Gearheads Build Snowmobile Racer (Jeff Miller)
Published on March 9, 2014 in Guest Columns, News & Updates, Vintage
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American ingenuity, two words that have lost some meaning in the last decade or so. For years Americans came up with ideas for things, you could sit back and marvel at what they thought up in their heads.

But with the computer age, that is all but a lost art. Everywhere you go, people are on their computers doing work. It is no different in the mechanical world. Car manufacturers and such can do a complete redesign of a model so quick now with computers.

But do you notice in today’s computer world, those designs don’t have the elegant flowing lines of a hand-drawn design of years past? Racing follows the same path. Walk through the pits of a big race and you see laptops everywhere and pit crewmembers tapping away on keyboards.

In the pits you can hear heated discussions between engineers and drivers, “according to all our data the car should fly,” and the driver snaps back “I don’t care what your data says, it is a pig on the track.” The days of a stopwatch and seat of the pants feel are gone. All the same rules apply for the snowmobile world.

This is a story of racing in a different era. An era in which it was fun to race, everyone could do it, and with a little American ingenuity, could be very successful.

My family has always been what you would call a bunch of gearheads. If it had a motor, we had it and usually raced it. In the late 50’s, early 60’s, my father drag-raced all over the country. In the 80’s and 90’s, I raced nitro cars all over the U.S., but in between those two periods were some of the fondest memories one could ever have.

My brother, Bob, was the ultimate gearhead. If it had a motor, it was torn apart and modified in all kinds of ways. In 1969 we got our first snowmobiles, an Arctic Cat Panther and a Ski-Doo Olympique. Bob said, “If I put a megaphone exhaust on that 10-horse Hirth motor, it will really scream.” That was the beginning of our snowmobile experience.

The next two years our family raced Ski-Doo’s for Bob Lively, our local dealer in Colrain. Racing was big back then, especially oval racing. Local organizations had racing every winter. In was not uncommon to have 8 or 10 oval races within 20 miles of our house. Towns like Greenfield, Bernardston, Northampton, Buckland and Worthington all had winter racing. It was the best time for gearheads like us. 1972 we switched to Arctic Cat and raced for Francis Stetson and the Stetson Cat House out of Charlemont. After much success with a 290cc EXT, the wheels started turning in my brother’s head.

In the fall of the ’73 season we took possession of Arctic Cat’s latest project, a 1973 290cc Formula ll. Little did we know at the time that we were picked to have one of only 50 Formula ll’s that were built. It was unlike any other sled, and that is what really made Bob think about things.

For the next several years we raced ovals and even this new fangled thing called grass dragging. How awesome was this, we could play with snowmobiles year round! By mid to late 70’s racing was changing. Liquid cooling and independent suspension were introduced. Sleds were getting very fast and many places could no longer hold oval races.

But also at this time grass dragging was at an all time high. Organizations could hold a race in nice weather and use a very small amount of land. In 1979 we were just grass dragging; winter racing was just too expensive and you had to travel a long way to get to the tracks. That fall we started racing for Dave Wickles Trucking in Hatfield. Dave wanted to be the team to beat. He drove out to Wisconsin to Decker Racing and bought the fastest 1978 Ski-Doo Blizzard they would sell him.

That year they won everything in sight, including the New York State Championship and runner-up in the Pennsylvania State Championship. After racing it for a couple years Bob knew that this sled was made for ice racing, not grass dragging. So he began the ultimate gearhead project, building his own sled and motor!

So the design began, not with computers, but with a pencil and paper and all the knowledge he had gained throughout the years. First off the sled had to be light. Grass dragging does not require all that suspension and creature comforts. It had to be lean and mean. We went to the local metal dealer and got a 4 x 8 sheet of ¼” aluminum and commenced to burn up my father’s Skilsaw. That tool was never the same after we were through. Cut after cut he made, measuring everything twice and marking where it would go.

1973-Arctic-Cat-Formula-II-snowmobile

Everything was handmade. The handlebars, skis, he even made his own aluminum brake caliper. He designed innovations that would not be seen on sleds for another 20 years.

Chassis flex was a concern and keeping the clutches aligned was very important. So he designed a support to tie the engine and drive clutch together so they would stay perfectly aligned. Today you see them on all performance sleds. It was a thing of beauty, like no other sled ever built. But for all good race sleds, you need a good motor.

Once again thinking ahead of his time, Bob realized that all large engines at the time were 3-cylinders and very heavy. They were fast, but in drag racing high horsepower and a light chassis is the way to go. The biggest 2-cylinder engines at the time were 440’s. So back to the drawing board he went again to build a 650cc twin.

Big bore twins were not heard of yet, but today they are commonplace. There were no cylinders available at the time that would accept a large piston and sleeve. So Bob ordered a piece of molding plastic and made his own one-piece jug and cylinder head, then went off to the local foundry that poured the new jug and head. After hundreds of man-hours, sleeves were fitted to the jug, then the 440 Rotax-based engine was modified to accept the new assembly.

Terryville-CT-snowmobile-grass-drag-race

When the entire machine was assembled including the engine it weighed in at less than 250 pounds! Several weekends of testing went on to iron out the new design and tune the motor. Things went well and the sled was raced several times with mixed results. Time and technology were not quite there, which made it difficult to extract the full potential from the complete unit.

A year later the sled was sold to another racer and Bob moved to Florida to work for NASA. The sad truth of all this is, with all of the testing and racing we did, we never took any photos of the sled. It was a part of our history that we never recorded.

In September of 2013, I was over at Gary Totman’s in Conway, MA talking about old racing days and that little sled, when he said, ”Hey! I’ve got some pictures of that sled.” He ran up into the house and came down with a scrapbook of racing photos. Lo and behold he pulled out three pictures of the sled. Over 30 years since the sled was built we finally had pictures.

I went home like a kid in a candy store to show off pictures of our rare sled. Those pictures will always bring back memories of when people built things with their minds and not computers, a time when American ingenuity was at its best.

Now for a new quest. Is the sled still around and can it be found?

If anyone knows the whereabouts of this sled in part of whole, or have photos, please contact Jeff Miller.


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