The Annual Great Debate

It had been a long day, and it was starting to turn into a long night. My eyes burned and lungs ached due to the heavy cigar smoke in the air. Boxes holding stale pizza covered part of the table, and an assortment of back-issues, loose-leaf paper, notebooks and press kits covered the rest. Most of the crew had switched from coffee to beer hours ago, while the boss opted for whiskey, followed by more whiskey. Phones rang with interested third parties lobbying our staff, secretaries occasionally burst into the room carrying stacks of paper holding statistics and research, and one co-worker was turning surly, as others weren’t buying into his arguments. No solution was in sight.

I started on the Snow Goer staff in the fall of 1993, a young motorhead with a journalism degree and newspaper experience, eager to prove myself as a magazine writer and test rider. Because I hadn’t ridden the new snowmobiles at the Rode Reports testing event the previous March, my role in selecting the 1994 Snow Goer Snowmobile of the Year was mainly as a spectator and tie breaker. But it was my introduction to the process and criteria that is still used today.

Part of me kind of wishes it would have been like the portrayal above – it would make a more dramatic story – but nobody is allowed to smoke in our offices, drinking here is taboo, we’ve rarely ordered in food, and we’ve never had a manufacturer official call in and lobby on decision day. An occasional surly staff member? Oh sure, that part’s accurate.

For 16 years, I’ve been either directly or somewhat indirectly involved in the process. Most years I’ve been in the room, listening to arguments and making judgements. In the last few years, as I filled a few different roles with our company’s powersports magazines, I’ve played more of a distant role – contributing my opinions based on Rode Reports testing, and then staying out of the way. Now that I’m back full time with Snow Goer, I’m in the center of the action again.

My first year, the argument was between two specific models – back and forth the discussion went, point followed by counterpoint. Then the other associate editor and fellow new kid said, “If this thing is truly about innovation, why aren’t we talking about the ZR 440 – that front arm control dial makes it the first adjust-on-the-fly suspension in snowmobiling.”

That halted conversation for a moment, as everybody pondered. Race sleds were generally avoided as a part of the discussion, but Craig was right – the other finalists weren’t breaking any new ground, but the ZR was. It took several more hours of debate, but eventually the ZR won, and the rest is history.

Looking back, I think we’ve picked truly historic snowmobiles. Some weren’t perfect (the 1992 Vmax-4 was a beast, for example, and the 1998 ZR 600 EFI was a timebomb), but each machine brought something innovative to the market, and that’s what the award has always been about – innovation, challenging the status quo and raising the bar.

We have had some close calls that caused much debate. In the fall of 2001, for instance, some industry folks melted down when we didn’t choose Arctic Cat’s Yellowstone Special four-stroke as the Snowmobile of the Year. I remember similar hard feelings when Yamaha’s SXViper and Polaris’ 900 Fusion were not selected in their respective introductory years. In each case, we had seen enough of each rig to shy away, even though each machine was creating a buzz. Sometimes the decisions you don’t make are the best ones.
Where will this year’s Snowmobile of the Year fit in when the story of snowmobiling history is written? Truly only time will tell, but we’re confident it will kick off an important era of development for rear suspensions.

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