The Race is On
From the Winter 2021 Issue
Vintage snowmobile racing in Priest Lake
by Lyndsie Kiebert
On several occasions during the winter months, 75-year-old Mike Courteau rises well before the sun, ready to brave the cold to facilitate a growing pastime in North Idaho: vintage snowmobile racing at Priest Lake.
Courteau said that the races have become almost a “full-time deal” for him and his wife, who manage the operation with the help of many volunteers. Though he raced snowmobiles from 1972 into the mid ’80s, Courteau takes on more of a management role for the races nowadays.
“I used to [race], but my racing days are over,” Courteau said with a good-natured laugh. “I’m 75, so I don’t do that anymore.”
Today’s racers are lucky to have Courteau at the helm, though, as his races have grown to host hundreds of participants and upwards of 700 spectators.
“It’s just grown to be the biggest thing on the West Coast,” he said. “We never thought it would get this big.”
Snowmobiles from 1985 or older are eligible to race in VSRPL events. There are stock and modified classes, including a 120 Kitty Cat class for children ages 4 to 10, junior classes for ages 11 to 16, women’s classes, amateur and advanced classes, and “even a Master’s class for th
ose brave souls who are 55 and older,” Courteau said.
“It’s pretty serious racing—real serious,” he added.
Vintage snowmobile racing has a robust history on the West Coast, according to Courteau, but the sport started to lose traction about 15 years ago. He said it’s seen steady growth in recent years, a resurgence made apparent in the participation numbers at the Priest Lake races. The first race, held in 2014 at The Inn at Priest Lake in Coolin, saw 25 registered racers. The most recent event—held in early 2020—saw 245 entries.
“We’re starting to be pretty well recognized back on the East Coast, where snowmobile racing’s been around for years,” Courteau said, noting that racers have come from as far as Calgary and southern Utah to compete in the Priest Lake events.
Part of that growth is thanks to accommodation from the U.S. Forest Service, which now allows VSRPL to host races on the airstrip across Highway 57 from the Priest Lake Ranger Station. Courteau said working with the U.S.F.S. to utilize the space for snowmobile races has been a positive experience and an integral part of the event’s growth.
“They’ve just bent over backwards to allow us to do that,” he said.
The space has allowed Courteau and local volunteers to create an oval ice track each winter, which provides a prime racing experience. With the help of 50-year Priest Lake resident Paul Storro, who owns an excavating business, VSRPL builds a track that’s made up of 16-inch thick solid ice, which is dyed blue just before race day. The process requires two or three weeks of cold weather to create the conditions necessary to pull off such a chilly endeavor.
“It takes a lot of work to make the track, but it’s worth it,” Storro said, adding that “fast sleds go fast on ice.”
Storro has been racing snowmobiles since 1987, and taking part in VSRPL races since they began. He said his children—three boys and a 15-year-old daughter—all participate in the races as well. The Storros are just one example of a family that’s made racing vintage sleds into a “family affair,” Courteau said.
“A lot of guys—their wives race and they get very serious, too,” he said. “And the kids are a big hit.”
It’s understandable why a bunch of four-years-olds on miniature snowmobiles might be a crowd favorite, and the experience often leads to a lifelong love of the niche sport.
“It’s been cool to see, since we’ve been doing it so long now, these young kids that started on 120s are up into the juniors, and some of them are up racing with adults now,” Courteau said. “As long as the weather permits, we’ll just keep doing this.”
VSRPL plans to host three two-day racing events during 2021: January 16-17, January 30-31 and February 20-21. With the help of countless volunteers and loyal sponsors, Courteau is hoping for another successful season.
“It takes a village,” he said, “and it’s good for the community.”
Learn more at vintagesnowmobileracingpriestlake.com, call organizer Mike Courteau at 509-599-5539 or 208-443-3089, or send email to [email protected]