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Snowmobile Derby Draws Fierce Competition, Camraderie

Emily Bright

The World Championship Snowmobile Derby take places in Eagle River this weekend, with the vintage classes wrapping up last weekend.  WXPR’s Emily Bright takes a behind-the-scenes look at the camaraderie and competition of the international snowmobile races going on in our own backyard.

Trailers the size of semi’s line the frozen field around the derby. It’s bitter cold, the evening before the Classic Vintage Snowmobile Derby begins. Here and there you see someone bundled up and crouched over a snowmobile, making adjustments. If I want to talk to a racer, I’m told, just step inside the trailer. I hesitate, unable to see what might be waiting for me inside. 
It’s warm and cozy. Half a dozen men from southwest Michigan stand around cracking jokes in the space not taken up by the 400 pound sled. A crockpot bubbles in the corner. It’s such a pleasant oasis from the cold you almost forget why they’re here. But the road to Eagle River is a long one. This is Roger Britt.

“I’m here to race a snowmobile and hopefully make it to the finals and hopefully win the finals,” he says.

At age 68, Britt is competing in the super senior class. He’s won it twice, though not last year, and his recent preparations sound like something out of Field of Dreams:

“I ride my trail sled out in the soybean field," he explains.  "We finally got some snow and I made myself a track where I could go out and get up to speed and get the brain working good.”

For fellow Michigan racer Aaron Giles, his major prep time is in his garage.

“You end up working on it every night, getting ready to come here," he says.  "If you want to be on top, you’re gonna put a lot of work into it.”

Giles cut down that work time when he had a daughter, at least until she got old enough to join him.

“She really enjoys working out there in the garage with me.”

Giles’ daughter will be old enough to race juniors in two years, when she’s 10, and he hopes she’ll do it. That’s another theme you hear: how much competitive racing is a family passion. Chris Sweeten and his brother drove three days up from Utah to race in Wisconsin.

“Just kinda been on our bucketlist," Sweeten explains.  "So far it’s been a lot of fun, a lotta work. A lotta drivin’. It’s kinda hard on the road. Every hotel we stayed at I made sure we had a gym and a swimming pool so I could work out and stay in shape.”

Hotels, travel, gear, and sleds: racing costs big money. Often racers team up, sharing sleds, a pit crew, and sponsors. Only the very top competitors will see any kind of money back, say Russ Davis, vice-president of sales and marketing for the derby.

“It’s a hobby," he says.  "Unless you get in at Nascar or Indiecars, that’s a big sport. I mean that’s big
money. Here the guys can still think they’re driving at Indianapolis and very competitive, I
mean, you’ll see the trophies out there. And you win a little prize money so you cover their gas
and maybe some meals."
One group that’s very competitive looking drove from Quebec, Canada. The trailer is printed all over with sponsor names and a life-size picture of 18-year old Sabrina Blanchet, her dark hair streaming down the back of her blue and orange racing gear. She’s not much over 5 feet tall, but in her 5 years of racing, she’s only ever competed with men, which means the class of sled she races is a size typically only raced by men. 

"There really aren’t that many girls in this sport; mostly guys," she says.  "And that’s why I like it: it’s more of a challenge. It’s more difficult and that’s what’s fun!" (translated)

"She’s the only girl that runs a champ sled and competes for the world championship class," Allen Decker, explains.  His 30-year career as a racer has made him a big name in this town. He helps out when Sabrina Blanchet races in Wisconsin.

“It’s a lot of strength to ride a snowmobile," Decker says.  "Takes a lot of body weight…and just a lot of strength to turn them because they turn on carbites on ice.  I’ve never seen a female racer be that competitive in a very competitive sport.”

Our interview is cut short as a crank lifts the sled and delivers it outside. Time to give the oval track one more test-drive.

There’s some trouble getting it started. Decker and the couch both lean in to sort out the problem. The cold bites through everything, and I’m glad—and a little jealous—to see the racers are well padded, without an inch of skin exposed. They have to be—in the World Championships, sleds coming around the turn can top 100 miles per hour.

The engine roars to life, and Blanchet motors up with the rest of the engines preparing for their last hot lap. No matter who came with you on the journey, once you enter the track, it’s just you and your sled against fierce competition on the ice.

Thanks to Myriam Le Tan for translation help.

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