By: Kent Lester
Leafing through back issues, doing research on 20 years of Supertrax was a lot of fun. I guess it’s true, time really does fly when you’re having fun – and we’ve had plenty over the past two decades.
It was great to flip pages from the early 90s and observe the different trends that have developed in snowmobiling – and, particularly, in snowmobiles.
How much has the modern snowmobile changed in the last 20 years? Plenty! Although the Supertrax era pretty much began after the years of independent front suspension, there have been other dramatic changes and they’ve evolved in cycles, all generated by your demands.
If you look back into the 80s, you’ll discover the biggest focus then was on getting all snowmobiles to adopt some form of IFS. From 1979, when the first production Polaris Indy was introduced, the industry never looked back.
Yamaha developed aircrafty struts, Arctic Cat began offering wishbone variations and Ski-Doo worked on them all, gaining its most consistent results from trailing arms.
By the time the first issue of Supertrax landed on newsstands, the focus was on suspension but not as it related to ride quality.
It was believed that independent front ends delivered more precise handling on snow and gave sleds that “race car” accuracy riders had been seeking so long. It turned out to be true but ride compliance was a moving target the manufacturers had barely identified.
When it came to engines, 2-strokes reigned supreme and 4-stroke snowmobiles simply didn’t exist. Held in greatest awe were the Polaris 600 and 650 triples – snowmobile engines with legendary smoothness and an exhaust sound Supertrax dubbed “The National Anthem of Snowmobiling”.
The manufacturers had barely bought into large displacement engines at that time. The 650 Wildcat twin was considered to be a massive howitzer of an engine and a 700 was unimaginable. For a long time, Ski-Doo and Yamaha were determined to squeeze big HP numbers out of engines with less than 600ccs.
Throughout the 90s, engine displacements increased and technical developments like reed valve induction and flatslide carbs were adopted by all the OEMs.
2-stroke electronic fuel injection was advanced by Polaris and Arctic Cat and, by the end of the decade, every manufacturer offered some variation of a 3-cylinder mill. Engine displacement standards had climbed into the 800cc range and Arctic Cat had delivered a 900cc triple in the Thundercat.
Sometime in the early 1990s discussion turned to suspension and ride quality. Long travel became a keyword and inches of suspension movement started to become the status quo for sales appeal. In the mid-1990’s Polaris jumped into the fray with a sled called the XLT.
With suspension travel in the 10-inch range and a smooth, small displacement piston port triple, it had the comfort and sizzle consumers wanted and its price was absolutely a bargain. After the XLT, every OEM was flat-out forced to build sleds with long travel suspensions.
By the end of the decade 9-inches in the front and ten in the rear was the industry standard. Shock packages were a critical selling point and adjustability (even though most consumers never took advantage of it) was a headline design feature.
Also in the 90s, the issue of snowmobile weight began to gain momentum. Because of the 3-cylinder engine phenomenon, chassis weight had been climbing and the type of riding snowmobilers prioritized, riding on groomed trails, didn’t rely on lightness so much as suspension compliance.
Actually, two factors evolved at the same time to make snowmobiles different than they’d been in the past. The rise of snocross bred a new group of younger riders who liked the challenge of rough trail or ditch riding and these enthusiasts began demanding lighter sleds.
These same riders began to see that long travel suspension, weight and, along with those two, engine torque, made a snowmobile ride bumps like a good motocross bike.
The rest is history. Sleds began paring away every spare ounce of mass, engines grew in displacement and offered big-inch twin cylinder mills with enormous torque output and suspension travel numbers increased beyond imagination. Triples were passé, electronics took over and the modern age began.
Next came 4-strokes and rider forward ergonomics. In 2003, Yamaha rocked the snowmobiling world with the RX-1. Prior to this, Arctic Cat had shown a 60-horsepower version of a 4-stroke – actually a very good sled.
But the RX-1 showed a determined commitment to high performance 4-stroke sleds and Yamaha claimed all its snowmobiles would be 4-strokes within the next five years.
The same year, Ski-Doo ventured the new REV, a sled so radical in design it has completely changed the way snowmobiles are designed and ridden.
Was that a busy 20 years or what?