Vroom (Ouch!) Vroom

All you need for this race is a vintage sled, a helmet, and a lot of ibuprofen.

By Virginia M. Wright
Photo by Mark Fleming

The first question on the minds of most sledders entering the 15th annual One Lunger 100 Vintage Snowmobile Race on February 21 in Turner is not “Can I win?” It’s simply, “Will it start?”

“A few weeks before, you’re frantically looking for parts,” explains Patrick Jalbert, who has ridden his 1972 Yamaha SR292 in all but the first One Lunger, the East’s original (and, many insist, best) vintage sled race, attracting roughly 3,000 spectators. “You beg, borrow, or steal whatever you can just to get them going.”

A fundraiser for the Turner Ridge Riders, who groom 80 miles of central Maine trails, the race is open to sleds built before 1974, when most snowmobiles were “one lungers” — driven by single-cylinder engines that sound like lawn mowers on steroids. Like the boxy little sleds, the contest’s name is charmingly out of time: “The original race was supposed to be 100 halfmile laps,” says founder Chip Gilbert, “but the track got so chewed up, we changed it to 50.”

Even so, only about half of the 50 racers who enter this outlandish contest manage to finish. Parts fall off. Skis break. Engines quit — or catch fire. As casualties pile up, the lucky ones keep moving, though few will achieve, never mind maintain, the highest possible speed of around 45 mph. At times, racers lean so hard into turns that only their hands and feet touch their sleds. Other times, they lean so hard that their sleds spin 180 degrees on a track that gets icier and more moguled with each successive lap.

They’d best enjoy the motion, because for the next few days, they’ll barely be able to walk. “If you want to get ready for this, have your brother beat you up behind the woodshed,” says current organizer and 2009 winner Brian Craig, “because that’s how you’re going to feel after.”

With their leaf-spring and bogie-wheel suspensions, steel skis, and welded and fixed handlebars, classic sleds are far from a smooth ride. They lurch in and out of each bump and dip. And the deeper the snow, the rougher the Turner track is likely to be, despite days of advance grooming. “With the amount of snow we had last year, some of the dips were 4 feet deep,” says Kaela Jalbert, who, like her dad, races a white SR292 — trimmed in pink by Patrick so other riders will be mindful of the race’s only woman entrant to date (there’s also a 10-lap women’s race). “I was pretty sore. I’m 25, and my dad’s 56, but he recovers better.”

If the snowmobiles are that uncomfortable, what could possibly be the appeal? “These are the sleds a lot of us grew up on. People love them,” Patrick Jalbert says. “And the race is slow enough that almost anyone can do it. You can have fun without worrying about getting hurt.”