The snowmobile oval racing world was recently tipped onto its fast-moving side with the announcement that, starting in the winter of 2020-2021, the premier class would change from the completely modified Pro Champ 440 machines to the new, more stock-based Formula III class.
Rules for the new class – voted into place unanimously at a late-April meeting of the International Snowmobile Racing (ISR) rule-making body – are aimed at both taking some of the expense out of top-level oval racing and also creating a class that would attract more attention from the snowmobile manufacturers and brand-loyal fans.
Perhaps most notable, the class change will affect how the 2021 World Champion is crowned at Eagle River, Wisconsin, in January of 2021. However, the switch also affects which class will run the highest-profile races and attract the top talent at ISR-sanctioned oval sprint events from coast to coast, regardless of host circuit.
As with any major rules change, the reaction from fans and some racers has been notably mixed. Some applauded the effort to make the sport more accessible to more racers and race teams by eliminating some of the costs associated with the exotic metals, high-tech traction systems and experimental driveline components that are currently found on the quick, snarling and glamorous Pro Champ 440 sleds. Others, though, took to online message boards and social media to decry the perceived dumbing-down of the sport with machines that will need to maintain a factory stock engine block and chassis, while allowing teams to experiment with front and rear suspension designs and aftermarket silencers. In the middle of these extreme are a large group of people who knew something needed to change, but who maybe had a different set of rules in mind.
Regardless, some race teams are already tearing into existing 600-class snocross-based race machines from Arctic Cat, Polaris and Ski-Doo to prepare. The switch to a Formula III-based World Championship may currently be 19 months away, but the Formula III class will begin running at tracks across the Snowbelt starting this coming December, so teams are rushing to get their plans sorted out. Meanwhile, those three snowmobile manufacturers have already pledged to support the class with contingency dollars for racers to chase.
To get background on the concept that led to the change, we turned to Craig Marchbank, race director for the Eagle River Derby and part-owner of the Derby Complex track. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment box below.
SG: Let’s start big picture: Why the change? What’s the end goal?
CRAIG MARCHBANK: “We decided to run the Champ class as everybody knows it for one more year, in 2020. We’re hoping we will have 20 Champ sleds for the W.C. [World Championship] – as a collective whole at the Eagle River Derby Complex we decided to keep things simple this year. In 2021, we are switching gears to Formula III, and that will be the W.C. At the [International Snowmobile Racing] rules meeting the class was voted in unanimously, everybody in the room loved it. This is also the first time, after long conversations with the manufacturers, in 9 years that they are back backing oval racing to some extent with some contingency money.
“We are working for the future. I have nothing against Champ snowmobiles, but they are a $40,000 beast to build to be top-notch. This [Formula III] sled is a snocross version of a snowmobile. You can buy one from any snowmobile manufacturer [except Yamaha, at this point] for a ballpark of $7,500, and then you can manipulate the front suspension and manipulate the rear end. If you pull the factory shocks off of this snowmobile that are brand new along with the track and suspension, you should easily be able to sell them for $2,000, so you’ll have $5,500 into the sled. By the time you put a [new race] track on this and stud it, put a rear suspension – like a Wahl Bros, Proline or Mike Houle [design] – and you manipulate the front suspension, I believe that you’ll be able to put this sled on the track for $10,000 and try to win a World Championship.
“What we were attempting to do was multiple things: Build an economical sled that will still go extremely fast, make noise and will actually look like a production snowmobile that the people [watching] will be able to wrap their head around and have brand loyalty when they are standing around the track or in the hot seats. Also, it brought the manufacturers back involved. They are back in full force and we are hoping to have their rigs there again – for the fans and for brand loyalty.
“We don’t have a lot of test time on these, and the manufacturers weren’t sure they were going to be able to supply enough product, so we thought it was in the best interest of all involved to hold Champ as the premier class for one more year to let everybody get their orders in and get the [Formula III] sleds built. But once we test these little machines, what’s going to be really cool for the future is we are going to build the same full-race snowmobile with a 50-percent throttle stop to either 13- to 16-year olds or 14- to 16-year olds, so they can have the top-dog sled with a 50 percent throttle. I’ve also approached the manufacturers to see if it’s a possibility to somehow limit the throttle below 50 percent to build the exact same snowmobiles and put 10- to 13-year olds or 10- to 14-year olds on the same trick sled that the top dogs and running, with a reduced throttle. Obviously with their arm strength and muscle capacity it would possibly only be for two laps, but can you imagine stepping off of a 120 or 200 [youth snowmobile] and your next step is one of those? It’d be very cool.”
SG: People have talked about trying to get money out of various forms of racing for a long time. In ovals, there have been a lot of exotic materials and interesting traction devices used in recent years, and other technology that folks watching the racing don’t even realize are tucked under the bodywork of the high-end Champ sleds. So, what is on these Champ sleds that makes them so expensive and makes a rule change necessary, in your opinion?
MARCHBANK: “A lot of your Champ sleds right now have a lot of titanium on them, magnesium, carbon fiber and other very costly materials. Looking at this new W.C. class for the future – and a premier class for a lot of other race tracks across the country and in Canada – this sled will have no titanium on it, no carbon fiber; it has to maintain the OEM panels so you can actually tell it’s a snowmobile and what brand it is, so that should help keep costs in check.”
SG: Looking at the rules, we also see limits on various traction control devices and such. Beyond exotic materials, what other things have been driving up the costs on Champ sleds in recent years?
MARCHBANK: “Traction devices, launch control devices, the tracks – the 106-inch Champ tracks, the costs on the track alone are $1,000, we are not going to allow those tracks in this new Formula III class. Most of the Champ guys are telling me, by the time they buy a 106-inch track and put titanium studs with carbon fiber backers in there and finish the track, they’ll have about $4,000 into the track alone. So, with Formula III, Camso is building us a track for this class – it’s a 121-inch by 13.5-inch wide track, and it should cost ballpark around $550 or $600. You’ll then be using aluminum or steel backers and steel studs – no carbon fiber or titanium. The [aftermarket ISR Specialty Manufacturers and Distributors Group] committee was a unanimous vote on this new class as well, so it’s not just myself or Eagle River driving this: It was presented by me, but there’s a lot of people who loved it. Some of the other racetracks that were there were saying, ‘Where were you (with this idea) two years ago. I love this junior deal if we can get this in place as a stepping stone.’”
SG: Why was the Formula III name attached to this new class? Longtime oval racing fans probably remember the exotic triple-piped triples from the 1990s that raced under that name, but this is a different animal.
MARCHBANK: “It came from a group of us, we threw multiple names around but we settled on Formula III. A lot of us are nostalgic people or vintage people, and we wanted that name that really meant something to a lot of people.”
SG: We looked at the rules – essentially a stock chassis and engine, with changes allowed to the silencer/can/muffler, rear suspension, some front suspension components, aftermarket shocks and skis (with limitations) and with no exotic materials. Explain how this is different from the Pro Stock or Factory Stock class that has run with limited participants in recent years.
MARCHBANK: “It’s somewhat different. There’s the special Camso track being built for this sled, you can manipulate the rear suspension and totally manipulate the front end – from that aspect, it’s somewhat different.
SG: What do you say to the naysayers who point out that the Factory Stock class races at the Derby last year – while they were competitive entertaining – were slower and quieter than the Champ sleds that have been running for the World Championship?
MARCHBANK: “For starters, this 600 motor even in stock form will be relatively the same power as the Champ 440 motors. We are putting more weight on the sleds – the minimum weight has been increased – and that should slow them down just a titch, but with the noisemaker [aftermarket silencer] on the side of it, can you really tell if it’s a stock motor or a modified motor? I don’t think you can. If you’ve been to a snocross race and listened to those [sleds with] cans, they sound just as cool as twin pipes. The reason we didn’t go with twin pipes was, again, to get the factory involvement and to keep the costs down. A set of good pipes are $2,500 to $4,500 and this will keep the costs down.”
SG: The Champ 440 class was created in the late 1990s in an effort to re-engage the manufacturers after they cut their involvement in the Formula I twin trackers days. The factories came and played in it for a while but have since pulled back out. How is this effort better? What are you hearing from the factories in terms of both their short-term and long-term commitment to this?
MARCHBANK: “They are locked in with contingency money right now for Formula III starting even this year, even though it’s not yet the premier class. They will pay a maximum of two race days per race weekend, meaning if it’s a two-day race, they’ll pay both days, but if it’s a three-day race they’ll only pay contingency on two of those days. So, most tracks I would assume, if it’s a three-day race, they’ll run Formula III two different times. The contingency program is paid to first, second and third. It’s a start – an important start – with the manufacturers.”
SG: Is that three of the manufacturers, or four? And, can you share the amount of contingency for those top three positions?
MARCHBANK: “Yamaha officials were at the meeting, were very excited about it and have contacted us, but they don’t have a budget for it yet for this coming year. The following year in 2021? We’ll see what happens – I can’t speak for them. But right now the other three are committed for sure. First place will pay $500 in factory contingency, second place is $250 and third place is $125, and it’s a start. It’s better than not having them there at all. And it’s not just at the Derby – my understanding is their commitment is at any ISR-sanctioned oval race. Just to have their involvement back after nine years is interesting – very cool.”
SG: There are always people on social media who are against any change and they tend to speak the loudest. But, in general, what feedback have you heard – who’s happy, who’s sad, how’s the reaction better or worse than you thought?
MARCHBANK: “I would say 75 percent or 80 percent of the people that I have spoken with wanted change. What that change was, they did not know, but they wanted change. Other than the W.C. last year which had 21 Champ sleds there – most of the other tracks around the country had a maximum of 8 and sometimes it was 6 [entries in the class]. That’s not going to cut it as a premier class at most tracks. Our hope, and our goal, is that people will build these Formula IIIs: It’s economical, they can start the kids out young and they can move up the ladder, and hopefully some teams will actually build two of them. But, again, Champ rules are locked in for one more year, and I have no desire to get rid of Champ – none. It can continue to run as a normal class, as far as I am concerned, after this year.”
SG: So, in theory, starting in 2021, Pro Champ would them be like the Outlaw 600 class – a fast, exciting class that people still want to see, but not the premier class?
MARCHBANK: “Correct. And, a lot of naysayers will say that it’s ridiculous to have this Formula III class [as the premier class because] it won’t necessarily be the fastest thing out there, but if you remember back in the day the [Formula I] twin track were the fastest thing out there. When they came with the Formula III class then, they weren’t as fast as the twin tracks, if you recall. But then as time evolved, the Formula IIIs were badass fast. And then as Champ 440 evolved into the premier class, they weren’t initially as fast as the Formula III sleds of that era – they probably are now, but back in that day they were not. So, it’s not always that the fastest sleds are the premier class or the W.C. History is just repeating itself.”
SG: We saw in snocross two years ago, when rules changes were implemented, some initial push-back from race fans online, but then when the pros came out at the Duluth opener on Thanksgiving weekend, the sleds were still making noise, flying high and going fast. Now with two years in the books, it appears that the rule change has worked quite well, in terms of holding driver entries and entertaining fans. Can parallels be made between what you’re expecting and what ISOC has experienced?
MARCHBANK: “What was very funny, when they switched the Pro rules to stock 600s that year, if you remember on social media at that time there were a million naysayers – nobody was going to go race and everybody hated it and the whole nine yards. But what happened at the first race? It was one of the biggest turnouts they ever had! Everybody jumped on, didn’t they? And they haven’t looked back, everybody’s fallen into place and snocross is doing the best it can right now and everybody is going forward. Humans are creatures of habit, they don’t like change, but sometimes change is needed.”
SG: You being a historic drag racer, let’s bring it to your specific arena: Would this be the equivalent to making the big trophy at Haydays or the World Series of Ice Drags to the top Stock class champion and not the Outlaw class?
MARCHBANK: “Boy, I don’t really consider this a stock class, because you can manipulate the front end and rear end of this thing. Motorwise? Yes, I’ll agree that it’s stock and you can run a can on it for the noise. But I wouldn’t say this is exactly a stock class – it’s kind of a hybrid.”
SG: At this point, have you heard much from the big teams or big name drivers – like the two-time defending champion Blaine Stephenson or the season champ Gunner Sterne? Is everybody mostly onboard or do you have people are saying they’re going to walk away?
MARCHBANK: “I have not talked directly to too many of them, and the ones I have talked to asked me not to mention their name. I will tell you this: I haven’t spoken to Gunnar or Blaine, but I have talked to others who are extremely intrigued by this class going forward.”
SG: Was limiting the speeds of the top class also a goal for safety reasons, or were the main goals to solve some of the cost and driver entry concerns?
MARCHBANK: “It was about saving money and increasing entries, but safety is always our No. 1 concern. We’re trying to build it around fast sleds that people can be brand loyal with. With the horsepower-to-weight ratios, it should be a little slower than Champs, but I’m not going to say by a tremendous amount. [Longtime USSA and ISR race official] Jerry Korinek and I sat down at length working on this, and the horsepower-to-weight ratio should slow them down a bit.”
SG: Any other thoughts on the general topic?
MARCHBANK: “I raced for 30 years, as you know. I was fortunate enough where you guys [at the dearly departed Snow Week magazine] named me Racer of the Year in 2005. I never in my life went on the computer and badgered or knocked or downgraded a promoter or a track or race officials or tech people, race directors, nothing. I always praised what they were doing for us and I always was aggressive in my speech with other racers or my peers that would do that on the Internet because, as time went on, we lost multiple sponsors in drag racing – multiple sponsors – because they didn’t want to ‘put money into a bunch of whining drag racers’ was their comments. If you read social media right now, some of those guys who are older racers, past racers, current racers or people who maybe never raced are doing exactly the same thing, and we at the track and other tracks are going to run into the same situation because of this.
“There is so much – between myself, my partners, owners, volunteers and others – do to keep passion and drive alive at the Eagle River track and to keep this track moving forward, to give the best purse money and sponsorship money we can to the racers, even if it may not be what it once was… We’re working so hard, and I don’t think people can conceive this. I put as many hours into this as I do into my paving business. It’s amazing. You asked us last year, ‘Did you buy the track for this reason or that reason or was it passion for the sport?’ We all said passion, because we need Eagle River, we need Haydays, we need certain tracks to survive – Beausejour, Eganville, Boonville – we need these things to survive.
“We’re hoping for the best. It’s very, very cool to see the manufacturers excited about this.”
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