Snowmobiling's Silly Season
Strange things happen in snowmobiling's "off" season
Story by Jerry Bassett, Photography by Jerry Bassett, Jun 28, 2012
Not too long ago during a conversation with a younger snowmobile writer where we were probably pontificating about something, that younger fellow correctly stated, “You seem quite cynical.”
Neither offended nor surprised, our views may be cynical, but we like to think of them as cautiously based on history and personal experience. We want to believe in the common good and generally speaking we do. But over the years, most of the adult years, we have heard much good and seen the words fall victim to intentions that proved self-serving.
The season before Polaris gained great success with its IFS-front Sno Pro racers in the 1970s, the Roseau racers suffered ignominious defeats both at the hands of some independent teams and Team Arctic, which enjoyed a wonderful season. The Polaris team had some power, but the sleds lacked handling as we saw at an end-of-the-season event in Beausejour, Manitoba. As a young snowmobile writer covering the top oval series, we watched a heat with the IFS-suspended but underpowered Skiroule racers of Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve running against the better financed Polaris race sleds. The Polaris team would go into a corner ahead of the green Skiroules, but lose to them as the Villeneuve brothers drove around them and would exit ahead of them off the turns. Then on the straights Polaris would regain the lead, only to lose again in the corners. And while fighting for a berth in these finals, Arctic Cat’s racers were already qualified – easily.
The Cat public relations man thought this was great fun and enjoyed readying those end of race day press releases. But, then we move ahead a season. The Polaris team had new Midnite Blue racers with good power and even better IFS-handling. The team barely lost a race all season. Team Arctic fared okay, but not as well as Polaris.
About midway through that Sno Pro season, the Team Arctic PR man would come to me and say how bad for snowmobile racing these Polaris victories were. When we’d remind him that he didn’t seem to feel it was bad when Team Arctic had such good luck the season before, he would change the subject. Such winning streaks apparently were bad if the other guy was enjoying them.
Over the years we’ve been privy to some scenes that you had to live to believe. We had just test ridden the new Chaparral SSX liquid-cooled snowmobile a few weeks earlier and were at a national dealer meeting for Chaparral snowmobiles, which was owned by international giant Armco Steel. The mood was good, as the new SSX seemed a surefire hit. It was sleek, well engineered and innovative for the mid-1970s. Dealers were assured that Chaparral was entrenched in the sled business even if the economy was soft. Sound familiar?
Then, just a few weeks later, Armco pulled the plug on its snowmobile group. All that happy talk was just so much two-stroke blowback.
One of my favorites, though, has to be the Arctic Enterprises demise, where we were told that the new buyer was committed to snowmobiling and those Arctic Cat snowmobiles would continue. They couldn’t fail because the brand was Number One. We were even told that to our face by the key money man himself.
What we didn’t understand at the time was that the true value of Arctic Enterprises lay in the small boat companies that it owned. The new financing wasn’t to secure snowmobiles continuing, but to break out the boat companies and ultimately secure a solid business in boats. This small beginning ultimately became the foundation for one of the largest boat builders in North America. But, ironically, that business would be broken up into pieces decades later as the next century was too tough to succeed.
On another Arctic Cat note, we found some truth and justice with the crew that became Arctco and brought Arctic Cat back to life. These were wonderfully honest and well-intentioned sorts who didn’t make grandiose claims and who succeeded far beyond their most wild intentions. They did it by being hard-working, practical snowmobile folks who decided to build the best Arctic Cat possible and let the enthusiasts decide if the product was right or not. The product was right and the company still retains that basic philosophy. So, not all is cynical.
Among the favorite snowmobile companies over the years have been ones that we no longer see on the trails. Well, only on vintage rides. We miss John Deere. The company’s snowmobile group built good products. The people were honest and hard working. If a John Deere snowmobile executive told you something, you could trust the information as being real. There were no shenanigans.
Nowadays we want to believe. But when we see Ski-Doo’s parent take after Arctic Cat for a patent infringement, we do revert to our cynical nature. If the companies involved would just be upfront about these things, we’d find the situations more tolerable. But, lawyers have to do what lawyers do and that means no one says anything about anything.
Now we have Polaris suing the Ski-Doo parent. From a bit of reading of snowmobile enthusiast forums, we get the distinct feeling that most snowmobilers think this behavior is s-o-o high school. Frankly, we don’t doubt that all the parties involved have their points. But we are also so hardened by past experiences to think that all the problems stem from one side seeking a self-serving advantage over something and over each other.
We saw the numbers that the snowmobile manufacturers’ lobby outlet published recently. We give the group great credit for spinning that news in a very favorable manner. Fact is that while snowmobiling may be rebounding somewhat, the bottom line is that U.S. sled sales in 1995 were 3.5 times larger at 168,509 than they are today at 48,689. Now the actual good news that we take away from the industry’s report centers on the apparent drop in age of today’s average snowmobiler. We look to the report being accurate as to the potential influx of younger generations looking at snowmobiling as an activity. We do see younger faced riders in the powder states where sled sales are currently strongest. So, we are hopeful about that for the sport’s future. And we hope that this influx bodes well for snowmobile clubs and associations as well.
We like the fact that 65 percent of first time buyers are opting in with used sleds. That takes the pressure off the sled makers coming up with the perfect entry-level sled, which we doubt can exist. Used sleds mean more choices for the newcomer to the sport. It can also mean better profitability to a dealer. There are advantages to used sled sales.
So, while we can be cynical about snowmobiling, it is bred of past wrongs heaped upon us snowmobilers over the past decades and continued with the silliness we see every season about this time when sled makers look to gain advantages over each other in one way or another. That way this year seems to be through legal maneuvering. That makes us sad.
But, what makes us less sad, less cynical, less pessimistic is looking to what we can expect in the days ahead. After all, Arctic Cat has to be coming forward with new engines soon. The deal with Suzuki is over and the era of an all-American Arctic Cat with made-in Minnesota powerplants has to be greeted with enthusiasm, even by us cynics. There is some growth coming on the heels of a horrible no-snow winter in key sled country. That’s positive. While we may not hit the numbers of the past few decades, sled sales are going up. Innovations keep coming. We continue to want to ride as soon – and as often – as we can.
Who says a cynic can’t see an upside? Just don’t try to dazzle us with scat. Been there, seen that.
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