Time Machines Story and Photos | Hal Armstrong 

Ski-Doo has been the #1 sales leader since 2002 and was number one in sales in the 60’s and 70’s. That sales lead dwindled in the 80’s and 90’s. Call it happen chance or not but Ski-Doo sleds while dominating oval racing, their performance in terrain racing was poor to say the least. Ski-Doo was struggling and it was not till the late 90’s that their fortunes began to turn around.

A brief History Lesson

Ski-Doo and Rotax power have been synonymous with producing the most horsepower per cc since the 60’s. Rotax ability to innovate engine technology from the rotary valve in the early 70’s to the E-tec power plants of today is only part of the equation to making a good snowmobile. The best way to determine how well your snowmobile stacks up against the competition is on the oval, cross-country or snow cross circuits. Each of these venues has been at the top of the consumer’s radar resulting in lots of interest. Typically this generates consumer traffic at the dealership showroom. With that in mind, lets take a look at the evolution of Ski-Doo terrain racing up to the ‘91 MX-X and what evolved after to put Ski-Doo snowmobiles at the top of the racing podium and #1 in sales today and for more than a decade.

The year was 1972 and Yvon Duhamel won the Winnipeg St. Paul I500 driving a 400cc rotary valve powered Blizzard. The win was huge for Ski-Doo, which until that time was known for being fast on the

Oval track. Ski-Doo in the early 70’s  was Number one in sales but had lost focus on terrain racing in the mid 70’s. Oval racing on the Sno-Pro circuit was the race team’s primary focus. John Deere kick started the assault on Arctic Cat and Polaris with a program that peaked in 1976 with a win at the I500. Bombardier brass took notice and with market share showing signs of dropping, connected with Gerard Karpik and Stan Hayes for the 1978 season. Karpik would win four straight races and Stan Hayes would finish fifth in the I500. Karpik would continue his winning ways on the XCRV in ‘79 using free air engines and a bulletproof sled setup. Karpik and Ski-Doo would win five of nine races and be crowned the high point champion.

The Ski-Doo / Karpik relationship continued in 1980. The 1980 Blizzard 5500 was an all-new sled but was too heavy and underpowered. Karpik struggled with it all winter and in fact would return to racing his three-year-old XCRV and finish second in the I500 and win a second straight cross-country series championship. The XCRV sled however was starting to get long in the tooth as the liquid cooled engines and Independent Front Suspension of the Polaris Indy was the way of the future.

Ski-Doo in 1981 would bring to the Cross Country wars the 5500 MX designed by Jean Guy Talbot. Talbot was the same engineer that was responsible for the successful RV series. His latest creation was Ski-Doo’s first long travel independent front suspension for trail use. The magazines were full of feature articles on this sled and it entered the race season full of promise. Gerard Karpik who was arguably the best cross-country racer at the time was only able to finish ninth in the points standing. The sled was underpowered and the suspension was not up to the punishment that cross country racing dishes out.


Ski-Doo meanwhile continued to run strong on the oval circuits with their Sno-Pro race sleds and in 1981 introduced the first twin track oval race sled. It was clear Ski-Doo was still throwing all their race budget behind the oval wars and with the I500 cross country shutting down after the 1980 race the focus had shifted. Snow cross racing was just in its infancy in North America at the time. The European circuits (Sweden/Finland) were way ahead in Sno-cross racing and Gerard Karpik for one had taken notice of the action.

The lack of interest by Ski-Doo after the 1981 season in terrain racing did allow Karpik to build the first KS Special sled. The sled used the tunnel from the 9500 MX and a liquid cooled 436cc motor with an “Indy” like trailing arm front suspension. The sled was a winner right from the first race in Alexandria, Minnesota winning the first snow cross of the season. It would go onto post wins in Peterborough and also win the Soo I500 enduro. The rest of the Ski-Doo faithful were left to watch the competition run away with the rest of the season and hope the Karpik sled would be available in ‘82.

The next two seasons would see Gerard and brother Randy continue to work with Ski-Doo in refining the KS Special in ‘83 and race in the prototype class. 1984 would see only 100 Formula MX Pro-stock race sleds built. This sled was a winner on the snow cross and oval racing wars in ‘84 and ‘85. The sled featured a new chassis and a mono shock on the rear arm of the track suspension. Many racers from Polaris, Arctic and Yamaha jumped ship to race Ski-Doo.

The production version of the Pro-stock hit dealer showrooms in 1985. The Formula MX and Formula Plus featured not the Karpik front suspension but a new Bombardier design called the PRS (Progressive Rate Suspension) that would be used until 1994. The Formula series was a great shot in the arm for Ski-Doo faithful and the chassis would see improvements each year as Ski-Doo hung their hat on PRS and the heavy triple coil over shock rear suspension called the “CK3”. The sleds were fast and awesome on the oval racing circuits and Ski-Doo sold a ton of them. That was all fine until 1987 when the I500 cross-country race was resurrected and Polaris and Arctic Cat began trading off wins. The popularity of Sno-cross also continued to increase as they were friendlier for the spectator to watch and they featured highflying action. Polaris had surged ahead to become the industry sales leader on the back of the Indy. Success was not on the ovals but in terrain racing. Ski-Doo began to take notice. While dominating on the Oval’s with their twin trackers, they were at the end of the day racing themselves. It was time to refocus.

 

 

1991 MX-X

Consumer interest in the I500 (Thunder Bay, Ontario to White Bear Lake, Minnesota) had grown since 1987. Polaris and Arctic Cat had made the race their personal battleground. The Polaris Indy had morphed into the XC400 Special and Arctic Cat was heading into battle with the Prowler Special. Yamaha was also in the mix with the Phazer II, which had also proven to be an Arctic/ Polaris killer.

Ski-Doo had tested the water with its own “Special” in 1990, the Formula Plus 500. The I500 came and went and the best a Ski-Doo rider finished was 66th.

Winning in the ditch lines was going to take more than just a beefed up Formula chassis. Ski-Doo set out on returning to its glory days of the ‘84/’85 season with the help of Gerard and Randy Karpik.

Gerard recalls; ”The genesis for coupling was the fact that we kept working on long travel and it never really worked better than the six inch travel Polaris skid. Randy and I after great travail finally deduced that long travel wasn’t working due to a long travel rail’s angle of inclination on sharper edged bumps. The front arm would collapse and the rear would extend …increasing angle of inclination of the rail against the bump encountered. Everything worked fine as long as you were creating enough energy to collapse the rear arm as you were crossing it. If the rear arm did not collapse the rear of the sled would kick up severely. We decided to try to couple the front to the rear by attaching bell cranks above both arms and connecting them with a cable. The first tests were phenomenal…. mission accomplished. We brought the cable units to Valcourt and shared it with the R&D group. I had been working with a young engineer, Burt Mallette (now father of the R-motion) who designed and built a functional but somewhat complex version of a coupled skid. Meanwhile the guys in the race shop went the simpler parallelogram route. Later we pooled our knowledge/experience with the coupling concept and married it into the MX-X rear skid. We never really had enough test time to debug the suspension before it went into limited production. The rising rate geometry we used was too aggressive for the spring packs and shocks of the day.”


The MX-X was a front to rear coupled suspension with 7.5 inches of travel. The coupling mechanism was built into the slide rail and would morph into the SC5 with ACM coupling in 1998. The first iteration of the coupled suspension did not reveal the true advantages of this revolution in snowmobile design to the engineers at Ski-Doo. The concept was abandoned after the ‘91 season.

The front suspension was upgraded to 4130 Chrome moly to reduce weight. The sled spec. sheet listed the sled at 485 lbs which was 12 pounds lighter than the consumer version MX. Ski-Doo’s answer at the time to Fox shocks was Engan shocks with remote reservoirs. They were mounted into the PRS front suspension with 5.7 inches of travel. The shocks were made in Sweden and were used at the time by Ski-Doo racers in that country.

Steve Brand, then working for a very forward-thinking engineer at Ski-Doo by the name of Claude Picard, was tasked to position Ski Doo for a return to XC racing. His job included a bit of race seat time and he recalls; ”These shocks worked fine. The challenge was then and continues today to be the rear skid shock performance in the bumps. One can generally finish at some speed with blown front shocks but not with a blown rear arm coil over shock that was used on the MX-X. We had lots of challenges with the Marzzochi shocks used on the new rear suspension”

The rules had changed for the 1991 I500 with a switch to 440 cc engines from the 500 cc motors used in 1990. Horsepower was limited to 65 hp max. This was the start of the popular 440 engines that would be used in Sno-cross racing until 2008. The 467 Rotax engine was a rotary valve liquid cooled engine that did not feature the new Rotax RAVE exhaust. Twin Mikuni 38 mm carbs delivered the fuel. The TRA clutch introduced in 1987 on the MX as well as a new secondary clutch with multi angle helix delivered the power to the track.

Steve Brand recalls getting the sled ready for the I500; ”This sled was not ready for the rigors of the I500 and had clearly not been bump-tested. If not for the timely support of Gerard Karpik none of us would have finished, and that was the only goal as we were well off the speeds of the other guys. We received the sleds at Christmas and totally stripped them down at Larry’s Small Engines in Orangeville, Ontario. We completed the mods suggested by GK (and Larry), rather than go out “testing” on our own, which was the testy majority opinion as I recall. We finally got the sleds together late on a Tuesday night, loaded our open place trailer, and headed out for Thunder Bay to make the Thursday registration day. The sleds had maybe five minutes on them so we started them on the open trailer and let them idle away through T-Bay while we drove to registration from our hotel. They might have had 30 minutes tops on them, but then we weren’t worried about the Rotax reliability.

Steve Brand getting ready for the I500

I think 30+ Doos started the I500 in a field of 250+, but only seven of us finished under the time cutoff. There were 130 or so finishers. Three other Ontario riders under my wing were amongst the seven Doo finishers and this feat was only possible because we received and listened to Gerard’s tips. Doug Post of Caledon was the top Ski-Doo in an amazing 55th place with Ric Wilson a few minutes behind him. I brought up the rear (with my notebook and camera) a few minutes ahead of Bill Moffatt. The best Polaris sleds were almost 15 mph faster. We were getting passed like we were standing still. It was embarrassing but one of the building blocks that led us to the 1994 I500 when Ski-Doo turned the corner and had the most sleds entered, Todd Wolff made the top 10.“

1991:The Tipping Point to Chequered Flags and #1 in Sales

The ‘91 MX-X was a watershed snowmobile for Ski-Doo, which would lead to victory in the I500 in 1998 and 1999 by Todd Wolff. In addition the Team FAST sponsored Toni Hailkonen would win the Pro 440 class in the national Sno-cross circuit in 1997.

Steve Brand, who later went on to be the factory Ski Doo XC/SX race manager (92/95) summarizes; “The 90’s were an exciting time at Ski-Doo under Tony Kalhok’s leadership. The growing XC/SX success, led by Toni Haikonen and Todd Wolff, kick started Ski-Doo’s run to the number one market share spot, which it still holds to this day.”

 

Ski-Doo’s status as number one today is the result of setting a goal and keeping your eye on the prize through good times and bad. The snowmobile industry is as competitive a sport and industry as any. This story demonstrates clearly that resting on your laurels after achieving #1 status is a recipe for disaster. Polaris, Cat and Yamaha have all been at the top and want to get there again. That means building sleds with new technology that improves the snowmobile experience. Racing has accelerated the technology that improves the consumer snowmobile and that means sometimes taking one step back and two steps forward. The ‘91 MX-X is a clear example of a machine that needed perhaps one to two more years of development to be that game changing snowmobile. 

 


This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Snow Goer Canada Magazine. Be sure to get all the latest snowmobile news in your hands by subscribing today. If you missed an issue on the stands, or would like a copy of the issue this article was featured in, back issues are also available. Snow Goer Canada Magazine gift subscriptions are also available.

 

 

 

 

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