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Green Bay Packers and the early days of the World Championship of Snowmobile racing

Bart Starr practices for the Eagle River Derby 1968.
Eagle River Snowmobile Hall of Fame and Museum Archive
Bart Starr practices for the Eagle River Derby 1968.

Many local residents took notice when the Lake Tomahawk Meat Market was visited by Green Bay Packer kicker Mason Crosby, during his recent snowmobile trip to the area. But that wasn’t the first time a Packer has enjoyed snowmobiling fun in the Northwoods.

What started out as a small race on Eagle River’s Dollar Lake in 1964, quickly turned into the world Championship of Snowmobile racing. Much has been written about the history of the famous derby, but several visits from notable Green Bay Packers helped give it even more traction in the early days.

In 1968, the Green Bay Packers had just come off their second world championship win at Super Bowl 2. Naturally its prized players were in high demand for publicity visits. MVP, legendary quarterback and later coach, Bart Starr, who grew up in Alabama where little snow falls, had taken an interest in snowmobiling while living in DePere, Wisconsin during his tenure as a Green Bay Packer.

When Bart heard about the derby that would take place at Eagle River in January of 68’, he wanted to attend. Bart Starr and the Packers were not strangers to the cold and snow, having just played the Dallas Cowboys in the famous Ice Bowl several weeks before the Eagle River races.

The weekend after their 2nd Super Bowl Championship win, Bart and fellow Packers Ray Nitschke, and Fuzzy Thurston participated in a “race” at the 1968 derby. This was the first year the event was broadcast by ABCs Wide World of Sports. Due to the growing nature of snowmobile racing, global publicity and success, it’s attendance went from about 20 thousand, to almost 40 thousand spectators the following year.

Bart Starr and other Packers would return again in 1969. That year the football Super “Starr” would lead the leisurely “Moonlit” snowmobile night cruise around the Eagle River area. Bart also attended the 1970 race.

The Eagle River Snowmobile Derby just ran it’s 60th event in January, capping off almost six decades of Snowmobile racing history. In the early years, celebrities gave the race a much-needed publicity boost.

Sources: Rhinelander Daily News Articles 1968-1970, Eagle River Snowmobile Hall of Fame and Museum.

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.
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