Michigan’s Todd Serra has won a lot of snowmobile races over the years. The longtime hotshoe behind some blazing fast mod sleds may have added some years to his resume, but don’t think for a second that he’s slowing down.
On Sunday, August 19, Serra finished an undefeated weekend in the high-profile NHRA Snowmobile Asphalt Shootout at Brainerd International Raceway just north of Brainerd, Minnesota, by very narrowly beating fellow veteran and Michigander Louie Wirbel to the finish line after giving up a little bit on the holeshot.
Serra’s winning time in the quarter-mile was 8.42 seconds at 153.79 mph. Wirbel shot off the line first but his sled broke traction shortly thereafter, allowing Serra to take an early lead. Wirbel appeared to be gaining on the top end, but he couldn’t chase down Serra. Wirbel’s time was 8.53 seconds at 153.40 mph.
After putting up times as low as a striking 8.265 in round-robin qualifying, Serra went into Sunday’s elimination round as the favorite, but his march to the title wasn’t easy. Intermixed in the full NHRA Pro program – from Top Fuel to Funny Car to Pro Stock Bike and beyond — Serra and all of the other snowmobile competitors put on an amazing show. And, as often happens in drag racing, it was a combination of fast passes and some good fortune that led to this victory. And Serra did it all in front of a massive crowd under bluebird skies.
The eight drivers and crews who qualified to appear in the annual showcase of snowmobile asphalt racing at a national NHRA program were all futzing with their sleds first thing Sunday morning. There didn’t appear to be any big changes going on – just a group of guys killing some nervous energy while they waited for the big program to begin on a cool morning. Over the weekend, several of the heroes of big time drag racing had stopped by to check out the sleds – a couple even had their pictures taken on the snowmobiles. But Sunday morning seemed to crawl by as the racers waited for their shot on the track. All were on Ski-Doo-based sleds, though these custom mods aren’t available at dealerships.
Finally in the early afternoon, round one rolled out onto the track. Serra lined up in the left lane on his bright red Dunnigan-owned sled, and he was paired up against late addition Dan Graunke. Serra continued a streak of putting up the fast times at BIR, this time running the quarter in 8.33 seconds and reaching 155 mph at the top end vs. Graunke’s 9.02 at 140 mph. Heat 2 saw No. 2 seed and defending champion Ron Bray of Anoka, Minnesota, advance with an 8.43 over Green Bay’s Charlie Fleck. Fleck, running a sled worked on by Straightline Performance’s Jason Houle, was stuck in the 9s through much of practice but dipped into the 8s Saturday evening. But in his heat, he appeared to need to let off a little bit after half-track and failed to advance.
Ron Stumpf launched straight in the third quarterfinal and beat Zach Davis to the finish line by running an 8.55. The four quarterfinal featured father against son – Louie Wirbel beat his son Edwin Wirbel.
The Semi Finals
The first semi final featured Serra and his bright red sled against Stumpf and his bright silver sled. Serra advanced, though it didn’t look good at first.
Stumpf got out quick and was peddling toward the finish line with what seemed like a sure victory when he suddenly slowed a little bit past half track. Serra roared by and advanced, while Stumpf would need help getting his sled back to his trailer.
The culprit? “I blew the belt,” Stumpf reported later with a wry smile. “Todd was lucky, because I had him. I was looking around and thinking ‘I have him, I have him.’ And then, ‘WHAP,’” he said, imitating the sound of the detonating drive belt.
The second semi-final was actually a rematch of last year’s NHRA Brainerd Asphalt Shootout, as Ron Bray faced off against Louie Wirbel. Bray won the big trophy last year, but on this day Wirbel was the man to beat – running the track at 8.391 seconds. That speed compared to Serra’s run of 8.43, meaning Wirbel would get lane choice.
As it turns out, Wirbel and Serra are friends, so while both certainly wanted to win the final, each was happy to be facing a familiar and friendly foe for the title.
Before the final pass, we caught up with Serra at the staging lane, and he was a bit nervous. For the first time in the weekend, he took a major swing at his setup, leaning out the fuel-air mixture slightly and tampering with the clutching to try to make his engine perk up a little bit. The grandstands in front of the drag strip were packed as the snowmobile lined up, as they were racing right before the big Pro finals.
On green, Wirbel lauched first, cutting an .043 light vs. Serra’s 0.086. But while Serra’s sled hooked up to the tacky track and ran, Wirbel didn’t have such luck. “He just lost traction,” explained Wirbel’s racing son Edwin after the race. “It just hopped, hopped, and then…” He didn’t finish the sentence, he just shrugged. The “then” was that Wirbel’s sled did indeed hook up and run strong, but Serra was gone and would not be caught.
Todd Serra has won a lot of races in his storied career. Asked where this one fits, he said, “It fits really well,” noting that he won a lot of races early in his career, but to still be doing it at the very top level 25 years later feels great, especially with all of the changes in the sport and in the economy which make it hard to keep competing on a high level, he said.
The sled Serra was racing belongs to Michigan drag racing Godfather Dave Dunigan. Serra said Dunigan asked him to race it at an event earlier this year, and after that went well Dunigan told Todd to take the sled home with him and make it win. Serra said the sled features an engine modified by A To Z, a Pro Stock Inc. chassis, a Micro Belmont primary clutch and a Pro 4 secondary. Like all of the other asphalt sleds competing here, the bottom end of the engine started life as a Ski-Doo/Rotax 809 triple found in a classic Mach Z. It was modified to create about 280 horsepower, Serra said.
The sleds, which feature about a 10-inch wide track, have to weigh 650 pounds with the driver according to the rules, and that’s heavier than most of the mods these guys normally tune. That made clutching a bit of a challenge, Serra said. “It’s hard to grab hold of that belt, with all of that weight and not that much power, you know, relatively.”
At the end of the day, Serra took to the stage with his son and girlfriend, holding the trophy high above his head. The Arizona-based announcer didn’t seem to know what to ask a snowmobiler racing on asphalt, but it didn’t matter much. Serra was having his moment in the sun.