ANCHORAGE - Out in the Western Alaska Bush where gasoline prices are running near $6 per gallon, Tesoro Iron Dog racer Brad Reich wonders whether he might be forced to cut back on training this year for the world's longest, toughest snow machine race.
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"Last year I put about 7,300 miles on my machine," said the mayor of the small village of Kiana. "You average it out; it's pretty spendy."
When snow conditions are good, Reich figures he gets 95 to 100 miles on a 10-gallon tank of gas. At 10 miles to the gallon, 7,300 miles at today's gas prices in Kiana translates to a cost of about $4,300.
The cost has Reich and a lot of others thinking about something that never entered the equation for most people when shopping for a snowmachine only a few years ago - fuel mileage.
Riders who used to devote most of their time to discussing horsepower, deep-snow performance, mountain-climbing capabilities or suspension effectiveness now find themselves engaged in discussions about things like EFI, SDI and four-stroke.
EFI is electronic fuel injection, a technological improvement in fuel delivery that first appeared as a replacement for carburetors in two-cycle snowmobile engines years ago, but has been tweaked over the years to become more efficient.
SDI is semi-direction injection of fuel, a newer technology first introduced to make snowmobiles run cleaner to meet environmental standards. It has the added benefit of making the machines much more fuel efficient.
Four-stroke is the camshaft and valve-controlled engine similar to what is found in most automobiles. Four-strokes burn cleaner and get better gas mileage than the valveless, two-stroke, oil-and-gas burning engine that powered snowmobile evolution to the point it is today.
Unfortunately, early four-stroke engines had a huge liability. Valves, cams and associated four-stroke parts increase engine weight. As a general rule, heavy snowmobiles don't perform as well as light snowmobiles in deep snow or in the mountains, and heaven forbid the owner get stuck in waist-deep snow.
Wrestling a 450-pound two-stroke sled free from deep snow is a laborious task for one rider. Trying to free a 600-pound or larger behemoth takes more than one rider - or a lot of shoveling or building an evacuation ramp.
Fortunately, as technology steadily improves, four-stroke weights have been coming down.
"I wish I would have bought the four-stroke," admitted Dan Gabrysak at the Yentna Station Roadhouse miles up the Yentna River from Wasilla. "Who knew gas was going to do this."
The first gas Gabrysak had delivered in November cost him $4.60 a gallon. He expects he'll resell fuel at more than $5 a gallon this year.
At those prices, fuel economy starts to matter, though Gabrysak said he still expects to see a lot of riders this winter on machines getting only seven to 10 miles per gallon. And he isn't anticipating a major drop in business.
"People are going to want to play anyway," said the owner of one of the major stops on the popular run from Big Lake to Skwentna. "I think I'll probably sell more food than fuel, but a lot of people just want to ride. They've got to get out of Dodge in the winter."
True enough, agreed avid snowmachine rider and longtime industry observer Joe Westfall.
When the long, cold dark settles over Alaska, he said, the choices are to embrace it by getting outside or staying inside even more and letting the cabin fever worsen by the day.
That said, he added, when he hooks his fifth-wheel trailer to his one-ton "dualie" truck, knowing he'll be getting only about seven miles per gallon, and heads out for a weekend packing a couple of snowmobiles that get less than 10 mpg, it's hard not to think about fuel costs.
"I decided instead of staying in lodges, I'm going to buy a toy hauler," he said by means of justifying the fifth-wheel. He's not sure what he'll do to justify the expenditure on fuel for the sleds. He might just decide to throttle back on the riding a bit to save money, though new, more efficient technology is tempting.
"The two-cylinder Yamaha, I think, that's going to be a good machine," he said.
The 2008 500cc Yamaha Phazer cranks out only 80 horsepower, but the 515-pound weight is comparable to that of many two-cycle machines; it gets good gas mileage, too, and the engine is expected to last years.
Durability is one of the big things four-cycle engines have going for them, while the lack of weight remains the big factor for two-cycles.
Crankcase-free, valveless two-cycle engines lubricated with oil injected into the fuel are inherently lighter, but Westfall thinks the new four-cycle engines are competitive.
"I think a lot of people are moving into the four-strokes," Westfall said.
Many in and around the snowmobile industry laughed when Yamaha launched its RX-1 four-stroke-powered hot rod five years ago and walked away from two-cycles, he said. They're not laughing anymore.
"Yamaha sales are up," Westfall said.
What remains to be seen is whether other manufactures will follow Yamaha down the four-stroke road.
Arctic Cat unveiled a high-powered Jaguar Z1 for 2007 with a 1,056cc, 125 horsepower four-stroke, but most of the company's machines remain powered by two-cycles.
And Ski-Doo - a subsidary of Canada's Bombardier Inc. - is pushing cleaner, more powerful, high-mileage two-cycles. A group of engineering students from the University of Idaho, including one Alaskan, this year used a modified Ski-Doo two-cycle to win the Clean Snowmobile Challenge sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Polaris, the last of the big four manufacturers, appears to be following Ski-Doo's lead with what it calls clean fire injection, or CFI. The Polaris 600 H.O. IQ with CIF won SnowTrax Television's 2007 Real World Sled of the Year award.
SnowGoer magazine, which also raved about the Polaris 600, scored it high for power (the H.O. stands for "high output") and improved gas mileage, but noted that the Ski-Doos with SDI still rule in that category - usually getting better than 20 mpg.
"One guy up here (in the Kotzebue-Kiana area) was getting 26," Reich noted.