Snowmobile race caps a long winter run
CANAAN VALLEY, W.Va. -- The seemingly endless winter that lingered in the highlands of West Virginia through last weekend left plenty of late-season snow on the ground for those who like to play in it.
Skiers and snowboarders had an abundance of trails to choose from at Winterplace, which closed on April 3, and at Snowshoe Mountain, which pulled the plug on its chairlifts on April 7. In Canaan Valley last Saturday, a few dedicated cross-country skiers could be seen gliding the shadier trails at White Grass, while at nearby Timberline, a faster, louder form of recreation -- the snowmobile race -- was making its West Virginia debut.
Nearly 50 snowmobile racers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia took part in the East Coast Cross-Country Snowmobile Championship on a 5.5-mile course on Timberline's ski slopes, all of which, despite the late date, were still knee-deep in snow.
For most of the racers, it was their first cross-country speed event.
"Most of the racing we do in our part of the country is drag racing on 500- to 700-foot-long stretches of grass or snow," said Brian Statler of Chambersburg, Pa., a snowmobile racer and dealer. You have to get into upstate New York or even farther north to find cross-country races, Statler said.
"On the grass tracks, you just hold on and go," Statler said. "On a course like this, you have to worry about other people, trees and making the next turn."
"I'd say at least 90 percent of the people here are trying this kind of race for the first time," said race organizer Bart Shaffer of Oakland, Md. "They're used to riding in this kind of country, but not racing in it."
Shaffer and other race organizers spent most of the week preceding the race laying out a course that included long uphill and downhill straight-aways (where speeds of up to 90 miles per hour were clocked), hairpin turns, cross-slope connecting routes, and a series of bumps that sent racers airborne.
With races lasting between 45 minutes and an hour, "You've got to prove your endurance on a course like this," said Brian Statler's 16-year-old son, Conner, after taking a pre-race lap around the course with other competitors to get familiar with the route.
"It's a good course," said Statler, who has been riding snowmobiles since he was 6. "It goes to the top of the mountain and then straight down. I'm ready to go."
The younger Statler finished seventh in each of Saturday's races. In the first race, novice and women riders were among the competitors, and riders of high-horsepower sleds powered by 800 cc or larger motors were not. The final-lap white flag dropped at 45 minutes in the first race, and at 60 minutes in the second pro-open event, in which the high-horsepower snowmobiles competed.
"Getting to ride on snow like this, at this time of the year, is incredible," said Doug Smith of Oakland, Md., who won the first race, completing one of his five 5.5-mile laps in seven minutes, 45 seconds.
Like most racers here on Saturday, it was Smith's first cross-country event.
"We drag race a lot," he said, "but this blows that away. I can't wait to do this again."
Among those racing in Saturday's hour-long ProRace event was Jacob Roberts of nearby Thomas, one of a handful of West Virginia riders taking part in the competition.
"After a while, your forearms and your grip start to go," said Roberts, who finished fifth in the event. "But it was a lot of fun. I'd do it again in a minute ... I saw [the speedometer] hit 70 a couple of times going up the hill. Going down, I was too busy braking to look."
Maryland racers Chad Tasker and Zeke Sisler ran neck-and-neck for much of the six-lap event, trading the lead several times, but it was Tasker who took the checkered flag at 51:55, which was 47 seconds ahead of Sisler.
Shaffer said the idea for holding a snowmobile race at Timberline came up late in the ski season, giving him and his associates only a few weeks to promote the event.
"The people here at Timberline have been great to work with," he said. "We'd like to be able to do this again, and maybe even start a three-race cross-country series in the area," using the Timberline slopes after the resort's ski season ends for one of the events.
In promoting the next West Virginia snowmobile race, sponsors may have to overcome some regional prejudices.
"A lot of people didn't believe we had snow down here," said one member of this year's race organization crew. "A guy from Youngstown, Ohio, called here every day this week to make sure there was snow. We finally sent him some pictures and he showed up for the race."
The 2012-2013 snow season was a good one for West Virginia's ski resorts, according to West Virginia Ski Areas Association spokesman Joe Stevens. "Everybody was reporting higher than average numbers in February and March," he said. "It looks like we'll easily pass the 800,000-skier visit mark that indicates an average season."
Superstorm Sandy helped jumpstart this year's season by putting an earlier than normal layer of snow on the ground, and more importantly, "by getting people thinking about skiing and snowboarding," Stevens said. "Then we were able to open at Thanksgiving and stay open through Easter and beyond."
There is still enough snow on the ground to ski and snowboard at Snowshoe Mountain and Timberline, Stevens said. "But when people in places like Charleston are cutting their grass and thinking about other things, the season's over."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.