A retro sled is a thing of beauty, and winter isn’t over until a couple dozen take to the track at Aroostook County's Mega Meltdown vintage sled race.
By Mitch Breton
In the ’60s and ’70s, snowmobiles were pretty rudimentary machines, with single-cylinder engines and simple, accessible engine blocks that were easy to work on, if not the most reliable. For 51-year-old Limestone native Shawn Pelletier, vintage sleds bring back childhood memories of ripping around farm country with his brothers.
“Whenever we’d stop to get gas,” he remembers, “we’d pick up isopropyl, a couple spark plugs, and an extra belt — and you had better not forget that extra belt.” Today’s snowmobiles are souped-up James Bond vehicles by comparison, with more cylinders, key-start ignitions, hand-warmers, the list goes on and on. But vintage sleds are easy on the eyes, with a sort of retro-futurist simplicity and a utilitarian design that captivates collectors and enthusiasts like Pelletier, who owns upwards of 50.
So Pelletier jumped at the chance to celebrate that nostalgia when, a few years back, the promoter of a statewide snowmobile racing series asked him to help organize a season finale event in Caribou. Amateur racers on the Tame the Track Tour compete all winter at nine races across Maine, from Houlton to Skowhegan to Rangeley, but only way up in the County can you pretty safely count on snow in March. At next month’s third annual Mega Meltdown vintage snowmobile race, some 140 racers, all on sleds built prior to 1975, take to a looped and groomed course behind Caribou’s Northern Maine Brewing Company, carrying on an Aroostook sled-racing tradition that goes back 60 years, to when farmers in the County would try to outlast each other on bone-jostling tears through the potato fields.
Last year, nearly 500 spectators lined the embankments, straightaways, and hairpin turns to watch riders clinging for dear life to their “one-lungers.” The noisy, single-cylinder sleds, with their old-timey suspensions and fixed handlebars, don’t offer the smoothest ride — and, just like the ones Pelletier remembers from his youth, they don’t always hold together. “Skis come off, cowlings gets dislodged,” he says, “and sometimes racers just go too heavy into a turn and end up on the other side.”
The Antique Snowmobile Museum at the Northern Timber Cruisers clubhouse in Millinocket is worth a visit for even casual admirers of “old iron,” with some 50 midcentury rides in great condition. Among them are some of the first models sold by the pioneering company Polaris, which was founded in Minnesota but tested its earliest sleds in the Allagash region of Piscataquis and Aroostook counties in the early ’60s. Millinocket Rd., 2 miles northwest of downtown Millinocket. 207-723-6203.
This year’s Mega Meltdown is March 21 at Northern Maine Brewing Company. 22 Main St., Caribou. $10 admission, $5 for students and kids under 12. Proceeds from the race benefit the Brian’s Ride Cancer Fund, helping cancer patients access care at Caribou’s Cary Medical Center.