Sleds back at the Speedway
There was a stretch during the 1970s and 80s when fans came from all over the United States and Canada to pack the Viking Speedway grandstands in late December for some of the best snowmobile racing of anywhere in the country.
Now after almost 30 years in hibernation, the Douglas County fairgrounds will come alive again from January 30 through February 1 for the Winter Spectacular.
The snowmobile races will feature many of the fastest oval ice snowmobilers from around the Snow Belt. Included in that are championship-class racers, as well as the vintage race machines that were raced in the 1970s. The three-day event will be a part of the TLR Cup, the Ice Oval racing series sponsored by Tommy Lipar Racing.
“I think it’s an array of reasons,” race organizer Jeff Karrow said of why it was so important to him to bring this race back to Alexandria. “One is to relive your youth. We’ve always been a snowmobile-type family. I have four world championships and a Canadian championship…then you think about what kind of economic impact this will have on the city.”
HISTORY BEHIND THE RACE
Karrow was a young spectator who loved watching the races with his dad at what was then known as the Dayco Holiday Spectacular in the 1970s. The annual races brought top-line drivers from as far away as Japan, Finland and Sweden during its existence from 1974 through 1984.
During the 1970s, the popularity of snowmobile racing was at its pinnacle. The manufacturers spent money to field their own race teams. Alexandria’s Jim Beilke, a 1995 Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame inductee and the publisher of SnowTech Magazine who helped establish the Dayco Holiday Spectacular, was in the middle of that and saw an opportunity sitting right in his home town.
“I had been traveling all over the country to snowmobile races in the United States, Canada, foreign countries, Sweden and Finland, places like that,” Beilke said. “And when I came back, I would always look at that track we had here in Alexandria and wonder why we didn’t have the race here… We finally quit when the manufacturers no longer fielded a race team.”
Beilke likened that loss of manufacturer support to the NFL losing teams like the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.
“If they quit, it would be like playing sandlot football,” Beilke said. “If the factories quit, it would be sandlot racing. We raced a few years after they quit, and we just didn’t draw the spectators.”
BACK IN ALEXANDRIA
That loss of manufacturer race teams hurt the sport as a whole, but it didn’t take away the passion for racing from individuals like Karrow.
Karrow had just gotten back from racing in Beausejour, Manitoba last winter when he and eight others from the community asked a similar question to what Beilke asked himself almost 40 years ago: Why not bring this race back to Alexandria? Since then, the group consisting of Karrow, Mark Barrett, Todd Chan, Justin Marthaler, Cory Watts, Rod Karrow, Andy Radil, Dave Dahl and Ben Johnson has invested their own money and countless hours into making this a reality.
“We’re tremendously excited, but we’re also trying to be realistic for a first year,” Karrow said. “We want something to build on, but the template had been laid out for us [with the Dayco Holiday Spectacular]. We’re not really changing. I look at it more as a torch has been passed to our group to try and do this, especially with snowmobile racing experiencing an upswing in the last six, seven years.”
Beilke said that when they put on the Dayco Holiday Spectacular, Arctic Cat did a survey of those who attended the race and found that people came from as far as 500 miles away. The spectators and racers brought thousands of people to Alexandria throughout the years.
“So many people don’t understand how this race can affect the whole community and grow,” Ollie’s Service owner Earl Anderson said. “Jim would fill this town. To this day, when I’m in Florida or I’m in Texas, or I’m at a Ski-Doo meeting and some of the older guys will say to me, ‘Where are you from?’ I’ll say Alexandria and they’ll say “Oh, yeah, we were to the races there.’ It still happens.”
“THEY’LL GO SO FAST THAT THEY’LL GET SCARED”
Those who attend this year’s races can expect one of the fastest tracks that any of these racers will compete on. The half-mile oval at the Viking Speedway is a big track with wide, banked corners. That means racers can run full throttle at almost all times if they want. Karrow said he expects that the championship-class racers will likely hit speeds as fast as 107 miles per hour.
“They will go so fast that they’ll get scared,” Beilke, the grand marshal of this year’s Winter Spectacular, said. “It scares the hell out of them they go so fast on that track. Two of the Arctic Cat team members, well known, quit after racing in Alex.”
Race organizers knew they needed to offer a first-class experience to draw the best racers. Getting the event as a part of the TLR Cup, an oval-track racing challenge that will pay out $151,850 to registered racers over the course of nine races in 2014, was a big step.
The Winter Spectacular will also give away a 2014 Sea-Doo Spark personal watercraft to the winner of one of the four champion classes (Superstock, SuperMod, IFS and Champ 440). Which class races for that grand prize will be decided by a drawing before the finals on February 1. There’s also $7,000 in trophies, cash prizes and a checkered flag for the winner of every class.
“You have to realize that these champ guys are running sleds that are $35,000 to $40,000,” Karrow said. “Carbon fiber this, carbon fiber that. They’re sitting two inches off the ground at 100 miles an hour.”
AT MOTHER NATURE’S MERCY
The race organizers have been working for months to make sure they provide those racers and fans with a great three-day event.
Karrow said they have already poured about 350,000 gallons of water and have an average of 5-7 inches of ice on the track. Their goal is to have 18-24 inches of ice in the corners and 12 inches on the straightaways. That often means working until all hours of the night, whenever temperatures are at their optimal level of 0 to 15 degrees.
They can work tirelessly leading up to the event. Ultimately, though, they are at the mercy of Mother Nature come race day. That’s a lesson Beilke learned the hard way over the years.
“We had days when it was 26 below on Saturday and 28 below on Sunday,” he said. “We had blizzards coming in. We had rain that would come on Saturday night and just completely wipe out the race track.”
Those are the chances a new group of organizers knew they would be taking. Ultimately, it’s a risk they deemed was worth it to bring the best in snowmobile racing back to Alexandria.