A jump start on snowmobiling

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2008 - 7:27 AM

Are you a Polaris, Ski-Doo or Arctic Cat fancier? Brand loyalists converged at the world's largest snowmobiling event -- despite the races being held not on snow, but grass.

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Hay Days World Champion Grass Drags and Swap meet in Columbus, Minn.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Few Twin Citians have heard about the world's largest snowmobile event, Hay Days, even though it takes place only 25 miles north of downtown Minneapolis. Each year, 40,000 snowmobilers converge on a wide-open section of Anoka County's sand plains. This year, one guy came from as far away as British Columbia. Alaska's "First Dude," Todd Palin, made an appearance. But most folks we met two Sundays ago were from Wisconsin and central Minnesota.

At the 42nd annual grass drags, snowmobilers competed for a $70,000 purse by racing "grass drag" style, on a 500-foot straightaway covered in dirt, grass and, of course, hay.

"It's all about reaction time," one observer remarked. Over at the starting line, a racer had just demonstrated remarkably slow reflexes.

Body type appeared to be another factor: The smaller, limber guys who could easily lean back on their snowmobiles, almost hanging their derrieres off the machines' backsides, routinely won their heats. Blessed with these virtues, one gentleman set a world-record pace of 131 miles per hour that day.

The event essentially pits the Yamaha brand of snowmobiles -- or sleds, as aficionados call them -- against Polaris against Ski-Doo against Arctic Cat. Each manufacturer gets its own lane; in turn, brand loyalists race the machines and root for their favorites. Polaris and Arctic Cat are both Minnesota-based companies, but neither the crowd nor the event promoters appeared to give them preferential home-turf treatment.

"I cheer for Ski-Doo," said Les Robinson of Ham Lake, whose young daughter, Jade, enjoyed a bird's-eye view from his shoulders. Robinson noted with disdain, however, that his father-in-law prefers Yamaha.

Six years ago, another attraction was added -- a mountain of dirt on which freestylers perform jumps and other acrobatic feats on snowmobiles and ATVs. This feature has eclipsed the popularity of the grass drags, said race director Steve Seviola.

Popular swap meet

But clearly, Hay Days' vast swap meet is the biggest draw. While a surfeit of corporate vendors and regional snowmobile dealerships come replete with their slick salesmen, a labyrinthine network of trails (winding between all the parked campers and pickup trucks) leads browsers past smatterings of used helmets, engine parts and even vintage sleds.

To wander the swap meet is to get a concentrated glimpse of American snowmobile culture: The vast majority of attendees are males clad in logo tees, sweatshirts and ball caps. Groups of buddies sift through the merchandise, and families are everywhere -- young fathers pushing toddlers in strollers, gray-haired dads marching alongside the young adults who resemble them.

40 tons of trash

Soon enough, we happened upon a female face: Mary Moyer of Linwood (Anoka County), who accompanied her sons, Ronald and David -- every year, her family serves among Hay Days' volunteer trash collectors, Moyer explained. (The event generates more than 40 tons of garbage.)

In conversation, Moyer dispensed with the niceties and cut to the chase: "I grew up with Ski-Doos all my life, but then switched to Arctic Cats," she said. "It's the same reason [Todd] Palin rides Arctic Cat -- they're the best out there." (Todd Palin hung out at Arctic Cat's official booth.)

We also met Rick Daniels of Barneveld, Wis., who was "cleaning out the shed," as he called it. Daniels spread a pair of folding tables with used skis and various other snowmobile parts. But the coolest thing on display was a boxy 1972 Polaris Colt 340.

All day we encountered brand-loyal fans -- whether they offered testimonials, talked smack about their rivals or simply wore clothing emblazoned with favorite logos. Daniels wasn't so forthright. But as we browsed the selection, we couldn't help but notice that most of his castoffs bore a single brand name.

"We're Polaris riders," he said. "I don't know why -- I guess that's just what we grew up with."

Christy DeSmith is a freelance writer.

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