Snowmobile designs have evolved over the years and settled
into the standard of today. If you take a step back and look, most all
snowmobiles fall into the same basic design envelope, with only minor
variations. They consist of two steering skis, one drive track of various
lengths, weigh 400-550 lbs. or more, offer 50-150 hp in various forms and a
price tag of $6,000-12,000 or more. The actual price of something you really
want is probably closer to the latter than the former.
The exception to this design is the Snow Hawk with one ski
and large motorcycle styling, but still fitting the other basic parameters of
With declining sales in recent years, the major
manufacturers have been asking themselves how to attract and keep new
customers. The problem of attracting a new generation of snowmobiler has been
there for a long time and was masked in good economic times by, well, good
economic times. Recently Ski-Doo has responded with its Freestyle, which looks
like a slightly smaller version of what's already out there. And I'm sure the
others are addressing this issue as they see it from their perspective.
It seems to me, as a typical snowmobile consumer (not really
typical, but close enough), that there has been little to no connection from
the "kiddy" snowmobiles to the full-size 450-pound, $6-12,000 sleds. Body
styles change (finally), tracks change, suspensions get rearranged a little and
there's always more power to add. But where are the sleds for the 13-30 or
older consumers that are just for fun in the snow and affordable for this
The motorcycle companies are very good at this, with models
for the smallest 5-year-old rider progressively up thru the largest size and
horsepower any adult could want or afford. I understand it's difficult for
large established companies to look too far outside "the way things have been
done" for new ideas, but maybe it's time to step back and take a completely fresh
approach to snow vehicle design.
A Big Fun Factor Sled
The premise for my thinking is that there must be a way to
have a lower horsepower, light weight, low cost big fun factor sled. Sure, we
all love the big horsepower (and they have their place), but not always.
Sometimes less is more . fun. And not just less horsepower on the same 3-4-500-pound
chassis. We know that doesn't really interest people. Maybe something
completely new and different is needed-some "out of the box" thinking.
Motorcycles, go-karts, go-ped scooters and pocket bikes have
been popular for a long time-their price/size-to-fun ratio is the answer. I'm
not talking about the imported knock-off junk we all hate, but the nicely
engineered and fabricated vehicles that are just plain fun with out over taxing
the pocketbook. Even the racing versions of these remain popular and a good
stepping stone for expensive fast toys if you want. I have raced karts from
early on and those have lead to incredibly fast and expensive formula race cars
and back to karts-just for the fun of it.
When I had the opportunity three years ago to look into
snowmobiling for my family, it became clear that what we (I) wanted wasn't out
there. So what do you do when no one makes what you think is the perfect winter
recreation vehicle? Of course you drop everything, use your 20 years of racing
and aerospace engineering experience to design and build your own.
What I wanted was something that reminded me of the light
weight, easy-to-operate and transport racing karts I enjoy. After several
sketches on napkins, layout drawings on paper/computer, a few calculations and
some sleepless nights, it seemed that I could have what I wanted. The goals
were a vehicle around 100 lbs, with between 20-25 hp (more to come later, I'm sure),
full suspension and the ability for great flotation-because "flying" in the
powder is just plain fun. And while we're at it, let's make a sit down cycle
version and a stand up scooter version (because we love those go-ped type
scooters around the pits at the race track) on the same chassis.
Xtreme Snow Runner
Designs were drawn, mockups made, metal and carbon fiber
fabricated into the XSR (Xtreme Snow Runner) vehicles we now have. What emerged
was something I call the PSV (Personal Snow Vehicle)-a "mid-engine," single
ski, modular chassis design (patent pending) that is incredibly stiff in
bending and torsion. This design allows us to build separate power and drive
assemblies and have centralized mass, that is, low polar moment of inertia for
fast responding vehicle dynamics. The XSR also enjoys a very low center of
gravity and although only weighing 95 lbs. total, most of that is concentrated
low in the chassis.
Testing of the XSR-85S (scooter version) began and was
considered a success with only minor teething problems. We missed the gear
ratios a bit (problem with that simple math) and were actually able to stand it
on its tail with over use of the throttle-kind of fun and, on the right
occasion, impressive but not what we really wanted. The fix was an easy
adjustment and one day maybe put back the way it was for a unique photo
opportunity. Next up was the handling and control. The vehicle was doing all
the right things on trails but just wasn't as stable and controllable as I
wanted. After trying several off the shelf skis, nothing was going in the right
direction. The XSR sat for several weeks while contemplating some solutions-most
of which I didn't like.
Then the FAST (Flexible Adjustable Ski Technology) ski
design (patent pending) was born. This was truly one of those "spring out of
bed in the morning moments." I just woke up one Saturday morning knowing
exactly what had to be done and it has worked out better than I could have
imagined. The new ski turned the vehicle from "it's OK to ride" into "I never
want to get off."
The FAST ski is based on snowboard technology with some
surfboard and snowmobile ski design thrown in. The large wide snowboard area
gives the XSR the stability and flotation I wanted and the adjustable carbide
tipped fins give the control on trails that we need. The sharp metal edges and snowboard
contour are the perfect solution for powder play. You couldn't ask for more
control and flotation. Because the total vehicle weight is low and the areas of
the ski and track are proportioned, true 3D control is achievable by rider weight
shifting-easy to master and just lots of fun. As one of our test riders said,
"The XSR is good on the trails but comes to life in the powder."
Sit Down Cycle
The XSR-85C (sit down cycle) was next up for testing and
from the first minute it hit the snow, was a favorite with all. The lessons
learned with the S model translated perfectly to the C model because they're
both built on the same chassis. The C rides like a cross between a jet-ski, a
motorcycle and a snowmobile. It's stable yet easy to throw around and in the
powder you get the full 3D experience. Cornering is just a matter of leaning to
the side with a little pressure on the handle bars and away you go. Sidehilling
is easy thanks to the geometry of the vehicle and stability and bite of the
FAST ski-lean into the hill a little and stability is all yours.
What would I change, if anything? The XSR-85 S and C are
very close to "ready for public consumption" with only minor adjustment to make
them producible in quantity. But my wants would be two things and these two
things together probably make a new model intended for specific off-trail deep
powder play. The two things are: a long track version with a more aggressive
lug design and slightly more power to go with that. Our on board computer says
that our (intentionally) de-tuned power plant is producing about 18 hp.
Bringing that up to its normal 25 hp is just a minor change and adding five to
ten more horsepower is just a matter of bolt on parts. Of course it's certainly
possible to scale up the whole vehicle-I could envision a 150-pound vehicle
with 50 plus hp. That's the next project. And certainly a 4-stroke version.
The XSR has turned out to be just the vehicle I was hoping
for, a small PSV with all the attributes of a racing Kart-fast, responsive
handling, intrinsic stability, easy transportation and storage (two fit inside
of a mid-size SUV) and just lots of fun in the snow. The thing I find so
likeable about the XSR is the feel of just knowing how to ride it. It seems
very natural for all who have ridden to hop on and in a couple of minutes they're
at full throttle flying through the powder. On the more serious side, I don't
see any reason the XSR couldn't be turned into a real working sled for resorts.
And what about a racing version? Now you're talking.
To try and make these vehicles a reality and so others can
enjoy all the fun, I have started a company: XtremeSno (www.XtremeSno.com) to see if we can bring
these vehicles to market. The snowmobile industry is a tight-knit group, hard
to break into and in many ways resistant to change, but the XSR is just too
much fun to leave sitting in the shop without trying to find a way for others
to enjoy it. And maybe, with just a little luck, the XSR can bring some of
those people watching on the sidelines out to play.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Wade
has been a mechanical engineer in the aerospace industry for 20 years and has
been involved in racing vehicle design and manufacturing for more that 25
years. He holds four automotive-related patents, three snowmobile-related
pending patents and holds several national and international aircraft speed