COURTLAND - What to do? The snow has melted and you get that craving to rev up your snowmobile and take it for a ride.
A trio of avid area snowmobilers have the solution - take the sleds to the water.
For more than 30 years, snowmobilers from across the upper midwest have been turning their winter past time into a summer passion.
Dan Hoffmann, of Sleepy Eye, has been involved in Snowmobile Watercross Racing since 2002.
John Stadick, of Courtland, has been racing for about a year.
Hoffmann makes a turn during a recent practice session.
Hoffmann (left) and Stadick (right) point out some of the modifications they have made to Stadick’s snowmobile to make it a better watercross machine such as removing the seat and gas tank.
The sport is called Snowmobile Watercross Racing and they are apart of the International Watercross Association.
Tired of seeing his sled sit all summer, Dan Hoffmann of Sleepy Eye got the itch to take his snowmobile on water in 2002. He hasn't looked back.
Hoffmann and friend saw some guys they knew racing their sleds on a pond near where he used to live. That was all he needed to see, later that day they put a sled together and he eventually entered a competition in Fredric, Wis. and he was hooked.
Last year his friend John Stadick of Courtland went to one of Hoffmann's races and got hooked.
"It looked like fun going to that one race," Stadick said. "So I went out and bought a watercross sled and decided I would try it this year."
Stadick had so much fun running on water he got his girlfriend, Rachel Vorwerk involved too.
"One day we were just hanging out and she said it looked like fun," Stadick said. "I said, 'if you want, I will let you try it.' She practiced once, she got her membership and she hasn't lost in the 600 drags with that sled."
Vorwerk is the top racer in the 600 drags so far this season.
There are four oval classes with stock and modified and a semipro and pro group. There is a big difference between the stock and the modified sleds according to Hoffmann.
"They have to have a stock body appearance," Hoffmann said. "Most of them look like production snowmobiles. But they do a lot of modifications, they make custom A arms to bring the skis in real tight and they will cut the running board down so there isn't much to stand on. They port the motors and custom build race pipes and do lightweight stuff to the chassis."
Maybe the most amazing thing about the modified snowmobiles is how little snow the machines actually see.
"There are snowmobiles on the circuit that haven't seen snow and will never see snow," Hoffmann said. "My stocker, since I bought it has never been on snow. It's a stock machine, and it probably never will go back to snow."
Hoffmann has three sleds, one for snow only, one that will never see snow and another that he has alternated back and forth.
"My mod sled, I actually switched it back over and took it out last year," he said. "But I don't think I will do that again this year. It's a lot of work. I don't know if there are many stock guys that switch their sleds over in the winter, there are a few that do. I did one year and it took me half the year to get it back together. Then came spring and I had to take it back apart again."
The first Watercross competition was in Grantsburg, Wis. in 1977. The first race was simply held to see who could make it from the island on Memory Lake in Grantsburg to the shore some 300 feet away. Most didn't make it, but the winner was able to go 500 feet. In the years that followed, racers became more skilled and the machines they were riding became more powerful.
There are a few things that make the snowmobile on water different. To ride on water the sled needs to be much lighter. First the seat is removed, then the bulky gas tank is replaced by a tank as small as 1 1/2 gallons. Hoffmann and Stadick use a plastic gas can as their tank.
Other modifications need to be made to the sled as well. Gaps in the belly pan, bulkhead and tunnel need to be filled. The oil injection tank needs to be removed and replaced by premixing the oil and gas. This also keeps things lighter but more importantly, it is environmentally friendlier. After all the chances of the sled sinking in the water is still pretty good.
The most important changes made to the snowmobile is the addition of 20-foot plus length of rope, a buoy and a life jacket.
The buoy connects to the rope so when the sled does sink it can be easily found. The life jacket is for the rider to stay above the water.
Obviously riders tinker with their machines and make other modifications but this is where most of the changeover starts.
No matter how good you are, the chances are you are going to sink the sled. Both Hoffmann and Stadick sunk theirs at least once last weekend in Frederic.
"It depends on how you go down," Hoffmann said. "This week I was trailing this guy and it got so choppy and I come pounding through there,
my sled started to stand up and I couldn't get it to plane out. The water was about up to my knees and if you don't got forward momentum, it ain't going to go. You have to have forward momentum to keep it going at that point I was like, 'I can't make her go any more, there is nothing I can do.' So I pulled [the tether chord to shut off the engine] and went down."
When a racer goes down, the race continues under a caution. The downed racer is supposed to stay where he is at and they just race around him.
"You are sitting there and bobbing in the water with waves washing up to your nose," Hoffmann said, "for a guy that can't swim, it's not very cool."
When the race is done, a pontoon comes out and picks up the driver. There is a winch on the front of the pontoon that hoists the sled out of the water as well.
The season isn't very long with the first race the weekend of June 6 in Moose Lake. Last week they raced in Frederic, Wis.
Vorwerk won the 600 drags, Stadick was third in the semipro stock and Hoffmann finished fifth in the prostock.
The next race is June 27 and 28 in Ely, on July 17 they go to Grantsburg and the season ends at Wasua, Wis. at the end of August.