It was 1994 and western riders finally had a purpose-built snowmobile for the West's deep powder and steep terrain. Oh, snowmobiles had been around for nearly 35-plus years but it wasn't until the early 90s that we in the West had a sled we could call our own.
Regardless of how you felt about Ski-Doo's first foray into the mountain snowmobile segment with the green Summit, it seems natural to give credit where credit is due.
Sleds up to that point were primarily short trackers modified for those who needed something to handle the deep snow and mountainous terrain.
Sure, that first Summit, unleashed on the western market for the 1994 season, was nose heavy and kind of bulky and not exactly easy on the eyes (at least compared to today's machines), but look at what we have now, a dozen years later. The question today is, where can't we ride and get to? Prior to the Summit, the question was, "How on earth can we get there?"
It all had to start somewhere. And it's hard to overstate just how important that first Summit has been to the West. Sure, perhaps one of the other manufacturers would have eventually come out with a western-only, deep powder sled, but Ski-Doo was the first one to the plate and so they get the slap on the back. Yes, Polaris might throw out the SKS argument, but we think it was the Summit that put the West on the map and showed the potential of this new market.
Sled Of The Year
Apparently the editors of SnoWest Magazine thought the Summit was a force to be reckoned with because for the 1994, that machine (with the 583cc engine) was named Sled of the Year.
Here's what we wrote after test riding the Summits (there were actually two introduced for 1994-the 470 and 583) in the spring of 1994. "The Ski-Doo Summit has about everything we've been asking for-power, lightweight, superb handling and good looks. The Rotax 583cc liquid-cooled, Rave powerplant certainly won't take a back seat to any snowmobile in its class. A combination of aluminum chassis, aluminum bulkhead, plastic where it belongs (like on the hood and skis), and no plastic where it isn't necessary (like on the bumpers) brings the weight down to 483 pounds, very comparable to sleds within its class."
The Summit wasn't just a trail snowmobile designed with a longer track-it actually had some innovations that helped give it some distinction from all the other sleds on the market. Again, we refer to our report on that first Summit. "With the extended track and tapered tunnel, the stage is set for Ski-Doo's high-profile track to do its thing. And that it does. The 15- by 136-inch track boasting nearly an inch profile pushes snow as well (or better) than any stock track on the market."
How the SnoWest editors felt 12 years ago was summed up in the September, 1994 issue: "The Summit series represents Ski-Doo's all-out commitment to capture the western market. The combination of power-to-weight, narrow ski stance, plastic skis and a deep-lug aggressive track make them perfect for taming the steep slopes and deep powder of the West."
Not mentioned yet is a feature that those first Summits had that really set them apart as a true mountain machine-the High Altitude Compensator or HAC system. It was the first innovation on a stock sled which allowed for no rejetting for altitude. It could very well be that one feature which helped define a mountain snowmobile from the trail version and the one feature which really launched the mountain segment for the West.
And it's the HAC system that many at Ski-Doo think might just be the best innovation on that first Summit. "There were many innovations on that first Summit," Chris Ruske, Ski-Doo's mountain snowmobile project leader, said. "Probably the HAC system was one of the best. Being able to ride the vehicle from sea level to 14,000 feet without having to rejet without adding more than a pound or two was significant."
For the 1995 season, Ski-Doo dropped the 470 and went 200ccs bigger, unleashing the Rotax 670 in Summit skin. Here's a kind of funny line from the pages of SnoWest way back then . especially in light of the 800, 900 and 1000cc sleds of today. "The Summit 670 is not for those snowmobilers who have heart conditions because you'll likely find yourselves climbing to areas which can make your heart stop."
For all the fanfare that the Summit received when it first appeared on the market-Ski-Doo cleverly made sure this sled would get all the press it could by making it the company's 2 millionth snowmobile manufactured during the company's history-you have to go back a few seasons prior to 1994 to realize that sled was in the works for years before it ever hit the snow.
Christian St-Onge, Bombardier Recreational Products Snowmobile product manager, explained Ski-Doo recognized the need for a western-targeted snowmobile as early as the late 1980s.
"Before the introduction of the first Summit in 1994, the people in the West were buying a trail sled and modifying it into a mountain machine the best they could but with a significant budget (cost)," he said. "There was clearly a need to have a machine that, out of the box, would allow consumers to ride the mountains without having to modify it."
As most of you know, turning out a snowmobile isn't quite the same as churning out, oh, say a snow cone or something even a bit more complicated than that. Hours, months and even years of research and development, gobs of tooling money and hours of testing all go into the development of a new sled. The Summit was no different-well, actually it was, simply because this was a new concept being drawn up with no real prior blueprints to really follow.
Which all leads back to a point St-Onge made during our exclusive interview with him. "The customer is the trigger of new products," he said. "A product will start with a customer need."
In other words, we needed a better sled to get around in the mountains. Once the need was determined, as St-Onge mentioned a bit ago, Ski-Doo went to work on the design of a mountain machine. Thus, the beginnings of the first Summit were in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Product development in the snowmobile industry is about three years for a sled. However, St-Onge explained, "It's important to develop a five-year plan." He said Bombardier works with a five-year lineup (that's the long-range development) and it takes "36 months to develop a platform and the engine."
With much of the work-design, R&D, testing and so forth-done on the Summit, Bombardier was ready to present it to the snowmobile media in the spring of 1993. You can imagine, we at SnoWest were very excited about the unveiling of a mountain-specific snowmobile. We rode the Summit, we liked the Summit (for the most part) and we wrote great things about the Summit.
A Work In Progress
But the green machine still needed work-something even Ski-Doo recognized. Something else Ski-Doo realized was that a mountain machine needed to be developed and tested in the West, by someone or someones who knew a thing or two about mountain riding. That's where Ski-Doo had an ace in its corner with Chris Ruske, the company's mountain snowmobile project leader, who earlier talked about the HAC system. We've known and ridden with Ruske for years-through the good sleds and bad-and acknowledge he is a big reason the Summits are what they are today.
Ruske has been on the Summit project since just about its introduction to the West. "I had worked for Bombardier as the western U.S. service manager from 1984 until the summer of 1993," he explained. "We had moved from Colorado to Wausau, WI, in 1992 to work in the offices with the rest of the service department. My wife and I really missed the West and the mountains."
So he quit in August, 1993, and moved back to Colorado. But he had planted some seeds before he left the company. Ruske remembered, "I had talked earlier that spring with Pierre Beaudoin about the new Summit series with many questions about the testing of the unit. I told him of some of my concerns about the unit and that we possibly needed to make some changes to enhance the performance of the unit. I told him at the time that we needed to test the unit during the entire winter season rather in the spring of the year. That stuck in Pierre's mind and when the 1994 Summit was introduced we had some issues with its deep snow performance. I was rehired in January, 1994, to help with the development of future Summits, along with helping to improve the deep snow performance of the 1995 Summits. That was when we started looking at what a mountain rider really wanted in a snowmobile."
After the introduction of the '94 Summit, Ruske and others at Bombardier went to work making the Summit work in the deep snow and terrain of the West. Ruske said, "The 1994 Summit was introduced with a lot of great ideas such as the HAC system, higher profile track, single seat, etc. Even though it was a great first step, we knew from its initial start we needed to refine it. The first Summits to really get serious about mountain riders were the 1996 model year. We knew after the 1994 models were introduced that refinements were needed."
Not Bad For A Freshman
Despite the shortcomings of the original Summit, it made a good showing in western sales. Production topped 3,000 units of the 470 and 583, not bad considering Ski-Doo didn't really have a presence in the West up to that point in time. And that was pretty good timing for Ski-Doo as 1994 was a pretty good year to be selling sleds. More than 114,000 snowmobiles were sold that model year, a whopping 29 percent increase from the previous year.
So what did Ski-Doo learn from that first Summit? Ruske explained, "We learned a lot of things. First of all, we needed to be in the West to be able to develop the Summit model properly. We had to work out here year-round and try the sled in all the conditions. We had been doing the development when the calibration team and other engineers could make their trips to the West. This was not getting the job done properly. The first Summit rear suspension needed to be modified since the rear arm was positioned too far to the rear. We could not get the proper transfer out the rear suspension so the sled would not climb up on top of the snow like we had hoped."
There other issues, too, he said. "We also knew the sled was too big and bulky for a true mountain sled. We also wanted to integrate a mountain strap on the sled. But we knew that we had to make sure there were no safety issues on the release of an innovation that was, at the time, new to the industry."
Taking on the weight issue, where so much ink these days is used to villanize or sing the praises of snowmobiles, proved a daunting task in the early days of the Summit. The 583 tipped the scales at 483 lbs. dry while the 470 was 477 lbs. The 1995 models really put on weight-the 583 ballooned up to 513 lbs. and the new 670 was 521 lbs.
Turning The Corner
It was 1996 that Ruske noted was the year he felt Ski-Doo turned the corner on addressing western rider needs, even though we had a mountain-specific sled already. There was a new mountain specific suspension, weights dropped and Mark Thompson turned heads by cresting the imposing Exhibition Run at Snow King Mountain on the Summit 670 during the World Snowmobile Championship Hillclimb. It was the first time a snowmobile had gone over the top of Exhibition Run, a very imposing mountain. That feat alone gave Ski-Doo some instant-and needed-credibility. As for slimming down, the 670 dropped to 498 lbs. and the 583 to 489 lbs. The new Summit 500 was 472 lbs.
But the Summit was still housed in the F chassis, which was a challenge for the long track machine, according to Ruske. And, he said, Ski-Doo had to do a better job of hearing what the rider wanted. "Even though it was a great start for the mountain sled segment, we knew from the start of the season (1994) that we needed to listen more to what the western riders wanted. We needed to live, breathe and listen to our customers. The first sled needed to be down sized since we were taking the first F chassis and trying to adapt it to a mountain sled."
The chassis change came in 1997 with the new S-2000 chassis, a lighter unit which offered better performance and handling on the Summits. Also new that year was a 1.5-inch deep lug track with a V configuration for better traction. Summit tracks had a 1.5-inch track in 1996 but not in the V configuration. All Summits were equipped with plastic skis instead of metal and had a color change on their skin because "dealers were concerned with three years of green."
Offering its biggest mountain lineup ever, and building on past successes as the mountain team refined and refined and refined, Ski-Doo offered four models for 1998-the Summit X 670, Summit 670, 583 and 500. The Summit X was big news because it featured the all-new batteryless DPM, a unique system that one-upped the HAC system in compensating for altitude, and now, temperature. The DPM, which Ski-Doo claimed at the time was "less costly than electronic fuel injection," eliminated the need for a choke or primer, which was still found on the other three models. The Summit X also got the clever DESS (Digital Encoded Security System), which helped protect the sled against theft. What really rocked the West, though, was the unveiling of a two-inch deep lug track, the first-ever in the industry. Ski-Doo has long prided itself on being first and here was another.
Massaging The Lineup
The big news for the next season was the introduction of the ZX chassis; one of the biggest benefits was helping the sleds keep the weights down. Also down was the number of machines offered, which was three, but that included the all-new 600, which was a great machine and earned SnoWest Sled of the Year honors, the first Summit to do so since great-great-great-great granddad did it in 1994. Later that season came a limited build 700cc Summit, which proved to be another popular machine.
"Will it push?" That was the question of the year in 2000 when Ski-Doo introduced another first in the industry-the 151-inch track, the longest ever by any manufacturer. Yes, it pushed a little but not many noticed because they were climbing higher than we'd ever been able to before. What was being pushed was the envelope as Bombardier worked hard to eat away at Polaris' dominance of the western market.
Although Ski-Doo started a trend-another industry first-in 2000 of offering spring-only options, they went full blown in 2001. Pick your engine, your package and the color you wanted your sled to be. X packages which offered cool perks such as HPG take-apart shocks and a racing brake and the new 800cc engine were part of the spring-only program that season, a program that continues to this day. The spring-only sleds were also usually lighter, another incentive to buy early. Track options were also becoming more commonplace and all of a sudden sledders had choices. We could pick the sled we wanted.
It was during this time period that we also started hearing about rolled chaincases, adjustable ski stances, getting up on the snow better because of reduced angles of track attack and new skis. While Ski-Doo wasn't always the first out with each of these new features, it was quick to capitalize on them and market them as "better."
A True Revolution
Ski-Doo was all about "better" and "new" and "first" in 2004 when it mated the Rev chassis to the Summits. The Rev chassis had been introduced a year earlier as an MX Z and we knew it would only be a matter of time before it was in Summit skin. The forward-riding position really did revolutionize the sport both on- and off-trail. And it helped catapult the Quebec-based company to No. 1 in sales all across the snowbelt.
"We had to make a big change in product to get other consumers (from other sled brands) to come over to our brand," St-Onge said.
Once Ski-Doo had the Summit Rev, the company has worked on different combinations of power-to-weight ratios-meaning different engine packages while trying to shave weight here and there. Not only have the results shown up in terms of units sold, but also on the hill in professional hillclimbing ranks where Ski-Doos are proving their prowess. Consider this. These are all RMSHA results. In 2004 Polaris riders won 13 season high points titles compared to Ski-Doo's four. In 2005 Polaris had nine and Ski-Doo eight. In 2006 Polaris and Ski-Doo each won nine high points titles. This past winter it was Ski-Doo winning 10 season high points titles compared to three for Polaris. In fact, Polaris was a distant third as Cat had six.
Referring to mountain snowmobile sales in 2004, St-Onge said, "When we first introduced the Summit Rev, we were close to being No. 1, right behind Polaris. In 2005, our sales were a little flat, I think, because we gave the wrong message on the (Summit) 1000. It was in 2006 we moved to No. 1. That's when we really posted our flag in terms of sales. In 2007 it's really going to show our dominance. Our spring sales numbers were very strong."
Asked for an explanation of how or why Ski-Doo got to No. 1, St-Onge said, "When you meet the needs of the consumers, the better you serve the customer and the more repeat business you get." And that's done a variety of ways, including ongoing consumer surveys, consumer shows, consumer rides, dealer visits, media feedback and other industry trends.
So when you're king of the hill, what's left? St-Onge said continuing to meet consumer's needs. "The power and lightweight are still the most desired features that mountain guys are looking for," he said. "There is still some work to be done there. Considering the industry is offering machines at a minimum of 470 lbs. for a liquid-cooled, up to 600 lbs., why couldn't we shave some more weight out of our mountain machines to make them perform better and make them more fun to ride?"
Since Ski-Doo has managed to answer the call of the western mountain rider for the past dozen years, we suspect it will be the first to answer the call again and again.