Who needs snow? On a summer day in Superior, these sleds walk on water (with video)While Duluth’s Spirit Mountain is home to the popular Duluth National Snocross every November, this weekend’s watercross event appears to be the first of its kind in the Twin Ports.
By: Tom Olsen, Duluth News Tribune
If there was one thing that racers in the inaugural Superior Watercross Shootout wanted to avoid Saturday, it was the pontoon staffed by Neil “Bean” Schaible and Clint “Muddy” Ziebart.
The duo was responsible for retrieving the snowmobiles, and the riders, that sank during the day’s qualifying races.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t see you guys today,” rider Dale Schellbach of St. Paul told them, only half-jokingly, after he and his sled were plucked out of the water.
The sight of a 500-pound snowmobile tossing its rider and sinking underwater isn’t unusual for Schaible and Ziebart. They work watercross events throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“It’s always a great way to come out and spend a weekend,” Ziebart said. “What more could you ask for?”
But for Twin Ports residents, it’s a whole new experience. While Duluth’s Spirit Mountain is home to the popular Duluth National Snocross every November, this weekend’s watercross event appears to be the first of its kind in the Twin Ports.
Qualifying races were held Saturday at the Barker’s Island inlet, featuring about 100 racers. The finals are scheduled to be held from 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m. Sunday.
About 750 people attended on the sunny, 80-degree day Saturday, organizers said, but more were expected for Sunday's finals.
“Everything has come together so well to make a great event,” said Derek McPheeters of Isanti, Minn., a rider and vice president of the International Watercross Association, which sanctions the races. “You couldn’t ask for better weather or a better setting.”
The IWA got its start with watercross races in Grantsburg, Wis., and thousands still flock to the Burnett County community for the races every July. The series also makes stops in Moose Lake, Ely and Brainerd.
Riders compete in several classes in both oval and drag races. With top speeds of about 60 mph, the sleds don’t glide on the water, but rather seem to skip like a rock.
Other than some minor adjustments for safety and handling, the snowmobiles are quite similar to what you’d see on the snow. To the naked eye, the most visible difference is the lack of seats, which are removed to give riders better mobility as they handle the machines on the water.
The riders also make some make some minor suspension modifications to make the switch from snow to water, and narrow up the front end for better steering, which is done by shifting body weight.
The sleds run on a mixture of gasoline and oil, which is sealed to ensure it doesn’t leak in the water. Instead, it’s usually the water that gets into the sled, causing it to sink when the sled hits the water the wrong way.
Justin Mackedanz, a rider out of Paynesville, Minn., was scrambling to dry out his sparkplugs and get ready for his next heat after he ended up in the water Saturday.
“The biggest part of it is just trying to get all of the water out of the sled,” he said. “You’ve got to be quick because you don’t have a lot of time before you’ve got to be out there for another run.”
At times, it can get expensive for the riders, too. Derek Fischer, one of the top riders in the series, was planning to make a return to his shop in St. Paul before coming back for the finals Sunday.
Fischer hit a wave and slammed his sled down hard on the water, breaking the machine’s track, a $500 expense. About an hour later, riding his other sled, Fischer made contact with another rider and broke the mount that holds on one of the front skis.
“It is what it is,” he said. “Thankfully I’m able to at least come back tomorrow and hope for a better day.”
Organizers said they think attendance for the event will exceed their expectations after final numbers are tallied today.
With the sport constantly growing, it has potential to become a marquee sporting event in the Twin Ports, McPheeters said.
“We think at some point it could be right up there with snocross,” he said. “You could have snocross up there (at Spirit Mountain) every winter and watercross here (at Barker’s Island) every summer.”
If you go
What: Superior Watercross Shootout finals
When: 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Barker’s Island inlet
Cost: $15 for a day pass
Parking: Limited parking at Barker’s Island; spectators are encourage to park at Mariner Mall and take a free shuttle to and from the island from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.