Where goes one of the winningest brands in the history of Alaska’s 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race now that Arctic Cat has been sold to defense contractor Textron?
Textron is a big-time player in state-of-the-art transportation systems. The company manufacturers Citation jet aircraft, Bell helicopters, Cessna aircraft, a variety of drones, military hovercraft and Bad Boy Off Road vehicles, among a lot of other products.
Arctic Cat is a well-established brand in the 49th state where snowmobiles (what Alaska’s almost all call snowmachines) have over the years evolved into the family station wagon of rural areas.
Beegan as a snowmobile manufacturer in Thief River Falls, Minn. in 1960, Arctic diversified into the production of 4-by-4 off-road vehicles in 1996. It is now a major presence in the established off-road and emerging “side-by-side” markets.
CBS News reported that Textron believes its “specialized vehicles unit is complementary to those of Arctic Cat.” Textron paid a reported $247 million for the now Minneapolis-based company.
What any of this means for snow-sport side of Arctic’s business is hard to say. Arctic reported a $10 million loss in the first quarter of 2016 and blamed two snow-short years for part of the problem. What the future holds is unknown.
The University of Vermont in a study last spring warned that “snowmobiling could be hard hit by climate change.”
“Declining snowfall in Vermont at the normal elevations of most snowmobile trails has already occurred and is likely to continue in coming years,” the study concluded.
“During the 1960s, the average snow depth for winter was six inches, according the statistics compiled by the National Weather Service at the Burlington International Airport, but has been closer to four inches during the last decade, the lower limit for snowmobiling. Over the past two decades (from 1995 to 2014), Vermont has experienced the highest winter temperatures observed in the historical record, according to the National Climate Assessment Summary for Vermont.
“Vermont’s temperatures are projected to rise by another 2 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, according to the Vermont Climate Assessment, making further diminution of average snow depth likely.”
Much of Alaska has seen a similar pattern of low-snow, although conditions appear to be moving back more toward normal this winter.
Still, there is always the question of how much a company is willing to invest in research and development of products for what could be a declining market.
Arctic Cat was long a leader in snowmachine R&D, and it showed in the Iron Dog. The company basically owned the race for the first decade of the new millennium. From 1997 to 2008, Iron Dog teams on Arctic Cat snowmachines won 9 of 11 races.
There hasn’t been an Arctic Cat in the winner’s circle since that 2008 victory. Ski-doo and Polaris have been the manufacturers duking it out ever since. Polaris has won five times since ’08; Ski-doo three.
Last year, Arctic Cat put a single-sled in the top-10 at the finish of the 2,000-mile race across the wilds of Alaska. Iron Doggers are required to race in teams of two for safety. The top teams have help from manufactures who provide matching snowmachines.
Twenty-seven-year-olds Kyle Conner from Willow and Donald Koontz from Wasilla lacked that kind of support in 2016 and rode their own machines to that 10th place finish. Conner was on the Cat; Koontz chose a Polaris.
Arctic appears to have been putting most of its R&D of late into the design and production of the country’s first trail-legal “snow bike.”
“We have entered an all-new category with the lightweight and agile SVX 450 snow bike, which will be purpose-built to meet all snowmobile certification standards,” Arctic President and CEO Christopher Metz told Snow Tech Magazine in December.
The magazine sounded somewhat skeptical of the bike’s ability to keep up with today’s snowmobiles – many of which can top 100 mph.
“Chances are very good this will indeed be a very light vehicle (compared to traditional snowmobiles), but also realize it will have far less horsepower than a traditional snowmobile so we can only speculate as to the power to weight ratio for now,” it reported.
The top Arctic-backed team in this year’s Iron Dog is comprised of Cody Davis of Soldotna, son of seven-time Iron Dog champ Scott Davis, and five-time USXC cross-country (snowmachine) champ Ryan Simons from Camrose, Alberta, Canada.
A six-time X Games medalist and accomplished professional rider, Cody Davis finished third in the 2011 Iron Dog. He did not finish last year. Simons has started three Iron Dogs, but only finished one.
This year’s Iron Dog starts Feb. 18 in downtown Anchorage. The restart follows the next day at Big Lake with racers hitting the Iditarod Trail to Nome for a layover before turning back to race the Interior rivers of Alaska to end in Fairbanks on Feb. 25.