Snowmobile enthusiasts test new skills with watercross racing
By Brian Sweeney
Snowmobilers in increasing numbers are discovering a new way to enjoy their riding — without the benefit of snow.
In fact, as the name implies, Watercross involves racing modified snowmobiles across ponds.
Dunraven residents Charlie Bush and his oldest son, Brandon, got their first taste of Watercross racing about a year ago and were immediately fascinated by the sport.
“I had heard about it, but never paid much attention. But the first time I saw it, I said I’ve got to try it,” recalled Charlie, a snowmobile enthusiast beginning his early teens.
Sixteen-year-old Brandon has been riding snowmobiles since about the age of four and was equally excited about experiencing Watercross after witnessing the action firsthand.
Didn’t take long
He, too, was hooked immediately and declared, “This is my sport!” the first time he tried Watercross.
The Bushes soon were learning all they could about the requirements for Watercross. By last June, they had entered their first race at an event in Walton.
The “Sandman Racing” team, with Brandon as the pilot, has since competed three times at Flat Rock in the Tug Hill Plateau. Last weekend, the squad journeyed to New Hampshire and earned a third-place finish in the 800-cc amateur class (among 40 entrants) in the Watercross drag races.
As one might expect, standard snowmobiles are not designed to travel across open bodies of water. Charlie explained that the machines utilized for Watercross undergo a radical makeover for these duties.
“You take a normal snowmobile and narrow the front, so that the skis are under the chassis. You also have to modify the suspension, ” Charlie related.
An equally important part of the snowmobile conversion is outfitting the carburetor with a drain to assist with quick recoveries when the machines fail to stay on the surface. This happens on a regular basis, to even the most experienced drivers.
“Once you take on a little water, down you go,” Charlie laughed.
Fortunately, the customized machines are equipped to handle such soakings and are usually good to go within a few minutes after they are removed from the racing pond and are property drained.
Charlie pointed out that the final ingredient in having a snowmobile set up for Watercross competition is a specially designed engine with large horsepower capacity.
He joked, “You get the biggest engine you can find, so you can dump the most money into it.”
The Bushes got involved in the sport when a friend, Sandy Scudder of Margaretville bought a sled modified for Watercross racing. Sandy began learning more about the sport from Delhi resident Jason Guy, who already had a Watercross team. Sandy then got in touch with Charlie and brought him in as the mechanic and Brandon was recruited as the driver.
Lots of preparation
The team worked long hours to assemble a machine that could handle the rigors of Watercross. Last spring, they were finally ready to test their skills and began practicing at a pond in Kelly Corners owned by the Hubbell family. They also hone their skills at an Andes pond owned by Bud and Suzanne Gladstone.
“We usually practice every couple of weeks for five or six hours,” Charlie explained. “We work on our technique and trade ideas for making improvements.”
During its first year of competition, the Sandman Racing team competed only in the drag racing category. The machines start on a small stretch of shoreline, accelerate as quickly as possible and race across the pond to the finish line. The course is 400 feet and the top sleds complete the run in less than six seconds, reaching tops speeds of 75 mph or more.
The action is fast and furious. Once a group of four racers has finished, pit crews from each team have about 15 seconds to manicure the sand at the starting line before the next set of racers starts.
“It’s nonstop all day long,” noted Charlie.
A second type of Watercross racing involves drivers competing on a pond lined with buoys as they test their skills on an oval course. Each heat in these four-lap races takes between 4-5 minutes. Qualifying racers compete in a five-lap final run across three other riders.
The machines are not equipped with brakes, so operators ease off the throttle to slow down their sleds. Charlie noted that, if operators use the proper technique, they end their run on the opposite shore. Easing up too much on the throttle results in a sunken machine towed from the pond by vehicles standing by for this purpose.
Once a run is finished, teams utilize cooling boxes or bagged ice to control the temperatures of their engines.
“The machines gets real hot, real fast,” Charlie explained.
With the season complete, Charlie and Brandon are already looking forward to next year’s competitions.
Charlie said that Sandman Racing will probably expand into some oval racing and also vie for prize money by entering races in the semi-pro division.
Like many “hobbies,” Charlie said that Watercross is not a cheap sport. He said the high-powered engines needed for this type of racing are built by a very small number of specialists — the mechanics are hard to reach and it typically costs $5,000-$6,000 to build a competitive engine.
The expense doesn’t stop with getting a sled into racing condition, either. Charlie pointed out that the high-octane racing fuel costs more than $15 per gallon. Each trip across the pond utilizes about a half-gallon of fuel and multiple runs total about 3.5 gallons of fuel use for every day of racing.
Charlie indicated that many of the racers have sponsors and that Sandman Racing is exploring the possibility of obtaining sponsors to help defray fuel costs and related expenses.
As Charlie and Brandon become more involved in Watercross, they continue to meet other racers from across Delaware County, as the sport grows in popularity. Charlie said that last week’s event in New Hampshire attracted more than 30,000 spectators. He said the sport traces its roots to the early 1970s in Grantsburg, WI. That community now hosts the world championships for the sport each July, attracting riders from all over North America.
The Sandman Racing team, which includes a pit crew of Tom Dee, Sandy Scudder, Cody Fronckowiak, John Beers Jr. and John Paul Beers, plans to spend plenty of time (and money) over the winter, working out strategy and making improvements to its snowmobile.
“We still have a lot of work to do on the sled,” Charlie explained.
It’s a task that none of the team members mind.
“It’s a blast, we’re having a great time. It’s a pretty wild sport to watch,” Charlie stated.
Charlie’s youngest son, Ethan, is still a few years away from joining the team says his mother, Beth. As for herself, Beth prefers to stay on the sidelines and act as “Watercross Mom.”