It’s summer here in the Upper Midwest – we’ve had our temps in the 90s, we’ve had our thunderstorms, the mosquitoes are in a full feeding frenzy whenever I step into the backyard. It can only mean one thing: It’s snowmobiling season.
Not regular snowmobiling season, of course, but watercross season, where crazy racers on often-times old equipment drag race and run ovals on a pond in front of an adoring crowd. The season starts this weekend, as the International Watercross Association kicks off its season June 5-6 at Moose Lake, Minnesota. The Eastern Watercross Association, meanwhile, kicks off its season June 26-27 in Darien Lake, New York.
If you’ve never been to a watercross, it’s really something you ought to check out. At most events, it’s 50 percent snowmobile race, 50 percent community festival and 50 percent freakshow. (Yes, I realize that adds up to over 100 percent – that was a shoutout to Yogi Berra, who turned 75 in May).
I attended my first watercross race in 1994 – and it was arguably the best one: the Grantsburg Watercross World Championship in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. I got there early and walked the pits, and somewhat marveled at all of the old and, in some cases, seemingly shoddy looking equipment I saw there. Some of the racers looked lean and athletic while others… well, I just remember thinking, “Yeah, like these guys are real racers.”
Then the action started. The first round of drag racing was mildly interesting, watching the techniques of some of the drivers as they started on a short beach and then hit the watercross, crossing a small bay. Some were really good at it, and the machines that looked like wrecks had big, strong engines in them. I was impressed, but the best was yet to come.
I watched as some pontoons positioned some buoys, then sleds lined up on the beach for time trials. The flag was raised and the first sled left terra firma and headed across the open water toward the first buoy. There, the driver chose made a hard right (yes, right) turn and powered toward another buoy, carving another nasty line.
The trick to watercross racing, I quickly discovered, were somewhat akin to power turning in powder. The drivers had to lean into the turn, but countersteer with the skis, so the back of the ski acted like a rudder on a boat. The other skill? Keeping the snowmobile above about 30 mph. The guys who slowed down too much in the turns or lost their momentum for any other reason saw their sleds quickly sink to the bottom of Memory Lake.
Running laps on smooth water was tough, but when the heats and finals got rolling it got really tricky, as racers had to battle regular waves and sled-created wakes as they battled for position. It was fabulous.
The action was only getting started, however, because some watercross events create or are a part of festival-type atmospheres. Since they are held on beautiful summer days, the crowd gets, oh, let’s just say pretty darned happy along the shores, and by nightfall the party really gets rolling. Particularly at Grantsburg and Wild Rose back in the day — Street dances, fireworks, fist fights, fire engines, unplanned pregnancies — you get the picture.
When we had our race paper, Snow Week magazine, up and running at full steam, we’d always cover a couple of Midwestern watercross races with our own staff, and David Wells always did a wonderful job covering similar races for us out East. Snow Week is no longer with us (may it rest in peace), but I’m still a big fan of all snowmobile racing, and watercross has a special place in my heart. The racing is great, the participants are generally nice, fun people, the crowds are impressive (including more girls in bikini tops than you’ll see at any other snowmobiling event) and the atmosphere is tremendous.