancy titles and a lack of sense. Even so, she lasted eight months, and then bailed out to work as a bartender a couple of days and for a friend who owned a construction business for the rest of the week.
“We were putting in sewer lines, clearing lots and cutting foundations. I was in the ditch on a shovel, manual labor, and made more money in the sewer pipes than I did at the casino. And I sure preferred working outside.”
She tended bar at the Paddlewheel, then the Testarosa, and finally the Tradewinds, a place she had worked before. She’s got a soft spot for the lonely, the needy and the depressed. She is usually surrounded by a bunch of (previously) stray dogs. She has a talent for cheering people up when they are down, which is why she’s the best bartender on Tahoe’s shores – a profession she keeps coming back to.
“The Tradewinds has burned two or three times, but when Pappa was alive and it burned, he remodeled the joint and wanted me to come back to work there and help spruce up the clientele a little bit.”
How does a bartender do that? “Just don’t let them do anything that they normally do. You have to always have control. I’m not a cop caller, I always deal with it myself. The only time I ever call the police is if there is damage, if they bust something up, or if they hit an employee. Then you have to file reports.”
The truth is, she can discourage the rowdy and pacify the violent. She calls it the mental institution, works alone, and still has the strength to bounce out bad guys. “It’s a little bit of something for everybody down there at that bar. To tell you the truth people tend to get carried away sometimes. If I were to tell you some of the stories that happened down in that bar you would never believe it. I myself was a bit shocked about the first month or so that I was there.”
She cracks up and adds, “There’s never a dull moment at my job. It’s the kind of bar that I always go and seek on my days off.”
She tells stories, never about herself, because she gets sick of hearing people brag about her achievements. And her’s would put most others to shame. The bar is always busy, has 25 stools, tables and chairs, and a pool table. There are no windows and time is easily lost. “At 2 a.m. people don’t want to leave,” she says. “Closing, sometimes, is tough.”
Snowmobiling may be in the past, but it’s not forgotten. She says she’s going to junk those six racing Polarises, but it’s doubtful that she will. She’s connected to Roseau, at least in spirit. She enjoyed her teammates (who seemed so innocent compared to her Nevada friends) – Eastman, Lindblad, Rugland, Pesek, and Bernat. And she liked the Arctic boys – including Charlie Lofton, Davy Thompson and Larry Coltom.
“When I first got to Roseau it seemed a little backwards,” she says. “I felt the way they did things and the way they lived and believed was entirely different than the way I did things. I’m not sure that a lot of the people that I came into contact with were ever the same again after they spent a year or so with me.” She laughs and coughs a smoker’s hack. “I think they enjoyed things a little bit better!”
She talks to Bob Eastman quite often; he’s still at Polaris. She says Leroy Lindblad got rid of all his wives and is some kind of a contract farmer, cutting crops from Texas all the way to Canada. “I still see them every now and then.” Norm Sailor, the Polaris snowmobile dealer she bought her first sled from, owns Donner Ski Ranch in the Sierra Nevadas. “As old as he is, he’s still into all that competition shit. He races trail bikes. I try not to do that. It’s real hard for me to stay out of it and everybody that gets around me wants to do that, but I don’t want to do that. I just want to enjoy it.”
She doesn’t tell new friends about her past, because she claims they are always trying to beat her. “I like to ride around like an old lady for a while and then just blow their socks off.”
She’s trying to quit smoking.”I spent $200 on patches four months ago and it didn’t help.” She only drinks on Sundays, but on her days off she heads for the biker bars, all over California and Nevada, sometimes hundreds of miles from home.
Her toys are everywhere. A 1992 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail. A 1982 shaftdrive black Yamaha 750 Virago. “That Yamaha is practically no maintenance. I change the fluids in it once a year, change the filters and it’s like brand new.” She has two Cadillacs, a ’72 and a ’74, and a Silver State Arabians (Ella Mae’s old) truck. A 1931 Chevrolet. A 1962 Corvette that she took from Ella, “because she was letting her cats sleep in it. I get Ella Mae’s old stuff when she’s done with them. Mother has a brand new Cadillac, and so does Ella Mae.”
Shortly after she commandeered the ‘Vette she was driving around the California Gold Country wearing tight jeans and a low-cut blouse. “All these good looking hunks come and bullshit you but I was going up the hill towards Downeyville and blew it up. The oil pump went out and it seized. It wasn’t my fault. I was going really slow when it happened.”
Sure, Merce. Mornings have always been hard for the fastest woman on snow. And the cold. She was almost killed in a car accident in 1971, was trapped in her car and in a coma for days and the steering wheel almost severed her legs. She still feels the pain. These days, around nine or so, she drags herself out to the deck of the house near Tahoe’s beach. She smokes a few cigarettes, drinks coffee, feeds the birds and critters. She coughs and moans.
When Dick Hendricks called her up last summer to ask about his special section in Snow Goer, she was anxious to help. “When he told me the magazine was running six articles on old-timers, I was ready to spin him some tales. When he said that I’d made the cut it was like somebody threw a bucket of cold water on me. I didn’t think I’d reached that point yet.”
Even though her body may be screaming for mercy, the woman doesn’t care much about wrinkles. “I figure they cost me a lot of money and I had a ton of fun getting them. There isn’t anybody that ever had any more fun than I did. And yet all the things that have happened to me physically through my life, they are sure catching up with me now.”
Most of her big injuries happened while she was having fun. She was young and healthy, healed quickly, and carried on with the party. “Now there are lots of places hurting. Everywhere. Just everything. The elements, wrecks, everything. Sometimes I’mpretty stove up, pretty crippled.”
A couple of years back she had an accident on nephew Johnny’s drag boat. She fell into the dry stacks putting fuel into the boat and was burned so badly that her thighs stuck to the pipes. “I climbed into the lake and sat in the cold water for about 15 minutes. We were at Sunnyside Marina and I went to the little market and got some Neosporin, gauze and ace bandages and wrapped them up and continued our journey around the lake. We were out to have a good time that day, so we did.”
By the time she got home, her legs were so swollen she couldn’t get her shorts off, and after three days the pain was intense and her legs wouldn’t bend at all. Somehow she got her hands on a veterinarian’s ointment for livestock and started the healing process. Then, finally, on the sixth day after the accident, went to see a doctor.
“He couldn’t believe there was no infection, so he encouraged me to keep on using what I was using because it was working. After that, every day, I had to take some whopping pain pills then sit in the tub and brush off the bad skin completely. It was probably eight or nine months before I could put a pair of pants on.”
Merce is always doing something outdoors and active. She has trucks, cars, motorcycles (street and dirt), bicycles, snowmobiles. Plenty of people visit her from the Midwest and East. Old snowmobile buddies. Somehow they know how to find her and they talk of old times, drink a few beers.
Her future goal? To be the first woman to set a world record in offshore race boats. After decades of heavy doses of vitamins and herbs, she figures she can handle that. “I know everything’s bad in my body. There’s nothing that isn’t bad. It’s gotten so bad now, the pain is in my hands. I live with jars of therapeutic mineral ice everywhere I go.”
Even so, and with a refreshing lack of ego, Dorothy Mercer will continue to move quickly around the countryside and remain a blast of fresh air for all who come in contact with her. She may limp a bit, her shoulders may ache, she will cough a bit, but her smile is just as cheeky as it always was. And she will always be thinking of ways to shock the boys from Roseau.
Dorothy Mercer has been unbeatable for most of her life. She was faster, tougher, more consistent, better than anybody else, and probably still is. In the past 20 years few things have changed. She still has a back yard filled with snowmobiles, most emblazoned with the number 211. Her dream is to retire and build a huge shop connected to her house. She wants everything in there, all her machines, hobbies and crafts. She will be tinkering with stained glass or pottery, working with wood on a lathe, or on sewing machines with leather and lace. The building would have to be huge.
“I want to buy an industrial knitting machine,” she says, “because you can make anything on them. You can program it and custom-make clothes for horses, covers for motorcycles, and specially designed alpaca sweaters. While I play it can be pumping stuff out to make me some money.”
She figures she’ll go on the road once a year and sell her stuff to good boutiques and ranches. She might even take on a motorcycle club and make covers for Harleys. And she’ll continue to dream about offshore racing boats.
“Don’t forget,” she says with a hearty laugh, a roar from the bowels of the Harley and an enormous spray of gravel, “I’m still looking for a sponsor.”