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With resurgence of snowmobiling in Priest Lake, racers flock to vintage race

UPDATED: Fri., March 16, 2018, 9:54 a.m.

As a kid, Larry Ellifritz, Jr. remembers watching his father race snowmobiles near Priest Lake. Mostly, Ellifritz was a loyal son, watching and cheering as his father hurtled around the icy corners of the track.

But when a certain Mercury Sno Twister took the track, Ellifritz’ loyalties evaporated with the roar of its engine.

“It was really loud and it was really fast and it usually won,” Ellifritz said.

He loved it, even if his dad didn’t like the sudden loyalty change.

Thirty years later, Ellifritz still loves snowmobile racing, although instead of watching he’s the one competing, alongside his dad and two brothers.

“It’s kind of a time machine for me,” he said. “I get to race the things that I remember and the things I remember thinking were really cool as a kid.”

On Saturday, Ellifritz Jr., 47, his father Larry Ellifritz, Sr., 70 and his brother Tyler Ellifritz, 35, all competed in the the Priest Lake Vintage snowmobile race. Roughly 135 people competed in the race, the third of the 2017-18 season.

The race was a last-minute affair. Normally the race is only held twice a year, said race organizer Mike Courteau. But because a race in Oregon was canceled, and Priest Lake had good snow, Courteau said they hastily put together another event. Because of that turnout was down compared to the other two events. It’s not unusual for there to be more than 200 competitors and 500 spectators, Courteau said.

“People like it,” he said. “You can get into it pretty reasonably. There are a lot of barn finds.”

In fact, Courteau said the Priest Lake vintage race is the largest in the western U.S. and is indicative of a resurgence in snowmobile use in the Priest Lake area.

Once a mecca for snowmobiles, the area was set back when the U.S. Forest Service closed high elevation areas of the Selkirk Crest in an effort to protect the remaining federally endangered woodland caribou. Snowmobile advocates in the area say the closure didn’t directly impact riders too much, but did damage the perception and reputation of the area.

But in recent years the race has grown, as snowmobiling in the area became popular again.

“It’s past exploding,” said Rick Ruffle, the Priest Lake Lion’s Club President and race announcer.

The past two years he said the race has exceeded the Yellowstone vintage snowmobile race, traditionally a popular race.

Proceeds from registration and parking fees support the Priest Lake Lion’s Club, said Ruffle. On average each race brings in around $5,000.

The race is designed to be a family event. The course is only one-quarter mile long, in an effort to keep speeds low. And if a driver is too aggressive race officials will stop the race.

Races are broken up into different classes with snowmobiles of similar vintages and engine components competing against each other.

For families like the Ellifritzes, the history of the sleds adds another dimension.

In fact, Larry Ellifritz, Sr. raced on many of the vintage snowmobiles in the 1970s, when they were new.

“It was the real deal when all these sleds were new,” said Larry Ellifritz, Sr.

Because of how popular and widespread snowmobiling was in Priest Lake at the time, there is a glut of vintage machines.

“There was so much snowmobiling out here that there is inventory,” said Larry Ellifritz, Jr.

Because the vehicles are older and slower than modern machines, the race is a good, safe option for casual riders, children and older folk.

“For the most part people pretty much realize we all want to go to work tomorrow,” he said.

Still, it can get intense. Although all the machines have to be 1985 or older, some of the newer ones can get moving. Plus, some racers modify their sleds to make them more powerful. The top racers will go as fast as 70 or 80 mph, Ellifritz, Jr. said.

Ellifritz, Sr. appreciates the slower speeds. Especially because as an older competitor he can’t afford a bad fall.

“The faster we go the more chances we have of getting hurt,” he said. “By keeping the speeds low on the track you can run the thing as hard as you can but you can reach over and tap your competitor on the shoulder because you’re going so slow.”

Ellifritz, Jr. said he’s crashed before, once when another racer hit him from behind. That shook him up a bit, even though he was probably only going 40 mph.

For the past five years the race has happened near Nordman on the Priest Lake Ranger Station’s airfield, Courteau said. Competitors come from all over. During this season’s earlier race Courteau said they had racers from Utah and Calgary.

On Saturday the Ellifritz clan ended up doing well in the races – they all finished in the top three in both categories that they competed in. But, at the end of the day, Ellifritz, Jr. said it’s more about the community.

“Really the best part about it is you get to race against your dad, and he’s 70 years old,” he said. “It’s kind of a moment where we all get together and get to hang out.”

This story has been updated to correct the age of Larry Ellifritz, Jr.