MEDWAY, Maine — David Violette has this dream.
He imagines thousands flocking to the East Branch Sno-Rovers clubhouse on winter weekends to watch hundreds of sleds race on the club’s new 2,300-foot ice track, with so many patrons jamming hotels, cafes and restaurants “that we need more of all of the above,” he said.
Violette, president of the club, feels his dream is close at hand. The last of the club’s track was being poured Wednesday and the club’s inaugural race kicks off the state’s first drag racing season this weekend for the fledgling Maine Snowmobile Drag Racing Association.
Medway, he says, can be New England’s premier snowmobile drag-racing site.
“It will be a huge draw. We did one race last year, in the first week of March, on the Penobscot River, and the ice conditions were terrible — to say the least — and in that weekend we drew probably 500 spectators and racers,” Violette said.
Located at the clubhouse on Hathaway Road, about a mile from the East Millinocket line, the snowmobile drag-racing track is the only one in Maine not built on a waterway. That, and Medway’s location off Interstate 95, gives it an edge over other state clubs that offer drag races and poker runs, association director Jon Blaisdell said.
“Right now it’s a bunch of different clubs around the state putting races on, usually on ponds or lakes,” Blaisdell said. “What Medway is doing will be a year-round track. What will make them different from anything is if there are racers who want to test and tune during the week, they will have a track down to do it on.”
Given that racers can hit 150 mph, a test is important, Blaisdell said.
“This track is unusual in that it is land-based. We always have to worry about the weather, but don’t have to wait for a lake to freeze or otherwise worry about conditions. It allows us to start earlier and race later,” he said.
The association formed this year because racers wanted to bring out of the largely unorganized state drag-racing scene a standard set of rules within a series of ice races held from January to March, according to the association Web site, www.maineice.com.
Medway will host three of the association’s six races this season, a number likely to expand as the sport grows, Blaisdell said.
The sport’s growth isn’t certain. As of Tuesday, the association had only 24 members — though Blaisdell expects to get more with every race — and with almost all snowmobiling, Mother Nature is in charge. Balmy winters can doom racing seasons.
“It will burn us, too, but at least we don’t have to worry about someone going through the ice into a river,” Violette said.
Yet New England’s largest snowmobile drag racing event, the Epping, N.H., Grass Drags, is run on grass, in October, and draws at least 10,000 people, Blaisdell said.
“We expect probably to average 100 sleds at a race. It’s what we have been seeing in the past,” he said. “What we are doing is bringing organized racing to Maine and it hasn’t been done in a long time.”
Races can draw as many as eight racing-crew members per snowmobile, he said.
The Katahdin Area Recovery and Expansion, or KARE, committee voted last month 16-0 to give the Sno-Rovers club an $18,000 grant to help build the track, said Shirley Tapley, East Millinocket’s administrative assistant.
The club also received permission to build the track from the owner of the land the clubhouse is built on, Katahdin Forest Management, Violette said.
The grant money will come from $75,000 that Brookfield Renewable Power Inc. pays Millinocket annually as compensation for the Brookfield-owned mill’s shutdown. Consisting of East Millinocket, Medway and Millinocket leaders, KARE was formed in 2007 to administer the $75,000, which is intended to foster economic development in the Katahdin region.
The grant will pay for three sets of bleachers that will hold 270 spectators, a used ice resurfacing machine, a public address system, several hay bales and fencing to go around the track, Violette said. The club also has a racing light pole to signal race starts.
Committee members Scott Gonya and Mark Scally were impressed with the club’s presentation. The Katahdin region, they said, is already a premier site for snowmobiling worldwide.
“It is good for the area now and it will be a whole lot better before long,” said Scally, chairman of East Millinocket’s Board of Selectmen. “This is the tip of the iceberg. This is by far a safer, better environment for racing [than on lakes and rivers] and it will bring a lot of people into this area. It’s a good idea.”
“It’s one of those little things that we can do that will add up,” Gonya, chairman of the Millinocket Town Council, said of the grant.
The club’s 30 volunteers are almost finished building the track, said Kevin Bouchard, the club’s volunteer head groomer. In lieu of bleachers, which have not yet been purchased, the club will have flatbed trucks for spectators to stand on.
“Right now we have close to 6 inches of ice on it. That is what the racers like to race on, solid ice,” Bouchard said.
If this racing season is successful, Violette has other dreams — of building a circular, banked snowmobile track for racing, as Lincoln’s snowmobile club builds every year, and of drag-racing all-terrain vehicles on the snowmobile track, he said.
But those dreams, he said, might have to wait a few years.
“We want to see how this turns out and how our volunteer help turns out first,” Violette said. “I wish I had a crystal ball.”
Maine Snowmobile Drag Racing Association 2010 Drag Racing and Poker Runs:
Jan. 16: Radar Runs at East Branch Sno-Rovers Club, Medway
Jan. 17: Drag Races, Medway
Jan. 30: Drag Races at Norway Trackers snowmobile club, Lake Penesseewassee, Norway
Jan. 31: Radar Runs, Norway
Feb. 6: Drag Races at Nobleboro SnoPackers club, Lake Damariscotta State Park, Jefferson
Feb. 7: Radar Runs, Jefferson
Feb. 13: Drag Races, Medway, and Radar Runs at Wassookeag snowmobile club, Lake Wassokeag, Dexter
Feb. 14: Maine State Drag Racing Championships, Medway
Feb. 20: Drag Races, Dexter, and Radar Runs at Sebasticook Valley Snowmobile Club, Newport
March 6: Radar Runs, Medway
March 7: Drag Races, Medway
SOURCES: eastbranchsnorovers.com and maineice.com