By Todd Houston
Oval track snowmobile racing was booming in the late 1960s and ‘70s. 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. Big events in Eagle River, Wisconsin; Ironwood, Michigan; Peterborough, Ontario; and Boonville, New York, could draw 40,000 to 50,000 spectators for a weekend.
Sunday afternoon local drag races were also fun and brought many racing fans out of the woodwork and into to the frigged weather to watch the “mods” crackle and pop down the drag way.
This week, Rockford Rocked Interviews sets down the music as we catch up with snowmobile drag racer, collector and enthusiast Toby Houston to talk about local snowmobile racing history, vintage sleds and some of the people in this frosty racing community.
RRT: Snowmobile racing has probably been around since the advent of the snow machine itself but really didn’t become popular until the 1960s. What was it that lured you into it and how old were you when you started?
TH: In 1975 my Dad bought a new Arctic Cat 440 Z because it was supposed to be a very fast sled. Initially, we intending on trail riding it. He forgot one thing though: it was made for racing and only had a 2-gallon gas tank from the factory and a seat that was made for one person. Needless to say, trail riding with a passenger or any long distances didn’t work out so well.
At that time there was a non-sanctioned drag race circuit held by different snowmobile clubs every weekend around northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. So in the 1976 season, my dad started to drag race and brought me along. They had a juniors’ class (age 11-15) but I wasn’t old enough and I didn’t have a practical sled for a kid my age to race. A friend of the group had a Polaris TX 250 and asked my dad if I wanted to race it. I ended up taking first place and brought home my first trophy. I was hooked after that really.
RRT: What make of snowmobiles were you using to race with early on and what class did you race in? Vintage, modified, stock, etc.
TH: Well, in 1977 we found a 1975 Ski-Doo 245 RV snowmobile. We found it driving around one Sunday in a fenced-in gate at Walker-Schork`s in Rochelle. It was the coolest looking sled, all black with an orange nose cone and flat as a pancake. It just looked fast! I raced that sled for a few years in junior stock 250 free air class and had a great time. Then, of course, there becomes the need to go faster, so I jumped up to juniors 340 stock free air with the same machine. I just swapped the 245 engine for a 340 engine that we got at Deckers in Marshfield, Wisconsin before they moved to Eagle River.
About a year later we modified the RV 340 Ski-Doo and ran in the Mens 340 modified class You were supposed to be 16-years-old to run mod class but back then with a parent’s signature away you went! (laughs)
RRT: Back in the 1970s and ‘80s I can remember snowmobile drag races being held all over the area including Juda, Wisconsin; Dakota; Belvidere, and so on. The funny thing about it was you didn’t necessarily have to have snow to race! The “Grass drags” as they called them were super cool. Do they still do this? Grass drags?
TH: They sure do. Prairie Riders Snowmobile Club puts on a great local grass drag and swap meet in Belvidere, held the first week of October. They have classes from trail stock, mod stock, open mod and a 340 and 440 vintage class. If you haven’t seen snowmobiles run on grass this is a great local event. They also have a vintage grass drag circuit throughout Wisconsin.
RRT: You mentioned that you got out of collecting and racing a few times over the years only to be pulled back in. What is it? The comradery, the excitement? Please explain.
TH: The excitement was a big factor. Just the thought of finding that forgotten sled in a barn or someone’s backyard. It was such a thrill to get a call from someone telling me they saw an old sled sitting outside in the weeds or by the side of a barn. That would keep me up all night just thinking about it. I remember one time when I was selling my collection and had only a handful left, I ran into an old acquaintance. I mentioned that I was into old race snowmobiles and he informed me that his friend had an old Arctic Cat EXT that was stored in a barn outside of Rockford and thought he still had it. He didn’t have the address but gave me the road and general location. I drove out to the location that day only to find a burned down barn. I was so upset thinking it was burned up until I received a call from the owner; he informed me that I had the wrong road and he still had the EXT. He gave me the correct address and we set up a time to meet. To my amazement, it was an original Arctic Cat vintage EXT! So instead of selling, I was back into collecting. (laughs)
RRT: I’m told snowmobile racing is sort of a tight-knit community. How many friends do you think you have you made just by stumbling into this hobby over the years?
TH: I’ve met a lot of nice people from all over the states and Canada and have become really good friends with a few of them. Most of the sleds we purchased were out of state so it was nice to have contacts in different areas.
RRT: In a previous conversation you told me about a place near New Richmond, Wisconsin called The Zed Shed. Owner Rich Pederson really seems to be taking snowmobile collecting to the next level. Thoughts?
TH: The Zed Shed is really something else. Rich is one of the first guys I met in this hobby and has helped me out several times over the years. He probably has one of the nicest Arctic Cat race collections in the states. It’s amazing the rare sleds that he has collected over the years. Every time I go up there he has a few more rare birds in the showroom. Bigwigs from Arctic Cat stop by and admire his collection and hang out. You never know who or what will show up there.
RRT: As far as vintage snowmobile collecting goes, in your opinion what is the “Holy Grail”? In other words, What is the 1963 “split window” Corvette of the vintage snowmobile world?
TH: Wow, I’m not really sure but for me, it would be the early 1977 Polaris RXL leaf spring Sno Pro or the 1977 Arctic Cat IFS Sno Pro sled. Both of these are very rare and highly collectible.
RRT: Let’s face it. We’re all getting older now. Does the thought of hanging out at Eagle River in minus-6 degree weather watching guys speed around the oval track on a sled still appeal to you?
TH: I still attend the vintage weekend oval races at Eagle River about every other year. I have to admit we usually spend more time in the hot box seats keeping warm than outside. But there is nothing like smelling the 2-stroke race fuel and hearing the crackle of the sleds going down the straightaways at over 100 mph! Yessir. R.