Seated aboard a slightly modified Ski-Doo MX Z on the starting line at snowmobilng’s most storied track, I leaned forward and stared intently at the flagman, who had the green flag resting on his left boot.
I held the brake and ran the engine up just short of clutch engagement, hoping to get the early jump against the other sleds that were lined up at the starting line. A crowd of roughly 10,000 fans watched and waited anxiously.
No, this wasn’t a dream – not this time. I’d be dishonest if l said I’d never fantasized of a moment like this. After standing on the infield for many past Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby event, I had often wondered what it would be like to have a helmet on my head and handlebars in my hands, instead of wearing a stocking cap and holding a Nikon camera.
In January of 2011, I had the chance to make that trade thanks to the unique, Woody’s-sponsored Rent a Ride program initiated at the time to help spur interest in oval racing throughout the Midwest Snowbelt.
Two weeks earlier I was nervous about my planned oval racing debut: What if I embarrassed myself in front of that huge crowd? What if I crashed and was injured? I wasn’t so much worried about a potential last-place finish as I was about the possibilities of a broken limb and rendering myself useless for the rest of the winter riding season, effectively taking myself out of our Rode Reports (now Snow Shoot) testing event that spring.
As I pulled out onto the track and then staged on the starting line, however, I was amazingly calm. I just wanted to race on the high-banked oval.
Moments later, the flagman lifted that green flag, I released the brake, pinned the throttle and lurched ahead of the other competitors with an impressive holeshot. It was a lead I wouldn’t hold for long, however.
Rent A Ride
Snowmobile oval racing is a fascinating spectacle. It features fast, ski-to-ski action and great sightlines for fans, plus the pageantry and history on display at the Eagle River World Championship Snowmobite Derby is second to none in the sport.
Attendance and driver entries at oval racing was slipping, however, and one reason cited by many was the limited participation in entry level classes, where Joe Anybody can buy a sled, set it up for oval racing and race against Joe Somebodyelse.
Historically, these bone stock classes have filled out a race program, created future stars for the sport and also driven up the crowd size, as Joe Anybody’s family, neighbors and friends attended to see how he did, and his in-laws would show up and privately hope he put it into the wall.
At the time, the top oval racing series in the country launched a new class called “Pure Stock” which allowed very limited modifications, but it failed to take off, as many were intimidated by the effort it took to modify long-travel sleds and then drive them on a highspeed oval.
To break through this clutter of the time, Todd Achterberg, of the Derby Track in Eagle River, Wisconsin, launched the Rent a Ride and Rent to Race driver development school. The school included training for those who “rented” the sled at six different oval races this past winter, followed by the experience of actually pulling out onto the track racing against others in the school, which provides the sleds, the safety equipment and the track time. Sleds were donated by Arctic Cat, Polaris and Ski-Doo, while Woody’s and the Snowmobile USA shows signed on as sponsors.
To showcase the school in front of a crowd, Achterberg planned a “celebrity” media race for the Friday Night Thunder program at the 2011 Derby. Apparently he couldn’t find any real celebrities, because he invited us.
Unfortunately for the “celebrity” racers, we didn’t really get the schooling. We got five laps around the track earlier in the day, then the mechanics changed the setup on some of the sleds (most notably, the Ski-Doos), parked them and told us to return at race time under the lights.
Ready To Race
The first year of the Rent a Ride and Rent to Race program was promoted largely as a driver’s school and a life experience more than a competition, which wasn’t necessarily ideal for someone like me who wanted to win!
It starts with the machines. Polaris donated 600 IQ Shift models to the program, offering about 125 HP and a base chassis that’s actually quite easy to lower and race on an iced, banked oval. Ski-Doo offered nearly as much horsepower with its carbureted 600 in a base MX Z, but those sleds admitted to having problems handling on ice. Arctic Cat donated Sno Pro 500s, which organizers got to corner far better than the Ski-Doos, but were down about 40 ponies to Polaris.
Those differences showed on the track, although certainly driver skill was involved in the final standings as well.
The two Polaris sleds absolutely checked-out on the rest of us right throughout the five-lap race – they carried better comer speeds than the MX Zs, and better straightaway speed than the Cats. More horsepower and superior handling certainly helped, but “Sledhead 24-7” TV personality of the time Paul Mack is also an experienced racer, and he easily won the race.
I started the race with a great holeshot, got to the first turn and couldn’t make the sled turn. Three sleds buzzed past me, and I never caught them. Frankly, I never fully gained a level of trust with the sled when exiting the corners – I’d try to re-apply the throttle at mid-turn, but the sled would skip toward the outside wall, causing me to check up and then try to feather my way out of the turn. That’s certainly not the right way to make fast laps around an oval, but that’s all that I could get done! At the finish line of the five -lap race, the other guy on the Ski-Doo (Chicago-based country music radio personality “Ramblin’ Ray”) and I came past the waving checkered flag side-by-side.
Was I disappointed in the finish? Sure – any red-blooded snowmobile racer-wannabe envisions themselves carrying the checkered and kissing the trophy girl.
But I certainly wasn’t disappointed in the experience. It was a dream come true, and something I’ll never forget. When the same sleds came out on the track two days later with paying consumers aboard them, then Snow Goer Art Director and friend Randy Kepner practically had to hold me back from charging one of the new racers and stealing a sled away from them – I so wanted to do it again.
Have you ever dreamed of racing at Eagle River? Let us know your bucket list in the comments below!
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