The Great Snowmobile Racing War
Snowmobile racing was booming in the late 1960s. Literally thousands of racers were running on fairgrounds and farm fields from coast to coast. Each weekend, hundreds of hopeful racers would gather from far and wide to cluster in the pits with those wearing the same colors: Ski-Doo yellow, Moto-Ski orange, Rupp red, Sno*Jet blue, Skiroule green, Arctic Cat black, and so on. A class winner at a big race could more than pay for his sled with his victory check.
The unmistakable scent of two-stroke racing oil filled the air while the grandstands filled with spectators. At most races, crowds stood atop the banks around the tracks outside of whatever minimal safety provisions had been made, and watched while racing went on from early morning until dark. The noise was deafening. Literally.
Big events in Eagle River, Wisconsin; Ironwood, Michigan; Peterborough, Ontario; and Boonville, New York, drew 40,000 to 50,000 spectators for a weekend. On Monday after a race, Boonville merchants put a half-million dollars in the bank, and that was when gas was under 30 cents a gallon, a new car was three grand, and $15,000 would buy you a brand new house in a nice suburb.
The other thing that happened on Monday was that dealers of winning brands sold more sleds. Race track victories had helped make Ski-Doo the top selling brand in the business, and were propelling Arctic Cat toward the top, while Polaris, Moto-Ski, Rupp, Scorpion and many others fought for positions to round out the top tier in sales volume.
Rule Change Inception
During the Vintage era, the United States Snowmobile Association (USSA) was the sport’s leading race organization. With four divisions — East, Central, West and Alaska — it was our only nationwide sanctioning body. As the ’70s dawned, the Stock classes were 250cc, 295cc, 340cc and 400cc, designated Stock A, B, C and D respectively. Four Women’s and three Junior Stock classes had the same displacement limits.
In spring 1971, USSA decided that all sanctioned oval sprint racing events would offer all classes. Previously many events, including virtually all the biggest ones, had only offered the loud, fast and costly Modified classes. With most manufacturers and many racers eager to reduce the costs of fielding expensive Mod sleds, Stock racing became a priority for many.
Stock racing had meant family trail sleds mostly with fan-cooled engines, like Ski-Doo Olympiques, Arctic Cat Panthers, Polaris Chargers and AMF Ski-Daddlers. A dozen brands including Chaparral, Moto-Ski, Scorpion, Skiroule, Sno*Jet and Sno-Pony were represented among the USSA points leaders. Many more manufacturers ranging from recognizable names like Alouette, Ariens, Bolens and Mercury to obscurities like Poloron and Williamsburg filed models for USSA Stock competition.
Controversies over what was Stock are as old as snowmobiling itself, with many disagreements triggered by Ski-Doo developments. But Rupp fired the first shot in this war. In 1971, the performance-oriented manufacturer dominated D Stock with its Magnum 400. Some USSA officials felt that the company had “snuck an engine over on them” as one put it privately. Rupp only had to build 100 units to qualify it, so hand finishing the exhaust ports on the handful of engines was easy.
Arctic Enterprises responded by attempting to list its EXT Modified racers for Stock classes, but was rejected. So Cat came up with an all-new racer that would change everything.
The sleek 1972 EXT with its purple laser striped hood was new from the ground up. Engineered to compete in both Stock and Mod classes, it was offered with eight free-air engines from a 250cc twin to a 650cc triple. A windshield and a five-gallon gas tank made it a reasonable semblance of a trail sled even if the headlight was optional. And with over 4,200 of them built, these “hot Stockers” were widely available. But a technical dispute erupted, and USSA banned all 1972 EXTs from Stock competition. After a court fight, a compromise put the 250 and 400 back in Stock while the 290 and 340 were restricted to Mod competition. The 250 EXTs blew away everything else in the 250 and 295 classes, and the 400 topped its classes. Meanwhile, the new Rupp Nitro, also developed for Stock racing, dueled with the Polaris TX for 340 supremacy.
This season marked a transition in Stock competition, and in the future of the snowmobile. Family sleds were now useless as racers. Sleds engineered for Stock racing were necessary, and they would quickly begin to influence trail models.
The 1972 EXT platform would become the most commercially successful race sled ever, continuing as the basis of the ’73 and ’74 El Tigré, the Arctic-built ’75 Suzuki Fury, and all Jags through 1981, and with influence extending into other Cats.
USSA wanted to ensure competition between brands and availability of sleds to consumers, so it re-worked the build quantity rules for the 1973 season, settling on a sliding scale requiring anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 units of a given model depending on overall production by its manufacturer. Although no one realized it, industry unit sales had already peaked, and overproduction meant unsold inventories were rising. Several brands, including AMF, Bolens and Sno-Pony, had already left the business, and many remaining companies lacked the resources to field competitive hot Stockers. With their trail sleds no longer competitive, most quit racing.
But staying in Stock racing was important for one very big reason: publicity. Snowmobile racing was getting more attention than ever, both in enthusiast publications and in general media. With Stock racing now part of every event, the brands that did well received a tremendous amount of publicity that helped sell sleds, particularly the models that were winning. But only the strongest companies would reap the benefits.
Determined to avoid issues that dogged the 1972 EXT, Cat returned for ’73 with the El Tigré, the same sled with a headlight and Kawasaki green instead of Arctic purple trim. Built in big numbers with four engine sizes, the El Tigré was promoted as a performance trail sled. Competitors gulped and retreated to their drawing boards and quickly created new machines to match the hot new Cat on the track and in the showroom.
Ski-Doo discarded its traditional engine-on-a-steel-tunnel format to create the T’NT F/A, a contemporary design to match the El Tigré. This new template with a front-mounted engine in an aluminum chassis would be used for all new Bombardiers going forward. Bombardier’s Moto-Ski division concurrently introduced the similar S series, but it found scant success with just one USSA-legal engine. Meanwhile Polaris updated its TX to remain competitive on the track and in the showroom.
All these Stock racers used increasingly popular free air power for better performance. With AMF’s Ski-Daddler gone, Rupp was the sole remaining fan-cooled contender. By mid-winter its Nitros weren’t competitive. And worse, poor sales forced founder Mickey Rupp to sell his company in the spring while talented engineers and racers departed for other brands.
The Arab oil embargo of late 1973 hit all racing hard. Petroleum shortages limited travel and warmer than normal weather caused cancellation of numerous events while snowmobile sales tanked.
Nevertheless, the new Sno Pro Mod circuit headlined the 1974 racing season. Unhappy with the Stock production quantity rule, and now unable to field new Mods for non-Sno Pro racing, Sno*Jet sued USSA and lost. Big Blue did proceed with its new ThunderJet F/A Stock racer and a heavily promoted $1 million contingency program, but it didn’t run in USSA because the company didn’t build the required 1,000 machines.
Meanwhile, Mercury stole the Stock show with its all new Sno-Twister, a sled that was very different from any previous Merc and rumored to have originally been a Rupp. About 1,100 of the free air D Stock Twisters were built, and they owned their class in ’74. The fan-cooled Trail Twister followed the next year, but with depressed sled sales continuing, it wasn’t enough to carry Merc’s snowmobile business much longer. Meanwhile, Ariens, Chaparral and others left the industry while Skiroule and Scorpion were both sold by their conglomerate owners to their snowmobile business managers.
By 1975 things were improving some, and the Stock rules were changed to reflect the realities of the still soft snowmobile market. The 295s were dropped, the 400 class became 440, and build minimums were dropped to a tiny percentage of a manufacturer’s total production, with a minimum of 500 units for any class.
Bombardier introduced a new machine, the Ski-Doo T’NT 245 RV and companion Moto-Ski Sonic 340 RV. These successful racers were notable for their extreme width and for Bombardier’s abandonment of 2-Up capability in favor of the shorter single seat configuration. Both quickly evolved into successful trail sleds that sold well for the rest of the decade. But 1975 was also the end of Sno*Jet racing as Big Blue’s sales continued to slip. By now, manufacturers were abandoning the snowmobile business in droves, and Sno*Jet would soon be sold to Kawasaki.
The 1976 season saw the first liquid-cooled hot Stockers from Cat, Mercury and Yamaha, with Polaris liquids appearing in cross-country competition. Merc’s new Sno-Twister pushed the Stock rules to the extreme, resulting in a sled that simply was not trail-worthy. The featherweight machine had steering arms outside the belly pan, handlebars that were only straight in a left turn, and other features that made it a pure racer. It dominated the track like no sled has before or since. But at the height of its glory, Mercury quit the snowmobile business. Meanwhile, Yamaha made a huge splash by winning the Eagle River World Championship with a 1976 SRX that would also evolve into a strong-selling trail performance sled.
It’s All Different
USSA changed the rules again for 1977, conceding that Stock racers were now pure race sleds. Meanwhile, the Stock Racing War had completely changed the snowmobiles that people were buying. At the beginning, fan-cooled 2-Up family sleds were the big sellers for virtually every brand. By the end, single-seat performance sleds, many with free air engines, had risen to sales dominance while family sleds were in permanent decline. And most of the old brands were now history. Only the biggest manufacturers had survived, and some that had made it this far, notably Rupp, had little time left.
So who won the Great Stock Racing War? Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha all used it to develop superior product and gain vast publicity and share of the consumer’s mind from their competition successes.
And we riders certainly won because we got much more powerful machines with much better handling, improved ride quality, upgraded ergonomics, and above all else, significantly better reliability. Plus we had a lot of fun getting there and we’re still reminiscing about it today.