AmSnow.com is now SnoWest.com
I give credit to Ski-Doo for starting a frill-stripping trend in the factory specials of the era with the introduction of the 1998 MXZ X 440 – a purpose-built snocross sled that was less trail-friendly. They removed unnecessary features from the sleds to save weight. First to go was oil injection and paint in some areas to shed a few pounds.
By the early 2000s, track lugs began to grow and compression ratios were climbing. Not only did you need to pre-mix, but 110 octane leaded race gas became the norm at the tracks. The last “dual-purpose” Cat was the first “Firecat” racer, the 2002 ZR 440 racer. With a 1.25-inch lug track and an oil injected motor, that could be used in cross country AND snocross while still sufficient for trail riding. But for 2003 the Cat 440 had a 1.5-inch lug, reduced cooling capacity and a race gas only motor. Cat was kind enough to offer a cooling kit, however. For 2004 the track lug grew to 1.7-inch while the gas tank shrunk to 5 gallons and the chassis and body work was 440 only. That year was also when resale bit the dust on many of the snocross-specific sleds. Cutting edge race machines were creeping up in price while losing their resale value to trail riders and race enthusiasts because you had to fabricate not only larger fuel tanks for some sleds, but add cooling capacity and either re-curve the ignition or machine the heads for lower compression.
I consider 2005 the peak of snocross, not just in the number of competitors and spectators, but that was the year I felt the three domestic manufacturers reached “race sled parity.” All three 440 racers were about on even footing. Cat kept tweaking the Sno Pro 440 to catch up to the REV racer and Polaris released the very competitive 440 IQ racer.
That said, the Ski-Doo was probably the easiest to convert to a trail sled with a larger fuel tank available and interchangeable power domes. The Cat and Polaris were nearly on par as far as being as challenging as one another to convert.
Eventually a cottage industry grew for those diehards wanting the high power-to-weight ratio and exclusivity of a trail converted 440. Creative Composites was a first to mold a larger trail-size tank for the 2004-07 Cat 440s, and others marketed trail coolers and machined heads.
Unfortunately, this did little for the racers stuck with sleds worth less than half their initial cost at the end of the season. Demand had dropped off so much that Cat built very few 440 racers by 2007. But, again, change was in the air.
Although cross country racing had increased the displacement limit to 600cc years before, snocross hung onto the 440cc limit for the stock class, and 800cc for the open class mods. In 2006 the open mods lowered the limit to 600cc, undoubtedly encouraged by insurability.
Finally, in 2008 the stock snocross classes were bumped up to 600cc ending the reign of the 100+ hp 440s. Cat released a 600 Sno Pro snocross sled that could be adapted to cross country with factory available parts like a shorter 1.25-inch lug track, a larger fuel tank and clutch set up. Polaris and Ski-Doo both fitted new 600cc motors into their race chassis allowing them to be dual purpose.
By 2009 some of the manufacturers were offering both snocross and cross country versions of their race sleds, assuring parts were available to convert the snocross-specific sleds back to general use. This factory support helped ensure the machines had resale value and allowed the sleds to be used for either type of racing, or repurposed for the trail at the end of their racing career.
In many ways, it’s almost “Back to the Future” with many multi-purpose race sleds now being sold. This is how the first race sleds lived on. The purpose-built oval sleds of the ’70s and ’80s had no value off the track until the collectors rediscovered them. Also vintage racing has taken off recently which helps the sales of some vintage race sleds.
The new breed of dual-purpose racers look to have a long and useful life span in retirement.