The Hodag 50 Cross-Country Snowmobile Race
Snowmobiling is as popular today as it has ever been. Snowmobiles are used for work, recreation, and sport. While Eagle River is known for its championship snowmobile derby, it was not so long ago that Rhinelander hosted on of the nation’s premier snowmobile races too.
Snowmobile racing in the Northwoods goes all the way back to 1926 when two modified Model T Ford Snow Flyers held the first recognized snowmobile race on Rangeline Lake near Three Lakes. During the ensuing decades there were snowmobile enthusiasts in its various forms, but for the most part the snowmobile served as a utilitarian vehicle. It was not until the late 1950s that the idea of using the snowmobile for sport racing really took off.
In the winter of 1960-1961, Fred Gates of Rhinelander organized a snowmobile race on Boom Lake. Five racers entered the event, with Herman Lassig coming in first with a 10-horsepower snowmobile. For taking first place in the race, Lassig won a quart of brandy.
Gates knew that he had a good idea, and after Eagle River’s snowmobile derby got started in 1964, he decided to try to get something similar going in Rhinelander. In 1965, Gates got the first Hodag 50 cross-country snowmobile race off the ground. Unlike Eagle River’s derby, this was to be a cross-country endurance marathon. A course was mapped out starting in downtown Rhinelander, going overland to Three Lakes, and from there to the finish line in Eagle River.
The year 1965 was a test run for the marathon, but with 100 entries and 88 finishers it was a success. The winner took home a $200 prize, and everyone was ready to see the Hodag 50 continue. The Lion’s Club took over as organizers, and the race became a phenomenon.
At the third annual race in January 1967, 336 sleds registered to compete for over $7,500 in prizes. There was a grand parade of floats saluting the contestants through downtown the night before the race and a pancake breakfast in Rhinelander’s Memorial Hall the morning of the race. The National Snowmobile Show had new machines on display for the entire weekend.
In 1966, the starting point for the race was moved from downtown to Hodag Park, and in 1968 it moved to the old Oneida County Fairgrounds. In 1970, the starting point moved to an old potato field at Pine Lake. Closed course races became part of the action in 1968, and in 1969 sprint racing was added.
The race became increasingly popular. It attracted thousands of spectators to the region every January and was recognized as the premier cross-country snowmobile race in the entire nation. In 1972, Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser was on hand to drive the pace machine for the eighth annual marathon.
The Hodag 50 was a significant boon to the economy of the entire region, so why did it end? Many spectators who came for the race were unaccustomed to January temperatures in the Northwoods, and organizers received complaints. Therefore, after the January 1974 race, the event was moved to December. December 1974 was unseasonably warm, and the event had to be cancelled. Although warm again, it ran in December 1975, but in 1976 the U.S. Snowmobile Association declined to sanction the December race. The race was cancelled and never ran again.
Today the Hodag Country Fest takes place at the old Hodag 50 Park in Pine Lake.