The story of the ARBE Manta twin track is as much about the man behind the machines as it is the machines themselves.
By Hal Armstrong
1969-73 Leisure Vehicles Inc. – The Raider Days
Carol Bracey (wife of Bob) remembers the day he came home and told her he was going into the snowmobile business – and he didn’t mean simply opening a dealership.
Bob Bracey was not an engineer by education but smart enough to engineer. He had a storied past working on the development of the Lemans winning Ford GT40 race car at Kar Kraft in Detroit. He had also worked with the legendary Peter Weismann who developed and built Indy Car and F1 transmissions.
Bob was not one for working in the corporate world and in 1968 Bob and engineering buddy John Drawe started an engineering service company (Techtron) for the auto industry. John Drawe remembers, “Their dream was to build a product that had a growing market and still use their auto industry background and connections to their advantage. John had some neighbors that had purchased snowmobiles and the machines intrigued me,” he recalls.
The pair sensed an opportunity to build a better snowmobile. Carol Bracey recalls, “Bob thought the way snowmobiles were designed was fundamentally wrong. Bob believed the driver sat too high, resulting in a machine that was easy to flip, did not turn well and exposed the rider to the elements.”
This perspective was coming from a person that never rode a snowmobile and was not a cold weather person. His interest was in improving the snowmobile by applying race car engineering to make the experience safer and more enjoyable. He believed a snowmobile could be driven from a cockpit like a race car instead of riding it like a horse with a saddle.
Bracey and Drawe built their first twin track prototype and had it on the snow in 1969. They continued to refine the machine, and Bob secured financial backing from private investors to scale up production for the 1971 season.
Leisure Vehicles Inc. hit the snowmobile shows with two models – the Raider and the Roamer. Both utilized a double track design with two skis and an enclosed body of reinforced fiberglass for full protection of the legs, feet and body. They hit the snowmobile market at the right time as sales escalated, which helped fuel the project along.
Of keen interest is that Honda contacted Bob, which resulted in a pilot build of about 10 Raiders built for the 1974 season. These units were fitted with a Honda four-stroke micro-car engine. The Honda / Raider deal was short termed and Bob Bracey left the company he founded in the summer of ‘73. Leisure Products would continue producing the Raider snowmobile until the end of the ‘75 season.
ARBE Products – The Manta is Born
Bob never let his dream die. He quickly started a new company with his wife Carol. ARBE Products (A Robert Bracey Enterprise) was created and Bob became the exclusive distributor for Texas Products Components. This was a coup for Bob as Texas Products was an aerospace company that had built a name building magnesium chassis’s for the Sno-Jet Thunder-Jet as well as track suspensions and skis. They were one of the first aftermarket companies in the snowmobile industry.
Mark Ryskamp was Bob’s first employee of ARBE products. Mark recalls, “In September of ‘73 I started working for Bob and we were producing traction products from aluminum, Carboloy and titanium. Back in the 70’s, cleated tracks were the way to go for oval racing and we were gearing up for the 1st SnoPro oval race of the season in Ironwood, Michigan. Bob also built maybe 25 single-track race sleds that winter but he still was working on a new design for a twin track oval race sled.”
Ryskamp picks up the story. “We must have loaded two thousand cleats in the company van along with, the new ‘Hot Tip Carbide Stud’ designed by Bob and a host of other parts and headed to Ironwood. We pulled into the pits and were amazed at the machinery from some of the companies. Yamaha had brought two race sleds that were outstanding. They had security all around their race trailer and nobody could get close to those machines. Bob somehow sold our entire van full of titanium cleats that weekend to Yamaha. They cleaned us out! Just when things could not get any better, Bob takes a second look and caught sight of Gilles Villeneuve’s twin track race sled. He almost fell off his chair! Gilles had built a twin track oval race sled that Bob had envisioned for racing.”
“We headed home and the wheels were just turning in Bob’s head. Bob was the type of guy who attracted out-of-the-box thinkers. He was the Steve Jobs of the snowmobile industry at the time. He always knew how to take the best of existing technology and apply it to his dream of what a snowmobile should be. Within a month the first Manta twin track race sled was built and appeared at the Imlay City, Michigan SnoPro. Don Peitzen raced the sled and ran it on the MISA (Michigan) circuit the rest of the winter. The machine was a prototype racer, which featured a monocoque chassis, twin tracks and rear engine arrangement.”
Ryskamp remembers how the sled was equipped with a Salsbury hydrostatic transmission. Bob hated the CVT transmissions as they were always blowing belts. He saw promise with this “automotive” style transmission. In high gear it had a mechanical lock-up so all the power went straight to the track. The main problem was in low gear ratios it was not the best. Acceleration was an issue that would plague the Manta race sleds for years to come. The ‘74 Manta was overshadowed by the SnoPro sleds that year and flew under the radar of most teams. Arctic Cat built a twin track race sled but never took the concept seriously.
Bud Bennett was a successful racer in Michigan and had met Bob and John Drawe at some of the grass drag races with their Raiders. Bob was a smart guy and had been around racing with the Andretti’s and he knew what he wanted, and he wanted Bud to race for him. Bennet recalls, “I watched that 74 Manta TT run and I liked what I saw. I knew how to blueprint a sled and make it run right. I gave Bob some ideas on how to improve the sled.” Bob was impressed and asked Bud to race for him in ‘75.
The new Manta qualified for the 440x class of the new PDC circuit that replaced SnoPro. Bob’s big picture was to build TwinTrac (TT) sleds for the consumer racer and continue to make aftermarket parts for racing.
The 1975 Manta TT was an Indy car for the ice oval. Texas Products built the twin tunnel aluminum monocoque chassis complete with roll bar. The TT was sold with Sachs RX race engines. They were designed back in ‘72 and were quick motors for their time. In fact, Gilles Villeneuve raced his ‘73 Alouette with a 650 triple Sachs to win the 1974 World Championship at Eagle River.
Mark Ryskamp recalls, “Bob bought 100 engines from Sachs that had been destined for Skiroule which had hit tough times that year. He got a deal and paid $100.00 each for the engines, complete with Tillotson carbs. We got a mixture of 340s and 440s, and they were ported right to the edge. We used 44mm Mikuni’s and came up with a new pipe, designed by Motion Industries in Michigan. If we got a weekend out of an engine we were happy. We definitely were competitive on power in ’75, but in ‘76 we ran into problems running against the liquid cooled engines from Cat, Polaris, Yamaha, Kohler and Rotax. That’s when the hydrostatic transmission was abandoned and we switched to Comet clutches.”
“The Achilles heel of these sleds was the lack of a cast aluminum chain case. Fiberglass chain case covers were being used on some other race sleds and that is exactly what the Manta used. We used a fiberglass chain case that had poor gaskets and seals. Chain failures were common. It was not until the last Manta race sleds were built that we used Arctic Cat supplied chain cases.”
Another issue that hampered our ‘75 race season was how the fiberglass tub did not enclose (and seal to) the bottom of the chassis. Snow dust would work its way into the torque converter and cause belt slippage.
Driving the Sled
Bud Bennett recounts racing the Manta. “I remember the first race of the ‘75 season. The other teams hated racing against us because we ran a different line than the single trackers. The Manta hole shot did not exist so we were always last into the 1st corner. The single-track drivers would aim for the apex of the corner and then their sleds would drift high as they exited the 2nd corner. With the Manta we could drive right around the outside of the corner at full throttle, so just as the single tracker was drifting high coming out of the apex we would pass him and have the speed heading down the back straight. The seating position of the driver in front of the twin tracks allowed for 30% more weight bias on the skis. With the Manta you throttle-steered the sled around the corner, pivoting about the skis. The Manta used a live axle with both tracks driving. The idea we did not need a differential was because the inside track would unload and the outside track would drive the sled around the corner. The design worked.
Bennett explained the setup trick. “The whole thing was learning how to stud the tracks. We wanted the inside track to slide. We were using tungsten carbide wedges. We would turn the wedges on the inside track so it would slide and the outside track was studded opposite. The competition was glad we were still running those three-year-old Sachs engines. What we lacked in straight line speed we made up in the corners.”
1976 – The Final Race season for Team Manta
The 1976 race season saw the return of SnoPro and the Manta sleds were now qualified to compete in the 340 & 440 classes. The ’76 Manta sleds were the same as the previous year, but with an F1 inspired cooling duct mounted above the sled to direct cold air to new Mikuni carbs, replacing the Tillotson units. The Cobra skis returned up front. The Cobras improved lateral stability compared to the leaf spring skis that were common.
The Sachs engines soon proved to be severely underpowered compared to the new liquid cooled power plants. To remain competitive Bob purchased a Yamaha SRX and installed the 440 engine into the twin tracker. The result was spectacular. At Weedsport, New York in mid February Dan Kirts was back and demonstrated to the crowd that the Manta was capable of winning if it would hold together. The sled won all of its heats and won the hearts of the crowd. The win was not to be as after the 3rd lap in the Mod 440 final a track derailed. It was the culmination of another frustrating season.
IFS vs. Twin Track – The future of snowmobiling is decided
The 1976 SnoPro season was the last year that oval racing sleds with leaf spring front suspensions would claim a championship. The age of the innocence was over. Independent front suspension would change the world of snowmobiling forever. Bob Bracey’s ARBE race team would not compete on the SnoPro circuit again. Bob had started development on a production version of the Manta race sled for 1977 but those plans were put on hold. The independent front suspension proved to be more of an advantage to winning races than the complexity of Manta’s twin tracks. The industry embraced IFS and the Manta twin track design was shelved.
Bob Bracey would bring a trail version of the Manta back to production in 1982 and then yet again with the short-lived Trail Roamer in 2000 which featured an independent front suspension and a 4-stroke Kohler engine.
The question remains why the Bob Bracey designed sled never proved to be popular. Chester Duvall, former Ski-Doo race team manager, perhaps hit the nail on the head when the Twin Track Ski-Doo race sled was under development. “Ski-Doo wanted the sled to still look like a snowmobile and allow the rider to still be interactive with the machine. The Manta was a sled you sat in and steered.”
Perhaps it was a concept just too far off into the future, but too good to be ignored in the years to come. Many recreational vehicles we enjoy today (PWC, ATV’s) originated in the 60’s but were shelved because the market was not ready .
So the question is, are you ready for a Manta today?