There doesn’t have to be snow on the ground for snowmobile enthusiasts in Idaho to log some hours on a sled.
Even in 90-degree heat, dozens of riders from all over Idaho and Washington found a way to ride this weekend at the third annual “Summer Sucks” Grass Drags.
More than 70 riders of all ages and skill levels brought out their snowmobiles in the hot summer sun for the two-day event. They raced on a 500-foot stretch of grass in a hay field near St. Maries High School, sometimes nearing speeds of 100 miles per hour.
“There’s nothing like the sweet smell of two-stroke oil and racing fuel in the morning,” said racer Leonard Zak, of Auburn, Wash., who traveled to St. Maries with a trailer full of snowmobiles to tear up some grass.
Riders said the unique community event allows those who spend countless hours and thousands of dollars on their sport to enjoy it any time of year – not just when the temperature drops and the snow falls.
The snowmobile is a symbol among the residents of the small town along the St. Joe River and a part of the unique outdoor culture created there.
“This is a logging community, and their lives revolve around being in the outdoors,” said resident and racer Ananda Grieser. “We don’t have a movie theater or stuff like that. So people are always active. This is just what we do.”
The community of about 2,600 people has also been known to rally to the aid of its residents.
The races, organized by the St. Joe Snow Riders snowmobile club, started as a fundraiser in memory of Grieser’s husband, TJ Grieser. Grieser died in an avalanche in March 2010 while riding near the Idaho-Montana border. His wife was pregnant with their first child when he was killed.
“They basically gave me the money so I could be on maternity leave,” Grieser said.
After the first year, the family and friends wanted to keep the event going, so the funds raised at the races now go to various charities. Last year the event paid for jerseys for the St. Maries High School Lumberjacks football team.
Every year, it gets bigger and more popular, organizers said. The stands were packed Saturday, and the beer garden went through six kegs of beer, organizers said.
They started with about 40 participants, and this year more than 70 registered, many coming from outside the area. Spectators come to watch as riders in shorts, tank tops and T-shirts zip along, throwing up dirt and mud as they go.
Because snowmobiles need the snow to cool them down, after a match in Sunday’s heat the riders would drive their snowmobiles onto a cooling station, where cold water is cycled through to keep them from overheating.
“People think this is bad for the sleds, but it really isn’t,” said Kenny Schiermeister, race organizer.
The front ends of the sleds launched up in the air as the competitors left the starting line, and racers in various brackets competed for the title “King of the Grass.”
”Most of us just compete for bragging rights,” said Todd Wells, a 50-year-old rider from East Wenatchee, Wash. Wells came to the races with his brother and other members of Wells Boys Racing. There are some “grass drags” elsewhere in the country where riders race for prizes of up to $100,000, he said.
Shane Wells, 52, estimated his racing sled cost about $80,000, and he doesn’t care if he has to tear up a hay field to get it running.
“If you can get ’em out and make some smoke, it doesn’t matter where,” he said.
T-shirts printed for the event sum it up: “Ice, snow, or grass. It doesn’t matter. I’ll kick your ass.”
“The kids can’t wear them to the school, but they sure get a kick out of them,” said Robin Jones, Ananda Grieser’s mother. Residents also have stickers on cars and trucks reading, “Summer Sucks,” which was coined by TJ Grieser back in high school in St. Maries.
The stickers have been spotted on vehicles as far away as Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, organizers said.
“Every year people will ask, ‘Why do you do this?’ ” said Bonnie Harris, treasurer for the snowmobile club. “It’s just a kick in the pants.”