By MIKE NORTON
I was thinking of titling this post, “Kids, Don’t Try This at Home. Not Ever.”
Thanks to its climate, Northern Michigan gets more than its share of snowmobile races — and if you’ve never been to one, I gotta tell you: it’s fairly amazing to see how fast you can get a heavy piece of high-performance machinery moving on a snow-covered track. But Snocross racing is something entirely different. It’s snowmobile racing on steroids.
Snocross is the most popular form of snowmobile racing — a sport in which riders compete at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour on tracks that are deliberately engineered to include tight turns, banked corners, steep jumps (some as high as 30 feet) and obstacles. In some races, jumping machines can be airborne as much as 130 feet.
Probably the world’s biggest and best known Snowcross races is the AMSOIL Championship Snocross Series tour, which runs from November through March and is sanctioned by the International Series of Champions (ISOC), the leading snowmobile race sanctioning organization in North America. And this Friday and Saturday, Traverse City will be hosting the fifth event in the series — the U.S. 27 Motorsports Snocross National — at the Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel in Williamsburg.
The races are being aired on the CBS Sports Network, and organizers say the Traverse City event could bring in as many as 5,000 spectators. I think that might be a little optimistic, but I’ve got to admit that even for a noise-averse guy like me this looks like it could be fun to watch. That’s because this is one of only two sites on the tour that will feature a first-ever “freestyle jam session” where the machines and their drivers are pushed to their limits in a series of jumps, flips and other stunts.
Freestyle riders (known as “pilots” because they spend so much time in the air) are the daredevils of the sport, and they love to put on a show for their audiences. The event will featured several international snocross racing stars, including X Games gold medalist and snowmobile distance jumping record holder Levi LaVallee; Tucker Hibbert, holder of five straight gold medals at Winter X Snocross and winner of the most ACSS events and championships in history; Canada’s Tim Tremblay, the defending ACSS overall Pro Open class champion, and top snocross pros Ross Martin, Robbie Malinoski, Darrin Mees and Michigan’s own Kyle Pallin.
Traverse City has long been a favorite destination for snowmobilers, since it’s a convenient base for exploring more than 200 miles of the country’s most diverse snowmobiling trails. The Boardman Valley Trail, is an 81-mile trail system in the Pere Marquette State Forest, where sightings of turkeys, eagles, deer and other wildlife are commonplace, and is linked to several other regional trail systems, offering even more opportunities for extended distance riding. The Jordan Valley Trail, about a half-hour to the northeast, is features over 130 miles of spectacular trails not far from Shanty Creek and the picturesque village of Bellaire.
Since the region’s scenery is so diverse, the trails encompass many different landscapes: snug tunnels of tall snowy evergreens, open stands of hardwood where the sun shines down through blue shadows, high ridges where eagles soar, wide meadows that look out over distant glacial lakes. Sledders accustomed to the wide-open raceway style conditions in other snowmobiling areas say they’re amazed at how often they seem to have the Traverse City trails to themselves.