Much like the perception of a motorcycle gang, for snowmobilers, there is the view from the outside looking in—usually snowshoers and Nordic skiers considering the noisy machines and their riders with some sort of combination of fear, awe and derision. And then there is the vantage point from within the group—most often a kinder, gentler, although still really loud, reality.
Consider the Central Oregon Snow Busters: a local club that regularly grooms more than 250 miles of trails (usually Forest Service roads and often enjoyed by Nordic skiers), donates to charities, volunteers at dog sled races and at least once a year hosts a "Take a Friend" event, meant to expose newbies to the allure of the throttle. According to Matt Mahoney, the Snow Busters' mild mannered president, most snowmobilers are darn nice people.
"When we put our helmets on we're not the Hells Angels of the wintertime," Mahoney assures.
As proof, Mahoney points to the upcoming, family-friendly Snowmobile Drag Races at Wanoga Sno-Park. The third annual, two-day event, which kicks off Saturday, Feb. 8, includes categories for kids (aged 6-12) and women, as well as a number of classes based on engine size. There's even a "run what ya brung, winner takes all" Outlaw Class, where any modification goes.
"It gets bigger and bigger each year," Mahoney said of the no-holds-barred Outlaw Class that boasts a $1,500 payout. "The basic idea behind it is to get the fastest sleds around down here."
Mahoney explained that a souped-up sled may include nitrous or turbo engines as big as 1,400 cc (most new stock snowmobiles are in the 800cc range). Mahoney said there are even rumors of a 1,700 cc sled coming down from Washington.
Drag racing snowmobiles works just like you might think. Two racers line up shoulder to snowsuited shoulder on a 1,000-foot-long, 60-foot-wide track; when the light turns green, the machines roar off.
One of the most important skills, Mahoney said, is being able to burst from the start line,without false starting and tripping the laser beam starting line.
"Cut a good light and you could get to the other end faster," said Mahoney, who competed as a professional asphalt drag racer for nearly 15 years.
Though based in Washington at the time, Mahoney raced drag cars all over the country. After relocating to Bend, drag racing on snow seemed the natural evolution—and, this weekend Mahoney will take to the track once again; not running the event, but racing in at least four different classes. Aside from a few stock and improved classes, he and a friend are entering a four-stroke, turbo-charged beast in the Outlaw Class.
"That's the neat part—competitors run, on average, in three or so classes," said Mahoney.
In years past the Central Oregon Snowmobile Drag Races have attracted as many as 75 racers and 100 or more spectators. As snowmobiling continues to pick up steam, Mahoney expects a similar turnout this year, despite the lack of snow.
"We don't need a ton (of snow), maybe a foot to make it work," Mahoney said. "And we're pretty close."
The sport's growth can be best explained by recent technological advancements.
"It wasn't long ago a $10,000 sled needed $40,000-worth of work," said Ken Thomson, general manager at Pro Caliber, a Bend snowmobile dealer. "Now we're selling that same sled for $13,000," Thompson added.
According to Thompson, the snowmobiles most popular in Bend are all-purpose 800 cc machines called mountain snowmobiles. In recent years snowmobile manufacturers have made sleds easier to handle by shaving weight and adding flexible tracks—a big plus when driving in deep powder. Additionally, fuel injected two-stroke engines mean modern machines don't burn the amount of oil they used to.
"There's been huge increases in the technology of snowmobiles," Thompson said. "Seems to me like every year more people are getting out."
Snowmobile Drag Races
Test and tune: Friday, Feb. 7; Racing: Saturday, Feb. 8 and Sunday, Feb. 9
Wanoga Sno-Par, approximately 15 miles southwest of Bend
Registration starts at 7 am Saturday, racing starts at 11 am. Multiple categories, including kids 6-12 (120 cc); women; and Outlaw Class.
Go Here: River Cleanup, Monday Feb. 10 from 12-3:30pm, meet at McKay Park. After party with music from High Plains Drifter at Crow's Feet Commons proceeds the cleanup. The Bend Paddle Trail Alliance is hosting a river cleanup for the in-town stretch of the Deschutes River. Last fall, nearly one ton of trash was hauled from the river between the Colorado Dam and Newport Avenue Dam, but recent low water levels have revealed even more rubbish. Lend a hand and enjoy a pint afterward with your fellow river rats.
Or here: Nordic Skiing! Cascade Crest 18k and 26k freestyle race, Feb. 8 at Mt. Bachelor; Tour for the Heart 5km, Feb. 9 at Mt. Bachelor. Cascade Crest is a hilly mass-start race on some of Central Oregon's best trails (find more information and register at mbsef.org). Sunday, skiers can support women's health at The Tour for the Heart, a fun, costumes-encouraged 5k (find more information and register at tourfortheheart.org).