Snow sprayed from under their tracks and engines roared as snowmobile after snowmobile raced down the 500-foot-long dragstrip at Wanoga Sno-park in a cacophony of sounds and smells.
The wind howled and snow fell sideways Friday during the start of a weekend storm that blanketed the Central Oregon Cascades with powder.
But the second annual Central Oregon Snowbusters Snowmobile Drag Races went off without a hitch, as hundreds of riders raced throughout the weekend in near-blizzard conditions on Saturday and under sunny skies on Sunday.
More than just racing, the event was a chance for snowmobilers from throughout the Northwest to congregate, and a reminder that the sport is alive and well in Central Oregon. Wanoga is an epicenter for the 250 miles of snowmobile trails in the area, groomed by volunteers from five different clubs in the High Desert.
“Snowmobiling is a huge family sport," said Matt Mahoney, president of the Snowbusters club. “I have a 4-year-old son who rides his own snowmobile, who rides 50 or 60 miles on trail rides with me. There's people up into their 70s or 80s who are still snowmobiling.
“And with the broad range of snowmobiles that they manufacture now, there's something for everybody in the whole sport."
Aside from drag racing, snowmobilers enjoy riding backcountry powder, hill climbing, or taking long trail rides on groomed snow. Backcountry riding is surging in popularity, and many snowmobile manufacturers are designing lightweight sleds with long tracks and lots of power, made to maneuver through trees and deep powder.
But racing on a straightaway was the focus this past weekend, as several different classes competed for bragging rights. Racers in the Outlaw Class were permitted to modify their engines however they saw fit. Some reached speeds of more than 100 mph.
“Everybody thinks they have the fastest sled," Mahoney said. “This puts it out on the table and proves who's the best."
Prineville's Tim Smith was testing out his sled in the driving snow last Friday. Smith, 29, has been snowmobiling since he was 3. Although he said he prefers backcountry riding and hill climbing, he thought he would give drag racing a try.
“It's just fun to come out and compete," Smith said. “We don't get to do this all the time. We're usually mountain riding. Just to see what everybody has to bring out is pretty cool. It really represents the sport, especially people coming from a long ways away. It's a good riding area, and there's a good turnout here."
Mahoney, 30, said that snowmobile drag racing was highly popular in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and then tapered off in the '90s. Until the inaugural Snowmobile Drag Races at Wanoga last year, he said, no competitive snowmobile events had been staged in Central Oregon in the previous 10 or 12 years.
And drag racing is a natural fit for snowmobiles. Most beginners who try snowmobiling for the first time simply want to go fast in a straight line.
“You see it all the time," Mahoney said. “People get their rentals at Wanoga and the first thing they do is pin it and go as fast as they can."
Snowmobiling is sometimes looked at negatively, Mahoney said, because of the loud noise of the engines and the strong smell of the diesel used to power them. Mahoney's solution? Get more people on snowmobiles.
“In the parking lot you might get that bad rap, but one of the biggest things is that a lot of the people who are giving us a bad rap have never tried it," he said. “We get people that have never snowmobiled on snowmobiles, and they just absolutely love it. It's an absolute joy to be able to go over the snow like that and wherever you want."
Two snowmobile clubs in Bend, and clubs in Prineville, Sisters, and La Pine, spend countless volunteer hours grooming the local trails during the winter, and maintaining them during the summer by removing hazards and stocking shelters with firewood. Many cross-country skiers use the trails groomed by the snowmobile clubs.
Besides Wanoga, Central Oregon snowmobilers frequent Vista, Dutchman and Edison sno-parks along Century Drive west of Bend. Dutchman is probably the most popular, Mahoney noted, because of its access to high-elevation backcountry areas.
Snowmobiles can cost anywhere from $2,000 for a used one to more than $10,000 for a new model. Rentals through Central Oregon Adventures at Wanoga start at $125 for two hours.
While snowmobiling is most popular among men, an increasing number of women are discovering the sport, and several competed in the drag races at Wanoga over the weekend.
Meghan Detwiler's long blonde hair poked out from under her helmet and splayed in the wind as she sped along the snow at Wanoga on Friday.
“As a woman rider, there's not a whole lot of us out there, but I am seeing more and more ladies, which is kind of a neat thing," Detwiler said. “My girlfriend and I do ride without the boys on occasion. But it's definitely a man's sport.
“I kind of got into it because of my husband, and then I just really liked it a lot. We used to snowboard all the time, and that's all we did. I never thought I would own a snowmobile, and now that I do, that's all I do."
Detwiler, 28, said drag racing her snowmobile is a “huge adrenaline rush" and “kind of scary."
This past weekend's races offered the chance to catch that thrill, and also to show off some machines that are made for speed.
“It brings out all the fun toys that people spend a lot of time building and modifying," Detwiler said. “It's definitely a showboating thing."