It was a historic morning at the World Snowmobile Expo track last Saturday, as vintage snowmobile oval track racing took center stage for the first time since the World Series of oval racing was held in town 35 years ago.
The race was sponsored by Western States Vintage Snowmobile Association, who decided to bring back oval track racing as a way to celebrate their 10th annual Vintage Snowmobile Round up.
“To help celebrate, we decided to do the races and step into the shallow end of the pool and have a small race with six classes,” WSVSA vice president Jim Smith said. “It was 100 percent a success, and everyone really enjoyed it.”
Vintage machines at the race ranged from years 1983 through 1969. According to Smith, 23 racers signed up, and there were 27 overall entries for the race on Saturday. Races were also tentatively planned for Sunday, but were cancelled due to weather conditions.
One of those racers was 67-year-old Charlie Sweeten, who returned to attend the Expo after a 20-year absence to relive his vintage racing roots. He says the race was an incredible addition to his bucket list after surviving a kidney transplant two years ago.
“I’ve been racing here since December of 1967; I was 22-years-old,” he said. “I shouldn’t be (racing), but this shows that anyone can do it.”
Races in West Yellowstone were a big deal back then, as all of the 40-50 snowmobile manufacturers had factory teams that would come out to race.
“There were upwards of 40 to 50 snowmobile manufacturers in the 60s and 70s,” Mike Klostrich said. Klostrich, along with John Costello were directors for the Western Division of the United States Snowmobile Racing Association in the 1960s and 1970s.
Klostrich said oval snowmobile racing was extremely popular in those days, as snowmobiles were less expensive and allowed more snowmobile enthusiasts to partake in the event.
“We had between 10 and 12,000 people at the track southwest of West Yellowstone (back then),” he said. “It was a big time.”
Klostrich says vintage racing is currently experiencing a rapid resurgence. A vintage oval race in Eagle River, Wis. earlier this year brought in 600 vintage racers.
“If we opened it up here, we could see a significant draw of fans,” he said. “People would have the opportunity to show or race; it would be beneficial for our community.”
According to Marge Wanner, of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce Snowmobile Events Committee, the baby boomer generation has started to bring back vintage snowmobile racing, as the machines are readily available and the interest in racing them is growing in the Midwest.
“The vintage racing stole the show at Expo,” Wanner said. “A lot of people came to watch and it was a great asset to have at the track. People were able to pick out sleds they used to have.”
After hearing about the return of the vintage oval track racing in West Yellowstone, Sweeten decided to relive his youth by bringing his 1977 Arctic Cat Panther that he found in an old barn up to the area to race from his home in Utah.
“I paid $150 bucks for it,” he smiled. “It never won but it never lost either. It’s not real fast, but a lot of fun; kind of like back in the 70s.”
With the vintage racing scene growing and a successful freshman try at this year’s Expo, Smith said they plan on holding the event again next year.
“We were pleased with the turnout,” he said. “Half a dozen people said they want to participate next year. We think it’s going to be twice the size.”
As for Sweeten, he’s just happy he had the opportunity to come back and race in West Yellowstone once again.
“It was an incredible addition to my bucket list,” he said. “I got to race with three of my cousins and I knew I wasn’t going to win, but it was a lot of fun.”