Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Snowmobile Racing in the Adirondacks

Adirondack Snowmobile RacingIn the motor toboggan era – the time before the advent of the modern snowmobiles we know today – motor sleds had been too slow for racing excitement. As a result they remained strictly utilitarian vehicles racing only occasionally for promotional purposes. Motor toboggan and later snowmobile maker Polaris traveled each year at the end of the 1950s to trapper festivals at The Pas, Manitoba where they helped organize ad hoc races.

“We tried to rig them a little bit so we had a zig-zag effect,” David Johnson said, remembering one of the first informal races, “one guy ahead, and then the other, and so on, at a terrific speed of about 20 miles per hour.” In February 1959, Johnson won the first organized men’s race on an oval at The Pas and in 1960, the first cross-country race was held there.

At the early organized snowmobiles races, oval and cross-country contests were the main events. Drags were also popular across the snowbelt, but there were regional variations in the kinds of races that were held. In the upper Midwest sno-cross was popular, and in the East, slaloms and hill climbs. The kinds of races held depended on local ideas about how best to test the mettle of the machines. Oval, cross-country, slalom, obstacle courses, and hill climbs were popular in the Adirondacks.

Early snowmobile races were almost always organized by manufacturers and local distributors. To show off the new snow machines they traveled to winter festivals and ice fishing derbies and give demonstrations and free rides.

With the help of Autoboggan dealer Harry Paul, Winnipeg, Manitoba became an important early center for snowmobiling and snowmobile racing. Canada’s most important race got its start near Winnipeg with one of the last of the old motor toboggan companies, Bosak Motor Toboggans (1950 to 1964). When the Beausejour Lion’s Club included a motor toboggan race in its annual end-of-winter festival in February 1962, most of the sleds there were from Bosak, whose factory was about 15 miles away.

Although only six drivers competed at Beausejour, the competition was so popular that the following year they inaugurated the “Canadian Power Toboggan Championship” with 15 riders competing, including a few women. This event is considered by snowmobile racing historian Bill Vint as “the first formally titled and well-organized race in the sport’s history.” It included a six-mile cross country course along with oval and sprint racing. A “novelty race” comprised of women drivers was so popular with the 1,000 spectators that the Ladies’ Canadian Championship was organized in 1964.

A dealer organized race in Michigan in late December, 1962 helped launch today’s most popular form of snowmobile racing, sno-cross. Bud Weesen, a Ski-Doo dealer in Marquette, contacted all 15 people who had bought sleds and invited them to a race in a field near town. Promotions for the race pitted the Chief of Police against the County Sheriff and the Mayor of Marquette against the Mayor of Escanaba. The following year, when the Marquette race added a field of manmade three-foot bumps and banked turns, sno-cross was born.

One of the earliest snowmobile races in New York State was held in Malone, where one of the first Ski-Doo dealers was located. That community would go on to play a major part in the history of snowmobiling, including organizing one of the first snowmobile clubs. Snowmobile distributors in Malone would play an important role in area racing as well, and many Malone drivers would take home local racing honors. In 1969, when Malone hosted the Northeastern United States Snowmobile Championships local newspapers were calling the community “the snowmobile capital of the world.”

In 1962, Leon “Duke” Elliot and Dee Hutchins of Malone, who had been sellers of full-size Bombardier half-track snowmobiles, became one of the first three Ski-Doo distributors in the United States. Elliot and Hutchins, along with Al Dufrane of Dufrane Motor Distributors in Malone, were the first dealers of modern snowmobiles in Northern New York. Together they were responsible for the popularity of the Ski-Doos and Moto-Skis found in the Adirondacks and around New York.

For a time, Moto-Ski had a chance to be one of the major makers. Jean Yves Bélanger and Raoul Pelletier built the first Moto-Skis in 1962 in LaPocatière, north of Québec. Their first commercial effort, Le Cupidon, impressed Al Dufrane in Malone. He bought nearly every Moto-Ski produced in 1963 and 1964, about 225 in all. They were popular at the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation and soon were also being sold by dealers in Nicholville, Keeseville, Wadhams, Moriah, and at the Rouses Point Moto-Ski Company.

Thanks to their high performance (they would eventually be acquired by Bombardier) Moto-Ski was also popular with the racing crowd. George Dufrane Sr. and machinist Charles Grimshaw ran one of the first modified sleds in Saranac Lake in 1967, a Moto-Ski that clocked at 60 mph. Among the local racers who ran Moto-Skis were Pete Demers and Bill Titus of Malone. Pete Demers, along with Saranac Lakers Wesley and Sonny Moody, dominated the Ski-Doos in the 1966 Potsdam races on their Moto-Skis. The following year in Lake Placid Bill Titus won the Schaefer Cup and Alice Moore led the pack in the women’s race, both on Moto-Skis. The company got a boost nationally when drivers on Moto-Skis won the 1965 International Championships and the 1965 Canadian Championships.

One of the first races in New York State was held in late January, 1963 at the Malone Winter Carnival. The organizing committee asked the local Amvets post if they could contribute something to the carnival that weekend, and after a few Friday Happy Hour rounds at the Amvets No. 8 bar, a series of races was planned for club grounds on Sunday. Two sled owners, Malone attorney Robert Walsh and local automobile dealer Phil Riley, spearheaded the plan. Their first step was to contact Duke Elliot for help setting up the races, and then cross-country, oval and obstacle courses were laid out by Bill and Ben Dixon and Jim Black. The Malone Fire Department provided emergency services, and WICY radio and the Malone Telegram promoted the event.

Similarly, about 40 miles away, at the Snow Arena in Madrid Springs, the Madrid Rescue Squad began holding “Snowmobile Scrambles” in February 1963 to raise money for the squad. The first big racing event in New York State, they were immediately popular and quickly drew capacity crowds, necessitating expansion of the grounds. The 1965 race featured snowmobiles of “all makes from three counties and Canada,” about 75 snowmobiles in all, competing for cash prizes in what was being billed as “the fastest growing sport in the North Country.” The races had a fair-like atmosphere, with displays from North Country snowmobile dealers and refreshments in the club house; spectators could watch the action from the warm comfort of their cars.

What may have been the first organized race held in the Adirondacks was a one-mile competition billed as the world’s first “Snow Buggy Slalom.” Also sponsored by the dealers, it was held at the 65th Annual Saranac Lake Carnival on February 1, 1963 on a course that began and ended at a skating rink on Petrova Avenue. The race helped turn Saranac Lake into the Adirondack region’s first snowmobile capital. John Pedroni, who chaired the first race, along with race enthusiasts Jim Latour, Don Carter, Charles Gallo, Carl Hathaway, Ed Duso, Marvel Clark, and local dealers Charles Keough and Sonny Moody, would launch and lead the first snowmobile club, the Saranac Lake Forest and Wildlife Protective Patrol, and the fight to allow snowmobiles on Adirondack Forest Preserve land.

The year 1964 in particular was a breakout time for snowmobile racing as something of a circuit was formed at the end of the 1963-1964 season. At the beginning of 1964, the Canadian Power Toboggan Championship attracted 5,000 spectators, twice the population of Beausejour, including a reporter from Sports Illustrated. The national media attention was a watershed moment and that winter (1964-1965) racing became more widespread with local business and fraternal clubs organizing events for the purposes of economic boosterism.

One of the most well-known snowmobile race venues was established in 1964 in St. Paul, Minnesota on January 25 when about 40 racers ran along the lakeshore in Phalen Park. The following week, the race in Lancaster, N.H. was held, newly christened the International Motorized Toboggan Grand Prix. The Grand Prix in 1964 featured about 40 sleds, all Ski-Doos, which competed on a five-mile cross-country course that had been laid out with a Bombardier Muskeg. A significant development at this race was the practice of adding weight (sand bags) to lighter sleds to equalize the racing. This is believed to have been the first attempt to institute fair competition rules.

A week after Lancaster, on February 9, 1964, was the Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby (so-named in 1966), described as “the racing event that sent snowmobile competition into an upward spiral that spun almost out of control for a decade.” Today, Eagle River, Wisconsin bills itself as home to the oldest continuously run snowmobile race. The first race was Arctic Cat’s show, and the company invited all known snowmobile makers, and held dozens of races in front of a 2-3,000 attendees. Competitions including ski-joring, hill climbs, and obstacle races, and for the first time brought experimental modified sleds from the Polaris (Stan Hayes) and Arctic Cat (Roger Skime) factories. More importantly, the wide media coverage of this event helped catapult snowmobile racing into every snowy town in America. Nowhere was that more true than in New York State.

On February 6 and 7, 1964 the Polar Bear Derby was held on Lake George, featuring Robert Bottoms, the winner at Lancaster, billed as the national champion. Trophies were awarded in the one and two man races, and slaloms, and the best overall racer was awarded the Elliott and Hutchins Polar Bear Derby Trophy. The same weekend, over in Colton, St. Lawrence County, about 900 people attended races of about 60 machines of various makes and models. Snowmobilers from Saranac Lake were on hand, promoting their upcoming races at the Winter Carnival.

A week later hundreds of race enthusiasts met on Lake Flower for the second running of the Saranac Lake Carnival races. Included in the events was a “spear-in-the-ring” competition wherein snowmobilers had to maneuver their sleds to catch a ring with a spear and race to the finish. The racing was again organized by the Protective Patrol and local dealers. The Patrol also organized races in Tupper Lake, and races on March 15th at the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club grounds on Bloomingdale Road, which included cross country, slalom, spear-in-the-ring and clover leaf courses.

Organized racing at Cranberry Lake Inn, another center of Adirondack snowmobile culture, began formally several weeks later on February 23, 1964 with a snow buggy event on the ice. The racing program ran from 1 pm to 6 pm and consisted of “the various types of snowmobiles which are becoming the rage of the northland this winter.” As with all of the early races, the event included free rides for spectators and “demonstrations of the versatility of the snow vehicles”. The races were organized by the new Cranberry Lake Boating and Racing Club which was formed in the fall of 1963 to organize motor boat racing.

It was also in 1964 that one of the most storied snowmobile racing locations in New York got its start. In the winter of 1962-63 the Boonville Area Chamber of Commerce had raised the idea of a winter carnival featuring snowmobile races, but it found little support. At the same time a group in Camden, about 25 miles to the southwest, was moving forward with a plan. Their February 1963 event was popular enough to prompt the Boonville chamber to action.

Boonville’s 1964 “Wonderland of Ice” Winter Carnival, sponsored by the Boonville Area Chamber of Commerce, was held February 14 through 16, 1964. It followed the regular format of area winter carnivals: the crowning of a queen; a torch light parade; a Wonderland Ball for adults at the new Elks Club, and a Snow Ball for young people; ice sculpture contests; and a ski fashion show. The highlight however, was billed as “three days of Snow Mobile Racing including a 15 mile Cross Country Race, obstacle course and class speed races.”

By the winter of 1964-1965 snowmobile racing seemed to be occurring everywhere and racing began its critical role in the creation, expansion, and public image of the industry. At the St. Paul Winter Carnival in late January 1965, 150 drivers competed, three times the number that had participated the year before. In 1966, the Beausejour Championship race had outgrown the Lion’s Club and become a community event. The following year a half-mile oval was built in addition to the cross-country course, the log-pulling competition was dropped, but ramp-jumping and junior races were instituted. The races that year attracted 10,000 spectators and 150 drivers competing for $1,750.”

Racing in the opening months of 1965 included the third running of the Saranac Lake race, dubbed the “Third International Snow Buggy Races” which attracted 500 spectators to Lake Flower along with the “hum of the snow buggy engines [that] sounded much like motor boats in another season.” Three classes of contests (now sponsored by the Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce) brought racers from Malone, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, including George Dufrane, Herve St. Onge, Craig Duso, Florence Sherwin, and Peter Gardner. Less formal races were held at even the smallest lakes, such as Lake Balfour in Minerva in March 1965. Increasingly however, the biggest races in the Adirondacks began to be held in Lake Placid, which by 1967 took over as the Adirondack region’s racing capital.

In February 1965, the first New York State Snowmobile Championship was held on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid. The event was supported by dealers across Northern New York. The racers also competed to qualify for the upcoming Second International Championships in Quebec City. The organizers of that race sent word to the local Chamber of Commerce that they would like to run the 1966 International Championships in Lake Placid and showed up to see how the trial run was handled. Highway Superintendent John Fell laid out the courses. The races were cross-country, oval, and slalom in several classes, plus a race for drivers under 16 and a “Powder Puff” race, all overseen by Protective Patrol members Sonny Moody and Ed Duso. There were about 300 spectators, many watching from the warmth of their cars parked along the lakeshore.

The big winner among the 50 sleds at Lake Placid in 1965 was Oscar St. Onge of Tupper Lake. St. Onge and his father Herve, both founding members of the Protective Patrol, formed the competitive racing team known as the St. Onge Raiders. Between 1965 and 1969 they captured three New York State Championships, more than 75 trophies, and a good-size pile of prize money. The St. Onge Raiders were well known on the national racing circuit and were the hometown favorites at the North Country Snowmobile Championship in Tupper Lake in 1969.

Lake Placid (Probably Mirror Lake)In 1966, snowmobile races were held all over the Adirondack region and there were enough races to keep competitors busy every weekend. Roger Mosher of Johnsburg won the Snow Buggy Trophy at the Sit’n Bull Dude Ranch in Warrensburg on January 9. Just four days later races were held on Lake Flower. The biggest races of the season, the Third International Snowmobile Championships, were held at Mirror Lake, the first time the International Championships was held in the United States. Almost 400 competitors ran for the four-foot tall Kawartha Cup, already inscribed with the names of previous winners Raymond Cote of Montagne, Quebec (1964) and Maurice Dionne of Kamouraska, Quebec (1965). All the major dealers and makers were there, and after the races a meeting of the brand new International Snowmobile Industry Association was held.

The weekend after the Lake Placid races, the sleds headed to Malone for the annual winter carnival, and then the following weekends offered the Eastern New York Snowmobile Championships in Lake George and New York State Snowmobile Championships in Boonville. The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival races that year conflicted with the races in St. Lawrence County which attracted the best Adirondack drivers and where Wes and Sonny Moody were the big winners, taking home the trophies in modified and stock 10-hp and over classes. Bill Titus and Peter Demers also had good showings, as did Philip Winters of Dickenson Center.

In January and February 1967 there were more than 20 snowmobiles races in the Adirondack region, despite the fact that no organized sanctioning body had been formed to keep records and plan events. Races included those at Malone, Chazy Lake, Madrid, and West Potsdam; at the lake-front Municipal Park in Tupper Lake; at Charles Merchant’s Cranberry Lake Inn; on Lake Colby during the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival; and the Diamond Trophy Snowmobile Races at Lake Placid’s North American Festival. Warren County was an excellent example of how popular racing had become.

In late January through mid-March there were races in Lake George (Schaefer Cup), Hague, Chestertown, Pottersville, Schroon Lake (technically southern Essex County), and Warrensburg. In 1967 the Boonville Snow Festival again hosted the New York State Snowmobile Championships and races were also held in Old Forge, organized by the Central Adirondack Association; and on Lake Pleasant.

Many of these races gathered 50 to 100 sleds, and about 1-2,000 spectators, with the biggest in the Adirondacks being the Lake George Eastern Championships and the International Diamond Trophy Races in Lake Placid, which each brought about 125-150 racers. The New York State Snowmobile Championships in Booneville included about the same, competing for the Adirondack Cup in front of some 4,000 spectators.

The following winter, attendance at the Eagle River World Championships in 1968 topped 10,000 with 300 racers, all featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The 1969 Canadian Power Toboggan Championships, also featured on Wild World of Sports (and at which six cars were ramp-jumped by the Polaris Thrill Team) also broke the 10,000 spectator mark. National caliber races drawing 25 to 30,000 spectators were not uncommon in the 1970s.

In addition to taking home bragging rights, and souvenir prizes like the Diamond Trophy, Schaefer Cup, or the coveted Adirondack Cup, in the late 1960s prize money began to rise as well. Overall winner of the 1967 Lake Placid races, Bill Titus on a Moto-Ski, took home $400 of the $1,000 offered that day. Sponsors included the Schaefer Brewing Company (who gave out medals and trophies), the local Chamber of Commerce, and the Lake Placid Sports Council.

Just two years later, at the North Country Snowmobile Championships in Tupper Lake, $4,000 in prize money was offered, plus trophies. The Northeastern United States Snowmobile Championships held in Malone in 1969 offered a $3,000 purse. The Second Annual Can-Am International Championship Snowmobile Race, sanctioned by the United States Snowmobile Association and run at the American Legion Post in Waddington in 1971, was covered live by WYBG in Massena. The Legion hall expanded the grounds to provide for 10,000 people, and the purse included 10% of the gate receipts and five trips for two to the Bahamas.

There was even more money being offered at the national races, if you could get there. The Eagle River World Championships in 1966 offered $1,500 in prize money, but by 1968 that number was $5,000. At the Canadian Power Toboggan Championships prize money rose from $1,750 in 1967 to a whopping $25,000 in 1970.

The large purses offered by the major races attracted a professional class of racers, who benefited from corporate sponsorships and the support of manufacturers. The winner of the Eagle River World’s Championship in 1966 was Steve Ave, driving a Ski-Doo. Ave would go on to be one of the most recognizable names in early snowmobile racing after wining the Player’s World Series event in Montreal in 1967. Ave worked with Phil Mickelson, of Midwest Ski-Doo distributor Halvorson Equipment Company, to build race sleds for the next ten years. In 1972, Ski-Doo factory racer Gaston Ferland was clocked at 94 miles per hour at the races in Beausejour. In 1973, the year the Beausejour track hosted the first-ever Canadian Sno-Pro race, 23-year-old Gilles Villeneuve, sponsored by Skiroule, captured the Canadian Power Toboggan Championship by winning 9 of 10 starts.

Like many racers, Villeneuve ran for the money, and was so successful after his win at the 1974 World Championships that he was often paid just to appear. Snowmobile maker Skiroule also provided Villeneuve with the money for his first Formula auto races. He would go on to win six Formula One Grand Prix races before dying in a crash while qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Villeneuve credited snowmobile racing with making him a better Formula One racer. “Every winter, you would reckon on three or four big spills — and I’m talking about being thrown on to the ice at 100 miles per hour,” he said. “Those things used to slide a lot, which taught me a great deal about control. And the visibility was terrible! Unless you were leading, you could see nothing, with all the snow blowing about. Good for the reactions — and it stopped me having any worries about racing [Formula One] in the rain.”

The addition of these “pro” riders and the participation of the manufacturers were viewed as a cause for the decline in the general popularity of the sport by the end of the decade. “I think as soon as exotic machinery gets involved and factory teams begin to participate, the average man realizes he doesn’t have a chance,” Warren Daoust, president of Scorpion said in 1971. “Last year, there was ample evidence of this in that both crowds and participation dropped noticeably. The average guy is no longer interested when he doesn’t have a chance, and yet he would like to race.”

“If the factories want to maintain the public interest in racing,” Daoust offered, they should “differentiate professional racing from amateur racing, then make sure it is enforced.” In the view of the President of Scorpion, then the third largest snowmobile maker in the United States, manufacturers should make racing fair for everyone, or “if they continue to allow the consumer to question the credibility of racing, then racing is going to lose its appeal and what is a vital tool for selling the enjoyment of the sport and giving people a good use or outlet for the product can be lost entirely.” He also called for “real teeth” in racing rules. This may have been a jab at the United States Snowmobile Association (USSA), founded in Eagle River in 1967, which produced the most popular rulebook. In New York State, the Amateur Championships were organized for stock machines only, in an effort to keep professionals from dominating the races.

In the heyday of snowmobile racing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, big turnouts at racing events helped established racing ovals as permanent fixtures on the winter scene. Major racing facilities, capable of holding upwards of 30,000 spectators were built at Lancaster, Eagle River, and Beausejour, and in New York State, established ovals drew competitors from smaller weekend races nearby. Races were organized every Sunday at the Clinton County Fairgrounds in Plattsburgh by the North Country Squares, who usually promoted country and western dances.

Even stock car racing tracks got into the action. The Devils Bowl Speedway in West Haven, VT, normally ran auto races in the summer, but in winter hosted weekly snowmobile races sanctioned by the Champlain Valley Racing Association. These events drew over 100 racers from eastern New York and New England to compete on a half-mile ice oval and in drag events. The opening race in 1976 featured Jimmy Moreau of Bangor, Maine jumping four cars on a snowmobile, ramp to ramp.

On the ice of South Bay on Lake Champlain (near Whitehall) regular races were held, including the Lake Champlain Valley Championships, and the New York State Amateur Championships. The United States Snowmobile Association (USSA) held two of its first four races of the Snowmobile World Series Championships in New York: at Boonville in 1971 and in Malone in 1973.

In 1966 and 1967 drag racing on grass began as a way to bring enthusiasts out during the summer and early grass drags were held in Three Lakes, Wisconsin; Blaine, Minnesota; Beausejour, Manitoba; and Phillips, Maine. The year 1969 featured 13 grass drags from New York to Montana along with the first enduro race in Michigan. In 1970, the first SnoPro race was held in Michigan and in 1975 the first races over open water, now known as watercross, began in Canterbury, New Hampshire. A race in 1979 in West Yellowstone ushered in the modern snocross era, with a short runway and jump into a twisting and winding banked course.

Snocross is the most popular form of snowmobile racing today (along with its variants, including freestyle, hillcross, hill climbs, and cross-country). It is however, largely a spectator sport organized by the World Powersport Association (formerly the World Snowmobile Association) that receives prominent international television coverage through its inclusion in the X Games.

The United States Snowmobile Association and World Powersport Association have the largest organized circuits for ice oval racing. Today spectators in the Adirondacks are as likely to see hill climbs, or vintage sled races, but frozen lake ice ovals remain an important way amateurs take part, although not in nearly the numbers that they did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those were the peak years of snowmobiling.

Photos: Above, an early Adirondack snowmobile race, probably near Old Forge; and below, an early race on Mirror Lake.


John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John’s Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.


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3 Responses

  1. Russ LaHart says:

    In the photo on the below right that is my brother on a Harley Davidson and he won the race and they gave him a similar, on stock, snowmobile. Rode the hell out that machine in Lake Placid lake.

  2. Bruce says:

    We used to travel from Oswego County to see the races at Boonville in the early 70’s. A friend let me use his old ’65 Cat; it wasn’t fast, but it didn’t slow down either. It was a great trail making machine, and about the only one I couldn’t turn over in a turn because of its weight.

    During one blizzard, folks couldn’t get up our roads from the main highway (Rte. 49), so several of us ferried them home from where they were holed up at a local gas station and the Red and White store in West Monroe. The gas station let us have free gas that night.

  3. Paul says:

    John, this is a well written story, thanks for posting it.

    Was Charlie Keough a Ski-Doo dealer like it says in the story? Duso’s was a dealer selling sleds out at the marina on Lower Saranac for many years but I didn’t realize that Keough was a dealer as well?