“We’ve got a decision to make,” said Brian Wiley, his breath fogging in the cold air.
Wiley, president of the East Branch Sno-Rovers, stood on the second-story balcony of the Sno-Rovers’ clubhouse in Medway. Below, racers and mechanics paused mid-conversation and looked up. A snowmobile revved, drowning out Wiley’s voice. He waited patiently until the machine was switched off.
The weather was pleasantly mild on Saturday morning, Jan. 18, the first day of the Northeast Winter Nationals Snowmobile Ice Drag Races. And that was a problem. The unusual warmth had created a slushy hole in the left lane of the land-based ice dragway, a track that local volunteers have been working to build since December.
“We were very fortunate to get that cold weather [in December], to get that track down nice and hard, probably 8 or 10, 12 inches of ice all the way down. Beautiful,” said Wiley. “Then all of a sudden, the thaw occurred and wow, it just turned us the other way, quickly … it’s unsafe in that lane.”
There were two options: Hold the qualifying races on Saturday, as originally planned, but use only one lane. Or try to fit all the races in on Sunday. By then, Saturday night’s steep drop in temperature would have hardened the lane.
“We can do it by raise of hands,” said Wiley, handing the decision over to the racers and their teams.
In the end, they decided to forge ahead Saturday with one-lane qualifying races. Several racers didn’t agree with the decision, but they accepted the majority rule. Any dissent was reduced to goodnatured grumbling.
Race teams went back to work, tinkering with their sleds and registering for their respective classes.
“There’s a lot of good people down here that spend every hour they’ve got in the winter to get this place going,” said Leigh Hewitt, a racer from Fredericton, New Brunswick. It was his fourth year riding his Polaris 800cc at the Medway races.
The Medway races are organized by KASRA, Katahdin Area Snowmobile Racing Affiliates, a division of the East Branch Sno-Rovers. Established in 2010, KASRA wants to bring the sport of snowmobile ice drag racing to a new level in Maine and the northeast. Their events are run by volunteers, from the man smoothing the ice with a zamboni to the women cooking pies in the clubhouse kitchen.
“There’s nothing on our side of the border anymore,” Hewitt said. “So these two races down here, and there’s one in Vermont, and that’s about as far as we’ll travel.”
The Canadian racer started snowmobiling when he was “old enough to be strapped on one.” And today, he drives a sled that reaches 100-115 mph within 600 feet, the distance between start to finish on the dragway. For him, each race lasts about six seconds.
“You gotta be quick on the light and you gotta get the thing to not spin,” he said.
But his wasn’t the fastest snowmobile on the track last weekend.
“We did 129 [mph] on the ice last year, so we’re hoping to get 133 mph out of it,” said Rene Fischer, a racer from Sandown, N.H.
“I like racing altogether,” she said. “Cars, bikes, whatever it is that I can get into, I will try to ride it. I just like going back and forth fast.”
“Fast” is perhaps the best way of describing her snowmobile — a 1000cc pro stock sled covered with dark pink flames that fade into a sleek black background, a custom paint job by Jim Fugge of Derry, N.H.
“When I started, everybody thought I was a boy racing,” Fischer said. “So I was like, ‘You know, you could throw some pink in there.’”
“I dunno, I just kept going — bigger sled, bigger sled — and I ended up here, in the biggest class,” Fischer said.
Though Fischer began snowmobile drag racing just three years ago, she’s already well-known among the tight-knit community as a talented racer; one of the best, in fact.
“When I first started, they were all very welcoming. It’s like a family,” said Fischer, whose first race was on the Medway dragway. “Everyone here is great — Maine especially, too, everyone is really nice.”
Fischer arrived at the 2014 Nationals with a team of eight, including a fellow racer and mechanics.
“There’s people from New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, all different places, and we all come together,” Fischer said.
Most drag racers have at least a small team to help prepare and tune their sled, discuss strategy and assist with the heavy lifting.
“It’s a category where you can’t win with money. It’s experience. So you can spend 30 grand, but it’s all experience … There’s not a lot of newcomers,” said Chip Moeckel of Locked-n-Loaded Racing from Salem, N.H.
Moeckel has been a part of teams racing in the 1000cc pro stock class for the past 25 years, and his team’s driver, Ronny Smith, has won his class — 1000cc prostock — in the Maine State Ice Drag Championships twice.
“It’s 25 years worth of fun is what it is,” said Moeckel. “You can’t match the acceleration that this has compared to a real expensive car or motorcycle, it’s just — it’s 10 times that.”
Moeckel was simply happy that the races hadn’t been canceled. It was all thanks to the land-based track. If the event venue had been a river, pond or lake — as most ice drag races are — it would have been canceled altogether.
“They’ll have the race, and we won’t end up falling through the lake cause the weather’s warm,” Moeckel said. “Twenty years ago, I came to a race down here and it was on the river, I think. But [right now], we have no lakes that are safe at home, so that’s why we drove five hours to come here — we knew we could race here.”
As the qualifying races began on Saturday, spectators lined up along the track, standing on snow piles and sipping coffee and hot chocolate from the clubhouse, where baked goods and warm meals were being served. An ambulance was parked near the end of the track, in case of an accident.
Fischer donned her helmet — also black with pink flames, with a mohawk of plastic spikes down the middle. In a race that lasted less than six seconds, she qualified for the next day’s Nationals without a hitch.
As the qualifying races wrapped up, the sun dipped below the trees and the temperature dropped. Overnight, East Branch Sno-Rover club members mended the second lane, and on Sunday, riders raced head-to-head on both lanes.
Fischer won second place in the 1000cc pro stock class and second place in the open mod 1000cc class, bested twice by racer Matt Robertson of North Conway, N.H. But in the promax n/a class, Fischer took first.
“It’s a very competitive race, but everybody gets along,” Wiley said. “The racing is first, but you know, the social aspect of it after the race and what you do with the awards presentation and dinners is the second thing that’s really good about it and a lot of fun.
“It’s just good people, having a lot of fun, spending a lot of money and building good sleds.”
The Maine State Championship Snowmobile Ice Drag Races are scheduled for Feb. 8-9 at the KASRA Dragway. To learn about the KASRA, visit snorovers.com.