In the early days of snowmobile racing, most races were held on oval tracks that were plowed or simply staked on fields. Occasionally a lake would be plowed down to the ice to create a racetrack with big berms at the outer perimeter. They were tricky to navigate, especially with the old cleated tracks.
Cross-country racing simply meant following the signs over the natural terrain and the existing, or non-existing, snow and ice on the course. It was quickly recognized that handling and speed could be improved on these courses by improving the traction of both the skis and the tracks.
In the beginning, there were cleated tracks and there were rubber tracks. The cleated tracks, which date back to the 1926 Eliason snowmobile, were made from agricultural link chain and wooden crossbars. Later designs utilized conveyor belt strips with channel-shaped, steel cross links riveted to them.
J. Armand Bombardier had designed and patented an all-rubber track for his Ski-Doo in 1958. The track was reinforced with cotton cord and steel reinforcing rods were inserted at each pitch of the track. Two rows of holes in each pitch allowed the drive sprockets to engage with the endless rubber track. The track had very little profile to its traction surface; only a rounded profile as the rubber and cotton covered the reinforcing rods.
To get an idea of what might have been used on some of the very first sleds that were raced, I gave Stan Hayes a call. Hayes is the first Eagle River World Champion. A then-13-year-old, Hayes won the 1964 event on an early, rear-engined, Polaris K-80 Sno-Traveler. Bill Vint’s book, “Warriors of Winter,” has a wonderful recounting of that event.
<img src="https://snowgoer.com.php5-19.dfw1-2.websitetestlink.com/images-content/1177957_hayes.gif" width="250" height="300" alt="Stan Hayes, shown here on a Merc Sno-Twister, is the first Eagle River World Champion. He was just one of the many pioneers to test snowmobile traction accessories.” class=”alignright” />
Hayes’ K-80 Polaris was fitted with a cleated track, which could have been problematic while trying to “roar” across Dollar Lake near Eagle River, Wisconsin. Polaris used rubber strips that could be bolted into the channels of the cleats. The rubber inserts had grooves cut into them from end to end to improve traction in snow and on hard pack. The pieces also provided sideways traction to help control fishtailing. Problem is, the rubber strips were deeper than the cleats and kept the steel piece from contacting the ice. Bombardier’s rubber track had other traction concerns.
While it offered much more control on ice and hard-packed snow when turning than a cleated track, it had a hard time accelerating on those surfaces. The first traction aid I know of being used on a Ski-Doo track were spikes from golf shoes.
Racers drilled holes through the track and bolted in the longest cleats they could come up with. They worked well but dulled quickly and broke frequently. There was also only a limited selection of golf shoe stud lengths available. All sorts of other “studs” were tried. The aftermarket traction industry didn’t exist, but the need for it was being defined.
Another popular early stud type were elevator bolts. Elevator bolts have large, flat heads and are used to fasten buckets or cleats to rubber belting on agricultural elevators. They are also available in many diameters and lengths. Simply sharpen up the shank end, fasten them to the track with a flat washer and self-locking nut and you’re good to go.
The elevator bolts worked well and they started showing up on cleated tracks, too. The problem was that the steel in the elevator bolts wasn’t particularly hard. They dulled quickly, but didn’t break as easily as golf shoe cleats.
The effort to find a harder, longer-lasting stud led racers to the Ram Set stud. This was a construction fastener used to attach metal or wood frames to concrete or structural steel. The studs were already sharpened to a point and had a .25-inch, threaded shank that could be used to fasten them to the track, leaving the point exposed to the ice and snow.
Because the Ram Set was shot into the concrete or steel with a .22-caliber explosive charge, the point had to be very hard to withstand the impact without losing its point. The Ram Set studs worked well but were really labor intensive to install.
While some states and provinces still allow the use of carbide studded tires on cars and trucks during certain months, most jurisdictions have made them illegal because of wear they cause to roadways. These small carbide studs were the first I saw used in snowmobile tracks.
A clever racer used Allen head bolts and brazed the carbide, automobile tire studs into the heads. These early carbide studs worked well, provided good life and I’m sure got some of the the traction-industry pioneers thinking.
Multi-point, stamped steel studs were made for cleated and rubber tracks and a variety of carbide studs were developed that worked well and held up well. One notable traction device developed exclusively for cleated tracks was the Talonic cleat. This cleat had ridges stamped into it that peaked at the legal height allowed above the flat of the cleat. The talonic cleat was enormously aggressive but wore quickly and required a labor-intensive installation. For the mountain and deep snow riders, Berto developed plastic paddles that allowed high marks that had never been seen before.
As tracks gained traction, skis needed to improve, too. Racers welded channel irons to the left sides of skis for oval racing. The castor angle of the ski legs made the skis tip to the inside of the lefthand turn and the angle iron would dig in.
<img src="https://snowgoer.com.php5-19.dfw1-2.websitetestlink.com/images-content/1177957_Tech-Prof.gif" width="250" height="300" alt="Early racers used elevator bolts and golf shoe spikes to get more traction. Now, racers and trail riders have more durable and effective means to make their sleds hook up.” class=”alignleft” />
When an event was held on a plowed lake, something was needed that penetrated more aggressively. Early racers brazed triangular files to the wear bars. The files worked pretty well but broke easily.
One of the more interesting ski traction products was known as the “cookie cutter.” They were about a 3-inch diameter steel wheel with a bearing in the center that allowed them to rotate and prevented the machine from slowing. For oval racing, the “cutters” were bolted to the left side of each ski, again to take advantage of the ski-leg castor. In an effort to get the cutters to bite harder, racers sharpened the wheels to a knife-like edge! The dangerous cookie cutters were quickly outlawed.
I raced with the Halvorson Race Team during the winter of 1970-71. We had tried welding beads of stellite rod to the wearbars and sharpened them to a fine edge. The stellite was quite hard and stood up better than a plain steel bar. During that season, another Halvorson race team, the Rudbec Brothers of Brainerd, Minnesota, worked up a wear bar that worked really well but didn’t last long.
The Rudbecs used a .5-inch wear bar and milled a .25- by .25-inch “V” groove down the middle, which provided two biting edges on the bar. We tested them and found that they worked well, but their mild steel composition didn’t hold up. We ended up brazing square files into the groove and the well-supported file stayed put.
We supplied a set of these modified, Rudbec bars to the Bombardier factory who took them one step further by brazing pieces of carbide into them rather than the square files. Bombardier first used carbide runners on its 1972 Blizzard race sleds. The carbide runner was invented and Bombardier filed the patent on them. They are virtually the only runner still in use on snowmobiles.