In the immortal words of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, God made fast motorcycles for one reason: "Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube."
His ode to speed and daring aboard a Ducati 900 superbike, written 28 years ago in "Song of the Sausage Creature," fits just as well with today's high-powered, high-priced snowmobiles manufactured in Minnesota and Canada.
Polaris, Arctic Cat and Ski-Doo are now in "sneak peek" season, discreetly unveiling their 2024 models to magazine writers, YouTubers and television producers who regularly follow the industry. Later this month, the curtains will be pulled back for the public to see the latest "up-powered," "magnum" "hypersleds" built for "astonishing power" and "blistering speed," according to a mix of recent media.
"It's crazy how year after year these sleds continue to get faster and better," said Ben Roth of CBoysTV, a highly successful YouTube channel based in rural Becker County. "All the manufacturers are basically making rocket ships with tracks and skis on them."
But Roth, who performs crazy stunts with off-road vehicles of all kinds, agrees with many others who say advances in snowmobile design and engineering aren't to blame for the rash of fatal accidents this winter in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
To the contrary, they say, the $23,000 turbo-charged sleds of today feature far better braking, steering and maneuverability than models produced 25 years ago that had just as much top-end speed. Law enforcement officials agree.
Then, as now, the prime underpinnings of deadly crashes are alcohol, inexperience and speeding out of control, they say. Any of those factors can contribute to striking a tree or other fixed object — the most common ending for people who die on snowmobile rides.
"Those are the leading causes," said Capt. Jon Paurus, who heads safety training for Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. "My team goes through the crash reports … There's no (new) visible trends."
Mark Lester of Muskoka, Ontario, is president of Supertrax Media Inc., producer of Snowtrax television and Supertrax magazine. He relishes the need-for-speed culture of snowmobiling and continues to be amazed by the industry's advances in acceleration, power, handling and comfort.
When the industry's first big-motor muscle sleds were hitting the trails in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he said, riders were streaking across frozen lakes at speeds of 110 mph. People started asking if the machines were too powerful, too dangerous, Lester recalls. His stock answer hasn't changed.
"People don't need a big-inch motor to kill themselves. The number one contributor is impairment," he said. "People get killed riding snowmobiles by riding irresponsibly."
Before January's three-day holiday weekend honoring Martin Luther King Jr., snowmobilers received public safety reminders from DNR officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin. By then, six riders had died in Minnesota crashes this season — the same number as the entire 2021-22 snowmobile season and double the number of the 2020-21 season. A seventh rider died on Jan. 22, 20 miles northeast of Detroit Lakes. Then, within the past week, a 67-year-old resort owner was found dead next to a crashed snowmobile in Kandiyohi County.
In Wisconsin, a state with more snowmobile trails and more registered sleds than in Minnesota, nine riders have died in the past three weeks.
Too many alcohol test results are still pending in the two states to estimate impairment in this season's accidents. But according to completed accident reports from 2021 in Wisconsin, alcohol was involved in nine of 13 snowmobile fatalities, or 70%. In Minnesota, alcohol was a recorded factor in 11 of 19 (58%) fatal snowmobile accidents from late 2018 to March 2020.
Lt. Jacob Holsclaw, a Wisconsin DNR conservation warden and the agency's off-highway vehicle administrator, said the biggest and most obvious multiplier when it comes to snowmobile deaths per season is ample snowfall increasing ridership. Alcohol impairment has been an enduring problem in a high percentage of those crashes, he said.
"A lot of your sleds today are getting more powerful, but they handle better," he said. "The stability seems better."
Even when compared to ATV fatalities, Holsclaw said, alcohol impairment seems more prevalent in snowmobile crashes.
"We do tend to see a little more alcohol use on the snowmobile side," he said.
Holsclaw and Paurus said mandatory safety training for snowmobile riders has coincided with a long-term, downward trend in snowmobiling deaths. But crash reports are still rife with evidence that riders don't always obtain safety certification.
David Fischer, a pro snowmobile racer who has a contract with Polaris, has been around fast sleds all his life. During most winters, he'll travel out west to ride in the mountains — an experience he is skipping this year because of amazing snow conditions in Minnesota. He recently rode trails from Grand Marais all the way home to the north metro area, he said.
What he views as a lasting safety problem, besides alcohol, is inexperience. A familiar narrative in fatal accident reports is that of a rider failing to negotiate a turn and crashing into a tree or other fixed object.
Fischer said today's fastest stock snowmobiles bury the old models with quicker acceleration, not all-out speed. They also provide ergonomic comforts that keep you riding all day.
"The sleds work with you rather than against you," he said.
Greatly reduced in weight and refined with ever-more-responsive frames and shock absorbers, the machines provide for riders the thrill of leaning into corners and the pull of horsepower coming out of turns. Rolling along at reasonable speeds, late-model, two-stroke snowmobiles can also pop wheelies nowadays with a flick of the throttle.
It's the same "bottomless pit of torque" described joyously by Thompson riding his Ducati. "Some people will tell you that slow is good — and it may be, on some days," he wrote. "but I am here to tell you that fast is better."
Lester of Supertrax acknowledged that snowmobilers care mightily about how fast and how hard their machines accelerate. But that's not a bad thing with constant advancements in design, he said.
"What we have today," he said, "is the highest form of the species."