Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
Turns out, you don't really need a seat to race a snowmobile.
Which was perfect for Grace Mathews, whose black, mostly duct-tape seat worked well enough for her to take third in one race Saturday afternoon on Molas Pass.
Mathews, 12, didn't know the age of her silver and rainbow-striped John Deere, with a neon green 007 taped on both sides and even more tape holding together the handlebars. But she did know it was her grandpa's and that it was unlike every one of the 35 or so other snowmobiles against which she raced in every way but one: All of them were much older than her.
Well, maybe two ways; her seat situation wasn't exactly unique, either.
Mathews took the runner-up spot in the Vintage Junior race as part of the Xtreme Mountain Racing's final snowmobile racing circuit stop of the year Saturday at Molas Lake. And along with those 35 or so other riders on snow machines Polaris, Yamaha, Ski-Doo and more, Mathews took part in a vintage movement sweeping through snowmobile racing.
“Once you get out there, there ain't nothin' like it,” said Greg Lonero, president of the Antique and Vintage Snowmobile Club of Colorado. “It just rocks.”
Part Mad Max, part Battle of Hoth, part “stock cars racing on snow,” vintage snowmobile racing can be heard and smelled before it can be glimpsed, and Saturday it stole the show away from even the semipro snocross racers.
As many as eight humming snowmobiles – none manufactured after 1986 allowed – lined up, wheezing bluish smog and petroleum odors with snow-capped peaks filling the deep blue sky above.
Few, if any, look much alike. There's the faded red and black, late 1970s model Scorpion Sting labeled “Old Trusty Rusty.” There's Lonero's very antique looking Yamaha, with its near-perfect decals and its sponsorship labels. There's the ratty black and green 1984 Polaris that Garrett Neufeld and Shad Petersen bought for $150 dollars off the side of the road. And there's Mathews' duct-taped Deere.
“(Once) it was all we could do to get rid of them,” Neufeld said. “Now, it's all we can do to find them.”
“Them” being “old crap,” as one rider put it.
“It's the most fun you can have for the money,” said Edward Cave, “58 and ready to go,” who bought his 1980 machine for $300 and raced for the fourth time Saturday.
Back at the starting line: With the wave of a flag, the hum becomes a snarl or a scream, and the snow machines leap into motion, plunging into their first turn into the flat, oval-shaped track.
“This track is the absolute best,” said Mark Masker of Denver, who won two vintage categories Saturday aided by his helm, wind-proofed with pink duct tape. “This is like the exciting track” on XMR circuit.
Battering against one another, the riders and their beasts hit the gas on the 60-mile-per-hour straights and jockey for position on the inside curves, taking the bumps as they come and leaning hard into the turns lest they spin out onto the perimeter or even flip entirely.
At points, pieces fly off – “That's how we do it!” Lonero yelled – and the snow-spray murk from the treads adds an extra challenge.
The key to a racer's success, Mathews said, is easing off the gas into the turns to prevent rolling, keeping to predetermined lines and finding holes in opponents' cornering patters.
The key to vintage racing's success is its democratic nature.
Simply put: It's cheap, and anyone can do it, unlike snowmobile racing's most visible iteration – snocross.
A cousin to dirt-bike motocross racing, snocross courses such as the carefully crafted one at Molas feature technical, hairpin turns, big air and big machines. The spectator-friendly sport requires competitors to swing nearly 500-pound snowmobiles around corners, keep them level dozens of feet in the air and keep them from running over themselves or their fellow racers.
“You're constantly throwing the sled around,” said Petersen of Capser, Wyo. “You kinda got to be on your game.
“That's a young man's game,” he said.
Vintage racing has cross-class and cross-generational appeal – cool, cheap and small machines, high speeds, tiered competition for the whole family.
What more could a racer want?
Not much, if you ask Mathews, which is why what started as a niche, older-person sport on the XMR circuit last year has exploded. Lonero estimates vintage racing has tripled its riders in just a single season.
“It's loud; it's fast,” Mathews said with a braces-filled grin. “I didn't like the jumps (in snocross), and like I said, it's fast.”
Or if you ask second-year racer Lisa Wagner, whose 7-year-old son Tallyn won the 120cc Snocross competition.
“It gets your adrenaline going. Like right now, I'm already nervous, and I'm not even going,” she said before one of her heats.
“So I go out there and scream the whole time.”
Or ask Dean Charpentier, who's been racing snowmobiles for 44 years.
“I just developed a passion, a love for the machine itself,” that vintage racing, with its barn-and-backyard pilfered beasts begging for tinkering and customizing, allows Charpentier to indulge. “Just the primitive nature of them: so simple; so basic.”
And as for the rise in their popularity?
“Word's getting out,” Charpentier said.
It certainly reached Silverton.