Eagle River racing team having a snow-ball with vintage sleds

Posted: Monday, January 31, 2011

EAGLE RIVER — Starting a racing team isn’t usually cheap. At the highest levels, team owners like Richard Childress or Roger Penske spend millions of dollars on parts and labor just to get their multi-million dollar automobiles to the track.

Then there’s Rattle Can Racing.

The Eagle River-based vintage snowmachine squad got its start with one man, a dream and an old Ski-Doo Skandic sled that was last cherry during the Reagan administration.

“My first one I got for free,” Cody Tims said recently after an Alaska Motor Musher’s Club (AMMC) vintage snowmachine event at Knik Lake.

From those humble beginnings, Tims has built his family-based team into a 10-member crew that spends every other weekend tearing up the ice on local lakes. But because of the unique economics of the sport, RCR manages to have fun without breaking the bank.

“The most expensive one that’s on the team we paid $300 for,” Tims said.

Once Tims decided to get into racing, his family was quick to follow. The team now includes Tims’ parents, his 18-year-old sister and several friends who just wanted to get into racing without having to take out a second mortgage.

“Instantly everybody was just hooked,” he said. “We’ve been picking up riders left and right.”

The team now has its own Facebook page, and shows up at races in matching, blaze orange hoodies emblazoned with the RCR logo.

“It’s just downright fun,” Tims said.

Vintage racing — all sleds must have been built before 1985 — is taking off in Southcentral Alaska. According to Craig Clayton, who oversees the vintage series for the AMMC, the club’s event on Jan. 16 at Knik Lake was the best attended yet, with 60 riders turning out in spite of temperatures that hovered around minus-15 all afternoon.

“We just keep going up and up and up,” Clayton said.

An avid rider and collector of vintage sleds himself, Clayton said he thinks the sport is exploding in popularity because it’s accessible to just about anyone who wants to try.

“Everybody’s got this old junk laying behind their garage,” he said.

Finding an old sled to ride is only half the battle. Because the machines are so old, riders are always on the lookout for “new” machines that they can use for parts. Tims said that’s all part of the fun.

“These things haven’t been made in years. You show up at the starting line and people are like, ‘What is that?’” he said.

But just because many of the sleds resemble something locked away in a time capsule doesn’t mean they’re slow. And riders do everything they can to get the most out of their rickety rockets.

Father-son duo Johnie and Alex Martinez, both of Wasilla, each took home a first-place finish at Knik Lake. Johnie won the single cylinder race aboard his 1980 Yamaha Enticer, while Alex, 26, claimed victory in the open class with a 1979 Yamaha built more than half a decade before he was born.

Out on the icy course, Alex said riders are as competitive as if they were running $10,000 sleds in the Iron Dog.

“You definitely can’t be afraid to swap some paint,” he said.

Rider Tim Brett found himself doing more than swapping paint during the over-45 class races at Knik Lake — he found himself chasing his 1980 Polaris Centurion across the ice.

“We were going back and forth, and I flew off coming around a corner,” he said. “They said I slid on my belly about 50 feet. I jumped back up, ran after the sled, put the tether back in and came in second.”

Alex Martinez said that the old sleds can be tricky to steer, and without modern suspension systems are a rough ride.

“You’re lucky if you make it the whole race sometimes,” he said.

Most sleds are modified with reinforced carbides up front and studs for the tracks that allow them to dig into the frozen ice. Courses wind their way around the lake (usually Knik or Big Lake) in Grand Prix style, with racers completing a set number of laps. First one across the line gets bragging rights.

“You can get pretty wound up in it,” said Johnie Martinez.

While the competition on the ice is hot, it’s nothing compared to the race to find undiscovered gems in back yards and junkyards. Craig Clayton said that avid riders scour the Internet trying to find sleds that can be used either for racing or as a source of replacement parts.

“It’s a race when something shows up on Craigslist,” he said.

Rider Jerry Pelto said he’s got more than 60 machines in his Wasilla yard. He said the hunt for old sleds can quickly turn from hobby to obsession.

“We’re all in critical condition,” he joked.

As the sport has grown in popularity, however, vintage riders and collectors have found their sport’s popularity to be a double-edged sword. A couple years ago, most people would let an old beater go for nothing. Now, Clayton said, that’s not always the case.

“Now some of ‘em are getting hip to the fact that people are collecting them,” he said.

The price for an old snowmachine might be a bit higher than it was a year ago, but riders said there’s still no motorsport that allows newcomers to get in on the ground floor so easily.

“They’re in people’s back yards, covered in birch sap,” said Tim Brett. “You can get in cheap, and that’s why it’s grown so much.”

And, added Johnie Martinez, it’s a heck of a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

“For me it’s better than sitting by the TV,” he said. “We’re just out here to have a good time.”

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