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Snowmobilers of South Dakota
Tucked away off a country oil road near Parker, SD sits what looks like an old gas station. But don’t stop to fill up. The old pump is empty and there’s no staff to fill ‘er up, check the oil or tires. Tucked away behind the shop doors are more than just ghosts. There lurks a whole collection of old timers ready to brave the open road.
Allen Ulmer – The Speed Demon
Allen Ulmer has been racing snowmobiles for as long as he can recall. He claims it is genetic. His father, Gary Ulmer, began racing in 1980. This is when snowmobile racing first got started in the eastern part of the state. They ran in the ice races at Dell Rapids, on the Big Sioux River, at Lake Alvin, and on Waubay.
“I was born in 1983 and got on a Kitty Kat around 1986 or so. That sled was modified from a 5 mph put-put ride to a 20 mph ride before I was done with it,” laughed Ulmer. “That’s where I got started turning wrenches and where the desire to be in competition happened, by tagging along with my father to races.”
Thanks to South Dakota’s early driving age, Ulmer got his driver’s license and began racing in local club events before he was 16 years old. When he turned 16, he and his dad’s team was already factory supported by Yamaha. Ulmer credits this opportunity to his dad’s hard work, good friends who helped drive to races and his father’s years of racing knowledge. When asked what it was like racing for a company like Yamaha during his first season as a professional rider, Ulmer answered, “It was a little stressful, there was pressure to compete at the top level!”
Racing was more than a wintertime activity. The fast growing niche of grass racing (drag races held on grass) called its siren song from July to October. Companies saw these events as opportunity to “pre-launch” their new models. They wanted their sponsored teams to be competing and promoting the new sleds.
“Manufacturers viewed the grass season as a way to sell their product year round. Being a factory supported racer, we would get the models that weren’t released to the public yet,” said Ulmer. “One time Yamaha shipped over four sleds from Japan so we could test them before they were available to the public.”
Racing year round meant Gary and Allen spent lots of time on the road together.
“In the summers we traveled from Menno, South Dakota, to Gray’s Lake, Illinois and anywhere in between. We drove a lot of I-90. In the winter, there were plenty of missed Fridays at school and not wanting to get out of bed on Mondays,” recalled Ulmer.
Gary and Alan raced from 1999-2009. Each season they traveled to approximately ten races in South Dakota, to Hay Days in Minnesota and to events in Rochester, MN and Jefferson, Wisconsin. In total, they ran about thirty races per year.
“Now I try to make other people go faster,” smiled Ulmer.
Ulmer Racing got started in 1989 when Gary had a machine shop where he worked on snowmobiles for local riders. In 2003, he took a position as a rural mail carrier. Yet all the equipment for producing parts was still in the shop. In 2005, father and son dove into the snowmobile business. Alan had a regular job and so did Gary. Together they ran the business, juggling jobs, family and bank accounts until Allen left his job to pursue the company full time.
Ulmer racing produces aftermarket parts, does service work on other people’s sleds and ships other manufacturers’ parts. Their diverse background in the snowmobile world has taught them what works and doesn’t work. The business handles all brands – but the mail order parts and performance stuff are mainly Yamaha parts. Allen guessed around 99% of the performance parts they sell are for Yamaha related sleds. Ulmer Racing is the parts supplier for Yamaha’s “Cross Country” team, based out of Minnesota, and the Yamaha Hill Climb team, based out of Wyoming.
“We’ve been the consumer, we’ve been on the inside, we’ve supplied parts to racers and hill climbers, and we have built parts too. We feel we bring a really unique skill set to the business because it’s rare to find people who understand all the moving pieces of the industry,” said Ulmer. “We are proud to be based in Menno. What we’ve been able to do in a small town feels like a pretty big accomplishment.”
Brent Schaap – The Mountain Goat
Brent Schaap lives a life most people would have a hard time believing exists. In the summer he is a white water raft guide on the Snake River. In the winter, the real fun begins when Schaap throws on his riding gear and works as a snowmobile guide for the Togwotee Mountain Lodge. Set in the mountains of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, the lodge is known as one of the premier snowmobiling destinations in the world. Schaap’s dad and his dad’s friends were avid backcountry snowmobilers. They searched all over the Rockies for the best places to ride in the mountains. Nearly twenty years ago they came to the Jackson Hole area. Schaap has been back every year since.
Originally from the Hartford area, Schaap’s spent years helping his family at their RV dealership near Sioux Falls. People in eastern South Dakota in the 1980s thought Schaap and his dad were crazy for driving 1,000 miles to go snowmobiling.
“You can try to explain mountain riding to someone, but until you actually do it, it’s indescribable,” said Schaap. “Back then people thought we were nuts for going past the Black Hills to ride. Now everybody goes out West. That area is kind of a mecca for the snowmobile industry. One well-known company does their testing within eighty miles of there. Several aftermarket companies are based out of there too.”
According to Schaap, in high altitude, after a good winter, he has ridden on four feet of snow on the 4th of July. Togwotee Pass is just shy of 9,500 feet of altitude. The average snowfall of the area is 500-600 inches. Schaap has experienced as extreme as 1,000 inches of snowfall in one season.
A typical day of guiding finds Schaap driving to work around 7:45 a.m., getting dressed, then heading out to start snowmobiles. On windy, cold mornings, it takes longer to get things up and running. By 9am he is on his sled and heading out for the day’s ride. Schaap keeps his groups out all day and arrives back at the lodge about 3:30 or 4pm. If it’s early in the season when the snow is bottomless, riders really have to work throughout the day. He’ll have mercy on those groups and bring them back in an hour earlier.
During his first season of guiding at Togwotee Mountain Lodge, he met a special lady who is now his wife. She also works for a guide operation, located in Jackson Hole. After college, she moved to the city from Alabama. The wind and winters didn’t scare her away and she has been there ever since. She also rides and both she and Schaap have raced on the hill climb circuit.
Schaap had fifteen years of experience riding Togwotee as a guest before he made the leap to guiding other riders. He says the learning curve was steep, but made much more manageable by his years of riding experience and the help of veteran guides.
“Typically, a new guide will team up with an experienced guide, help them get people unstuck and learn about leading a group. The next step is taking people on trail rides. Finally they begin taking groups on powder rides. The key to guiding well is reading the clients and assessing what people can actually do,” noted Schaap.“The stuff they talk about at happy hour is the stuff that challenged them. So a good guide figures out how to challenge them without getting them hurt.”
A beautiful facility with great riding and good snow nearby is bound to have return customers. One group from Minnesota travels to the Lodge every year. They began riding with Schaap the first year he was a guide. He says both parties have gotten much better in the past ten years.
“Our guests are our friends and our friends are our guests. Guiding is a job where you can be taught some things. But being able to learn as you go and make decisions on the fly is really important,” said Schaap.
Ten years of history with Togwotee Mountain Lodge means he has a number of experienced riders who come back to ride with him annually. He mainly guides the riders who are looking for “steep and deep”. According to Schaap, some areas are so remote, he only leads groups out there once or twice per season. Some areas are only ridden every five to seven years.
“My life is my vacation. It is my job, but I don’t go to work every day. I go and do something I love to do. And that’s not work,” smiled Schaap.
Doug and Steve Koch – The Classic Collectors
When a man says he has 150 snowmobiles in his back yard, you understand very quickly that he knows a thing or two about vintage sleds. Doug and Steve Koch of Madison, South Dakota, are king collectors of older snowmobiles. The brothers got into snowmobiling when they began working at Interlakes Sports Center in 1972.
Throughout forty years of business, they have sold Ski-Doo, Rupp, Kawasaki, Sno-Jet, Arctic Cat, Polaris and Yamaha. You name it, they have probably sold it. Each year new models would come in as dealers rolled out the next line of latest and greatest sleds. Doug and Steve accumulated a few of each brand throughout the years.
“Steve’s oldest sled is a yellow Ski-Doo. It is a 1962, 7 horsepower, Kohler 4-stroke motor, with a tin hood and a rubber track,” said Doug. “There were 1,200 produced that year, and it was first purchased by Sioux Valley Electric in Colman, SD.”
Electric companies used the sleds for easier travel in the wintertime. More than one of them have become part of the “Koch Kollection.”
“One of my favorites is a 1966 Arctic Cat model D100. It has a Kohler 4-stroke, 7 horsepower motor, with a tin hood and a steel chain track. There were 375 of this model produced in 1966. This particular sled was first purchased by East River Electric in Madison, SD,” said Doug.
Another favorite snowmobile was found just a few hours away in Nebraska.
“Another favorite from the collection is a rare 1978 Yamaha SSR 440 oval track sled. We purchased it from the Omaha area many years ago,” said Doug. “We’ve heard there may only be a couple hundred ever produced. No one seems to know the exact number. It has a 440 liquid cooled motor, cleated track and trailing arm front suspension.”
The past few years Doug and Steve have taken the lead in organizing vintage snowmobile events over at the Shipwreck on Brandt Lake, near Chester, South Dakota. People seem to enjoy getting together and looking at each other’s sleds. Other area towns have started vintage snowmobile groups that get together and share their passion for the sport.
“I am a member of the Antique Snowmobile Club of America. We love to talk and help people out when they are getting the old sleds running. We were working on the old sleds every day when they were new and still remember a few things about them. There are several friends and customers in our local area that have restored some mint looking old sleds, and they love to show them off. I think it’s great to bring the past alive,” said Doug.
The Koch brothers do enjoy collecting. According to Doug, they save everything. That includes the old snowmobile dealer signs, brochures, gear, jackets, posters and all promotional materials. To see some of their collection go to www.kochkollection.com.
“We hope someday to get a bigger building to put all the snowmobiles in. It’s not a very profitable goal, but we want to get all the memorabilia, sleds and other gear inside and on display so people can come and enjoy it and the great outdoor sport of snowmobiling.” TMM