Revenge of the Nerds

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The Jackson Hill Climb speaks to snowmobiling's heart of darkness. Staged at Snow King Ski Area in Jackson, Wyo., the trick is to climb the 1,500-vertical-foot Elk run from bottom to top. To achieve that dubious, often dangerous goal, competitors dump tens of thousands of dollars into 1000cc, 300-horsepower, two-stroke motors, shrieking expansion chambers and steel screw studded tracks. Forget the noxious exhaust or the sleds that suddenly careen out of control and ricochet into course workers. On this warm weekend in late March, horsepower rules at Snow King.

While clinging to a sheer, icy face below the summit, I watch competitors blow rooster tails of snow, dirt and rocks into the cool morning air. The majority of the sleds make it only as far as the deep trenches that scar the moguled pitch above Snow King's third cat track, where a dozen brazen volunteers dive in to stop the machines from endoing back down the hill.

For all the excitement above the third cat track, snowmobiling's salvation may rest on the shoulders of a handful of engineering students watching from the Snow King base area. Scattered among the Hill Climb's hooting, hollering and beery spectators, these competitors are entered in a very different event, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) 2001 Clean Snowmobile Challenge.

And they have taken a radically different approach to Jackson's annual Hill Climb. None of their sleds stands a prayer of reaching the top. In fact, their goal is to just make Snow King's second cat track¿barely halfway up the hill. The students aren't even allowed to compete. Instead, they must hand over their senior projects to members of the Jackson Snow Devils, a local snowmobile club, who then point the students' 5,000 hours of work at the summit and pin the throttle.

The difference is dramatic. Compared to the modified two-stroke's dragon's roar, the Clean Air sleds whisper. Even more impressive is the lack of eye-watering, throat-burning exhaust. Only a half-dozen of the collegiate creations will make it to the second cat track. And yet, considering the majority are powered by converted four-stroke motorcycle, ATV or car engines, six sleds is a victory.

The SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge asks engineering students to design snowmobiles that are cleaner, quieter and more environmentally sound¿without compromising performance. The sleds are judged in categories ranging from fuel emissions to acceleration and from fuel economy to hill climb. It is, in part, a reaction to the impending ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park, 55 miles away. With 2.2 million acres of geysers, forests, lakes and meadows filled with bison, elk and grizzly bears, Yellowstone would still stir John Colter, who, after splitting from Lewis and Clark's expedition, returned to explore the ancient caldera. Now, nearly two centuries later, "Colter's Hell" hosts 63,000 snowmobiles annually that taint Yellowstone's clear air, shatter its snowy silence and stress its big game.

If the proposed ban appears to be a reaction against thousands of screaming two-strokes mowing down buffalo and elk, the reality is somewhere right of that mark. While 16 times more cars than snowmobiles visit Yellowstone, the sleds generate between 68 and 90 percent of all hydrocarbons, and 35 to 68 percent of all carbon monoxide. When Park rangers manning the West Yellowstone entrance began to experience headaches and nausea, researchers discovered abnormally high levels of carbon monoxide. To insulate the ticket takers from the exhaust, the Park resorted to pumping fresh air into the entrance booths.

Two-stroke engines are notoriously inefficient and, as a result of incomplete combustion, blow unburned oil and gasoline into the snow. During spring thaw, the residue filters into Yellowstone's streams and lakes, where it can kill aquatic life. And while snowmobilers represent only 2 percent of Yellowstone's motorized vehicles, the dangerous combination of big horsower and inexperienced riders accounts for 9 percent of all Park accidents. And the high-winding two-stroke's engine, clutch and exhaust noise irritate other visitors seeking the solitude that moved Congress to set Yellowstone aside in 1872 for the "Health and Benefit of the People."

Surprisingly, it was not exhaust or noise pollution but conflict with Yellowstone's bison that finally moved the Fund for Wildlife to sue the National Park Service in May 1997.

Studies suggest that bison are most stressed in the winter, and the close inspection by snowmobilers negatively affects the animals' winter survival rate. Bison also carry brucellosis, an infection that causes domestic cattle to abort their calves. In one of the sadder moments in Yellowstone's history, when the shaggy beasts blundered outside the park, they were shot to prevent them from contaminating private cattle herds. The Wildlife Fund maintained that Yellowstone's groomed roads and pressure from snowmobiles were driving buffalo out of the park.

Under the government's plan, starting next winter, snowmobile traffic will be cut to 50 percent of its current rate at Yellowstone's West and South entrances, and in Grand Teton Park. Starting in the winter of 2003-04, snowmobiling will be banned from the three park units and only snowcoach travel will be allowed. The ban's Record of Decision was signed on Jan. 22, 2001, and quickly published in the Federal Register¿two days after George W. Bush took office. The Bush administration has since vowed to review the ban, while park communities have weighed in by saying the ban would devastate their winter business.

What could be a winning situation for both sides is the development of quieter, cleaner sleds. Herein lies the key to hopes of continued access. The promise of low-impact sleds is basic to virtually all anti-ban counterproposals, but only Arctic Cat has introduced the "Yellowstone," a prototype four-stroke model that is currently being evaluated by Park rangers.

Other manufacturers are rumored to be working on cleaner, quieter sleds, but in late March of 2001, the Clean Snowmobile Challenge students are left to do the heavy lifting.

The opening ceremony makes for strange bedfellows. At the same time that the Yellowstone and Grand Teton park officials are major sponsors of the Challenge, they are on schedule to enact a total ban. Sharing the stage with park officials, Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer is one of the ban's harshest critics. The atmosphere could best be described as tense. In his opening speech, Geringer praises the 15 teams for their hard work, then as a measure of how much is riding on this competition, stays to watch the endurance trial.

A biting wind rakes the start/finish line when the teams depart on the first of four laps on a 25-mile course. The organizers hoped to develop a standardized testing procedure for both exhaust emissions and noise levels that could then be used to compare snowmobiles to automobiles and motorcycles. Though the students' sleds were markedly quieter than the control two-stroke snowmobile, John Sacklin, Yellowstone's chief of planning and compliance, wonders what will be quiet enough or clean enough to satisfy federal regulations."It is true that the new Arctic Cat four-stroke is quieter," he says. "But no one has an idea about the emissions. Is it clean? How clean: 10 percent or 90 percent cleaner? And what sort of emissions issue from it?"

Andy Mills, the University of Buffalo's team leader, points out that if Buffalo can win the heavily weighted emissions and sound events, it stands a good chance of repeating as overall winner. Coated with the same $5,000 per gallon DuPont paint NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon uses on his race car, Buffalo's sled begins to fade and finally quits when the fuel-injection manifold vibrates loose from the single-cylinder Polaris 500cc ATV engine.

Buffalo isn't the only team having trouble. Of the 13 sleds that start the 100-mile ride from Flagg Ranch, only five finish. The University of Kansas sled catches fire, New York's Kettering University has cooling problems and overheats. One by one, the dead and lame are hooked to the Park ranger's sleds and towed in.

No one, including the governor, park rangers or competitors, is pleased by the shaky start. With snow drifting onto the silent sleds, the students stare at the maze of cylinders, radiators and exhaust systems with furrowed brows. All have logged uncounted sleepless nights to adapt car or motorcycle engines to a snowmobile centrifugal clutch, and now nickel-and-dime failures threaten to eliminate them on the first test. Of the entries that do survive the 100 miles, Canada's Waterloo University's modified two-stroke averages a remarkable 19.3 mpg. Running a close second, the University of Idaho's four-stroke BMW three-cylinder 750cc motorcycle engine records 19 miles mpg, which beats the stock Polaris 500cc two-stroke by almost a third.The University of Kansas mates a Honda 929 CBR motorcycle engine to an Arctic Cat Powder Extreme. But three days prior to the challenge, during an acceleration test, an oil plug fell out and the engine seized. When the team finally located a new motor in a wrecked sports bike, it was delayed in transit and failed to arrive in time for the emissions event. Then, during the endurance run, a strip of sound insulation touched the exhaust, setting the sled on fire. The fire damage can be repaired. Surveying the blackened insulation, team leader Milburn Berends admits that before a professor discovered the competition on the SAE home page, none of the Kansas team had ever been on a snowmobile. Because it rarely snows at the University of Kansas, the team hadn't even seen a snowmobile up close. Once the engine was secured in the chassis, the students dragged the sled out to a grass field. What they didn't know was the front skis steer better on snow: In the midst of one hot but misguided run, they burned across the chancellor's lawn and pegged the goal post on an adjacent football field.

Berends remembers, "The campus security officer just shook his head and drove away." Then, revealing an engineer's mind, he adds, "But we did learn that snowmobiles make great grass thatchers."

Media photographers need a visually breathtaking backdrop to spice up their film. Anxious to appear reasonable, the Park Service allows the acceleration and sound events to be conducted on a snowy meadow beneath the Tetons. Kansas proves to be fastest in three runs to measure noise in decibels, with Clarkson University second and Michigan Tech third. Buffalo's ongoing injection problems drop it to 11th, but the sled was the quietest, which pleases both Park and State of Wyoming officials. One of the surprises is Kettering University, which finishes fifth in acceleration and second in sound. The team adapted a Daihatsu 659cc turbo-charged four-stroke car engine that meets 2006 Japanese emission standards. Dr. Greg Davis, Kettering's faculty advisor, says the team searched for an engine that didn't require much tweaking.

"As soon as you start modifying, emissions go in the tank," Davis notes, describing how the engine arrived from Japan with a two-inch-thick technical manual¿all in Japanese. Following a fruitless search for a student who could read technical Japanese, the team managed to have 15 pages translated by a mechanic at a Toyota dealer in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Those 15 pages were all we had," Davis admits.

The biggest surprise comes during the emissions test, when Buffalo records an amazing 82 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and a 96.8 percent reduction in unburned hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen. Second is Kettering, with 78.8 percent and 97.2 percent reductions, respectively. Both prove to be cleaner than a car. As soon as the results are released, Berends wonders aloud, "If they allow automobiles to drive through the park, with these results, why would they ban snoride from Flagg Ranch, only five finish. The University of Kansas sled catches fire, New York's Kettering University has cooling problems and overheats. One by one, the dead and lame are hooked to the Park ranger's sleds and towed in.

No one, including the governor, park rangers or competitors, is pleased by the shaky start. With snow drifting onto the silent sleds, the students stare at the maze of cylinders, radiators and exhaust systems with furrowed brows. All have logged uncounted sleepless nights to adapt car or motorcycle engines to a snowmobile centrifugal clutch, and now nickel-and-dime failures threaten to eliminate them on the first test. Of the entries that do survive the 100 miles, Canada's Waterloo University's modified two-stroke averages a remarkable 19.3 mpg. Running a close second, the University of Idaho's four-stroke BMW three-cylinder 750cc motorcycle engine records 19 miles mpg, which beats the stock Polaris 500cc two-stroke by almost a third.The University of Kansas mates a Honda 929 CBR motorcycle engine to an Arctic Cat Powder Extreme. But three days prior to the challenge, during an acceleration test, an oil plug fell out and the engine seized. When the team finally located a new motor in a wrecked sports bike, it was delayed in transit and failed to arrive in time for the emissions event. Then, during the endurance run, a strip of sound insulation touched the exhaust, setting the sled on fire. The fire damage can be repaired. Surveying the blackened insulation, team leader Milburn Berends admits that before a professor discovered the competition on the SAE home page, none of the Kansas team had ever been on a snowmobile. Because it rarely snows at the University of Kansas, the team hadn't even seen a snowmobile up close. Once the engine was secured in the chassis, the students dragged the sled out to a grass field. What they didn't know was the front skis steer better on snow: In the midst of one hot but misguided run, they burned across the chancellor's lawn and pegged the goal post on an adjacent football field.

Berends remembers, "The campus security officer just shook his head and drove away." Then, revealing an engineer's mind, he adds, "But we did learn that snowmobiles make great grass thatchers."

Media photographers need a visually breathtaking backdrop to spice up their film. Anxious to appear reasonable, the Park Service allows the acceleration and sound events to be conducted on a snowy meadow beneath the Tetons. Kansas proves to be fastest in three runs to measure noise in decibels, with Clarkson University second and Michigan Tech third. Buffalo's ongoing injection problems drop it to 11th, but the sled was the quietest, which pleases both Park and State of Wyoming officials. One of the surprises is Kettering University, which finishes fifth in acceleration and second in sound. The team adapted a Daihatsu 659cc turbo-charged four-stroke car engine that meets 2006 Japanese emission standards. Dr. Greg Davis, Kettering's faculty advisor, says the team searched for an engine that didn't require much tweaking.

"As soon as you start modifying, emissions go in the tank," Davis notes, describing how the engine arrived from Japan with a two-inch-thick technical manual¿all in Japanese. Following a fruitless search for a student who could read technical Japanese, the team managed to have 15 pages translated by a mechanic at a Toyota dealer in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Those 15 pages were all we had," Davis admits.

The biggest surprise comes during the emissions test, when Buffalo records an amazing 82 percent reduction in carbon dioxide and a 96.8 percent reduction in unburned hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen. Second is Kettering, with 78.8 percent and 97.2 percent reductions, respectively. Both prove to be cleaner than a car. As soon as the results are released, Berends wonders aloud, "If they allow automobiles to drive through the park, with these results, why would they ban snowmobiles?" It is a good question that might put ban proponents on the defensive, leaving only animal conflicts as a defensible position.

After dinner, the teams give oral presentations to a panel of judges consisting of Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park officials, as well as snowmobile manufacturers, tour operators and the Wyoming and Montana state departments of environmental quality. Michigan wins the oral presentation and Kettering finishes second, but all the teams show an amazing degree of ingenuity. One measure is the cost of the conversion. None of the teams spent more than $2,000, and Wyoming comes in at a parsimonious $652.96.

The final two days are devoted to a static display at the bottom of the Jackson Hill Climb. The teams use photos and text to describe the engineering to judges and curious spectators. Emissions, noise, clarity of design and handling are critical, but what makes snowmobile drivers really tear up with emotion is the huge horsepower that sets them back on their haunches.

At the Hill Climb, Clarkson, Kansas and Minnesota's four-cylinder motorcycle engines thunder to the second cat track. It's Waterloo's two-stroke, however, that sets the fastest time and wins the event. Waterloo's Hill-Climb victory prefaces Friday night's awards banquet, where by winning mileage, emissions, sound, performance and design, the team earns first place overall. Industry reps quietly rejoice over Waterloo's modifications, which point a way to clean up and silence their own two-stroke engines.

Second by nine points with 1,009 is Kettering. Last year's winner, Buffalo, is third, with Minnesota fourth and Idaho fifth. In part because of the fires and engine failure, Kansas finishes 11th. Despite the incredibly long hours the Kansas team members logged, they never hesitated to help other teams. At the awards ceremony, the Most Sportsmanlike trophy goes to Kansas amid prolonged applause. On Saturday morning, the Hill Climb crowd applauds each time a competitor reaches the summit. But what really catches their attention is when a rider pulls the sled over on top of himself. If course workers can't catch it, the ensuing flips, cartwheels and endos quickly turn the $50,000 Arctic Cats, Yamahas and Ski Dos into brutal tangles of bent skis, smashed bodywork and broken tracks.

One competitor bails off a modified sled, which instantly does a 180 and draws a bead on the SAE Clean Snowmobile tent. Displayed inside are the SAE team entries. Before the volunteers can stop it, the runaway blows through a safety fence, explodes through the back wall and T-bones the clean sleds of Wyoming and Michigan Tech. Miraculously, no one is hurt. Assessing the wreckage, the young engineers don't seem particularly upset. "It's just some body and suspension damage," observes ones. "We can put this back together in no time."

The 2002 SAE Clean Air Challenge is set for March 23-29 in Jackson. For more information, go to www.sae.org snowmobiles?" It is a good question that might put ban proponents on the defensive, leaving only animal conflicts as a defensible position.

After dinner, the teams give oral presentations to a panel of judges consisting of Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park officials, as well as snowmobile manufacturers, tour operators and the Wyoming and Montana state departments of environmental quality. Michigan wins the oral presentation and Kettering finishes second, but all the teams show an amazing degree of ingenuity. One measure is the cost of the conversion. None of the teams spent more than $2,000, and Wyoming comes in at a parsimonious $652.96.

The final two days are devoted to a static display at the bottom of the Jackson Hill Climb. The teams use photos and text to describe the engineering to judges and curious spectators. Emissions, noise, clarity of design and handling are critical, but what makes snowmobile drivers really tear up with emotion is the huge horsepower that sets them back on their haunches.

At the Hill Climb, Clarkson, Kansass and Minnesota's four-cylinder motorcycle engines thunder to the second cat track. It's Waterloo's two-stroke, however, that sets the fastest time and wins the event. Waterloo's Hill-Climb victory prefaces Friday night's awards banquet, where by winning mileage, emissions, sound, performance and design, the team earns first place overall. Industry reps quietly rejoice over Waterloo's modifications, which point a way to clean up and silence their own two-stroke engines.

Second by nine points with 1,009 is Kettering. Last year's winner, Buffalo, is third, with Minnesota fourth and Idaho fifth. In part because of the fires and engine failure, Kansas finishes 11th. Despite the incredibly long hours the Kansas team members logged, they never hesitated to help other teams. At the awards ceremony, the Most Sportsmanlike trophy goes to Kansas amid prolonged applause. On Saturday morning, the Hill Climb crowd applauds each time a competitor reaches the summit. But what really catches their attention is when a rider pulls the sled over on top of himself. If course workers can't catch it, the ensuing flips, cartwheels and endos quickly turn the $50,000 Arctic Cats, Yamahas and Ski Dos into brutal tangles of bent skis, smashed bodywork and broken tracks.

One competitor bails off a modified sled, which instantly does a 180 and draws a bead on the SAE Clean Snowmobile tent. Displayed inside are the SAE team entries. Before the volunteers can stop it, the runaway blows through a safety fence, explodes through the back wall and T-bones the clean sleds of Wyoming and Michigan Tech. Miraculously, no one is hurt. Assessing the wreckage, the young engineers don't seem particularly upset. "It's just some body and suspension damage," observes ones. "We can put this back together in no time."

The 2002 SAE Clean Air Challenge is set for March 23-29 in Jackson. For more information, go to www.sae.org

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