Inside the Hall of Fame: Man and Machine
By Greg Marier
The Man – Bobby Donahue:
Bobby Donahue brought a level of determination and professionalism that elevated the sport in both ice oval and SnoCross competition. Throughout Donahue’s 14-year racing career as a successful independent, Yamaha and Ski-Doo Factory-supported racer, Bobby was one of the rare racers who could win in any racing form.
Emerging as a top oval driver in 1977, Donahue drove Kawasaki Invaders to three consecutive Tournament of Champion titles in 1979-80-81. Switching to the emerging SnoCross arena, he won his first Eagle River SnoCross crown in 1984 in a year that ended with both Pro Stock and Pro Open USSA SnoCross titles. In 1985, he won the first-ever Formula III oval track Shoot-Out and a “pure” cross-country event, the Minnesota Governor’s Cup.
Always an oval track stand-out, Donahue capped his illustrious career by winning the 1988 Formula I World’s Championship. This victory made him the only driver to post both F-III (1985) and F-I (1988) Eagle River championship titles. Bobby was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 1997.
The Machine – 1984 Ski-Doo Formula I race sled
This Ski-Doo Formula I Twin-Track was a first-year limited production model. Produced out of the Bombardier Race Shop, it featured a four-bar (trailing arm) front suspension and a Rotax 340cc rotary-valve engine with tuned exhaust. This particular machine was modified to compete with (and beat) the latest generation Factory Twin Track models featuring a new A-arm front suspension and improved engine technology (RAVE).
Let’s cover some of your racing history. How did you get into racing?
I was fortunate that my dad and mom (Bob and Alice Donahue) started a Yamaha dealership called Bob’s Yamaha City, in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin back in 1966. In addition to running the business, my dad loved the challenge of building powerful motors and proving them through competition. In his younger days, he became a two-time Wisconsin Hillclimb Champion on motorcycles that he built. That success brought other racers looking for his level of power and he started building motors for many motorcycle and snowmobile racers in the area. Just one example of his ingenuity in making power – in the mid-60’s, an employee had a Polaris with a 372cc JLO engine and wanted to win in cross-country racing. Back then, the go-to set-up was to add a megaphone, but my dad had been reading up on Kevin Cameron’s tuned pipe work so he found a book on the subject, got out his slide rule, bought some flat steel and he cut, rolled and welded up the first snowmobile tuned pipe seen in the area – He really was ahead of the curve. Watching the hard work, the drive and the creativity that my folks put into building a successful dealership gave me the blueprint to become a success, not just in racing, but in life.
I had been racing motorcycles since I was 12 and started snowmobile oval racing when I was 16. The guy who took me to those races was either my dad, my uncle Buzz, or Dick Trickle. (Dick Trickle was an extremely successful stock car driver and went on to compete as a NASCAR-level driver as well. He was a big part of my success in snowmobile racing). Dick Trickle also raced snowmobiles in the USSA Central Division and as I started racing at bigger races, Dick would take me along to his events, and started seriously mentoring me when I jumped up to the Men’s class. This combination eventually landed a Yamaha factory-support deal for both Dick and myself.
Tell us about your breakthrough event and your ‘Bobby Who’ nickname
It’s 1976, I’m 18 years old and racing a Yamaha SRX 340 in the Super Stock oval races against tough Mercury, Arctic Cat and Yamaha competition. The Alexandria, MN race was a major event back then and I got third in the Super Stock class, which was huge because you had to beat at least fifty guys in that class back then. I was elated to get third, but my dad was a little disappointed because I didn’t win (my dad always wanted to win – no matter what). Anyway, for the Mod-Stock class, my dad, who really knew how to make a mod sled go fast, had a kit with modified cylinders, heads, race pipes, Circle M injectors, new clutching & gearing to bolt onto my stock sled and then I would race it in 340 Mod-Stock on Sunday. So, I go out against some very tough Mod-Stock competition and win!
After that win, Dick Trickle, who was racing with us, was all excited – He tells my dad “That sled is fast, Bob. We ought to enter Bobby in the SnoPro class!” My dad says “He’s just a kid, Dick. Those factory guys will just embarrass him.” Dick says “I don’t know, Bob. He looked really fast out there.” I’ll be darned but, behind my back, and behind my dad’s back, Dick went to Jim Beilke (the Alexandria Race Promoter) and got me entered in the SnoPro 340 class. So, I’m sitting around, pretty relaxed from being done racing for the day and Dick comes up and says “Hurry up, you’ve got to get ready to race – the sleds are lining up and you’re in the third heat.” My dad says “What? … That’s the SnoPro class!” Dick says “Yep, Jim let him in. We’ve got to get him up in line.” I’ll be darned but I go out to race and get through the heats, get through the semis and – no kidding – I win it! I WIN the SnoPro feature race! (laughs) My dad just shook his head and said “Man, that sled’s FAST!” (He wouldn’t say I WAS FAST– he never wanted me to get too full of myself). In reality, that sled really WAS fast. Larry Coltom was the guy to beat and I motored by him on the back straight. My dad was a magician on getting two-stroke motors to go fast.
It was a huge triumph for an eighteen-year-old kid to win in his first SnoPro race! The SnowWeek cover featured me taking the SnoPro 340 checkered flag with the headline “Bobby Who?” – and that became my nickname from then on.
That win must have opened a lot of doors for you
It really did. It not only brought a lot of recognition, it also really built up my confidence – and it was all due to the engines my dad made and Dick seeing what I could do. In 1977, Yamaha sponsored Dick Trickle, Morio Ito and myself to race on the ovals. In 1978 I joined the Ski-Doo Factory SnoPro team, running with Doug Hayes. That victory launched my Factory-level racing career.
Yamaha success, but see the need for a change:
When SnoCross gained popularity in the 1980’s after its introduction at Alexandria, Yamaha wanted in on it. So, by having a snowmobile racing relationship with them already, and also being an AMA district motocross racer, it was only natural that they wanted me to also race SnoCross. I did willingly, but my snowmobile racing plate was definitely getting full! Then Formula III came along, and Yamaha wanted me to do that class for them too! That was 1985, what a year! My guys would have a sled in the paddock warmed up and ready to jump on, sometimes almost competing in back-to-back races. I raced my Ski-Doo sled in Formula I and Formula II, the Yamaha Vmax in Formula III, and one of the Phazer SX sleds in Pro Sprint (this was all oval racing) then I raced the Phazer SX in Pro Stock, and a Phazer Special Build in Pro Open (these were both SnoCross classes). WOW, what an exhausting year! Good thing I was young and in shape!!!
It all came to a head in 1985. Even though we had a lot of Yamaha success, my Formula I results suffered to the point that I didn’t make the 1985 World Championship final. Sitting on the sidelines and watching that Championship final made me realize I had lost sight of my original dream. I knew I had to make a change. When it was time to re-new my Yamaha SnoCross and FIII deal, I told them I was going to focus 100% on Formula I, with the goal to win the World Championship.
Let’s jump to 1988 and tell us how you, your team and this race sled fulfilled that dream.
I had just had two seasons racing the Double Vision Ski-Doo Twin Track sled for Nielsen Enterprises and, although we had some success, I felt I needed to get back to our ‘family and friends’ type of racing.
Getting the crew back together
Now I was back to my roots – oval racing out of our own shop! My crew were really the unsung heroes of our success. My dad, uncle Buzz, Dick Trickle and my brother Troy all worked hard in the shop. Mike Edwards was the crew chief, and Mike, Kelly Giese and Brian King went to the races. Dave Moser worked on many special projects like getting the race truck ready, and Bill O’Day did all of my paint and bodywork out the local body shop. There would have been no winning, no championship without all of their hard work. They made me go fast and look good.
Finding a Twin Track race sled
Now I was a racer without a race sled. I knew we needed a Ski-Doo Twin Tracker, but all of the 1988 race sleds getting built at the Valcourt race shop were already spoken for – especially since this new model would now feature an A-arm front suspension and powered by a new engine featuring the RAVE exhaust valve system.
The only option was to find a used twin tracker – but where do you get one that’s not all raced-out? I called Phil Mickelson at BRP to see what was out there. He knew of a Twin Track without much track time, but it was in Colorado – That’s the one we want! So, myself and two of my guys, (Mike and Kelly) jumped into my van right after the shop closed to go buy that sled. Funny thing about that trip is when we get back after round-tripping to Colorado sometime in the wee hours on Labor Day Monday, my dad says “Make sure you’re not late for work tomorrow!” Oh, my dad – I laugh about it now, but I sure wasn’t laughing about it then.
The beauty of our set up now is that it’s Labor Day weekend and we actually got a snowmobile to work on! Most years, you’re lucky to get your sled a few weeks before the first race and you had to scramble to get everything into race-shape.
What were the goals as you built up this sled?
Basically, everyone in Formula I raced similar equipment – Ski-Doo Twin Trackers and modified Rotax engines – so you had to find a way to beat the Ski-Doo Factory and some really fast independent racers. From racing a Twin Track with Nielsen’s, I knew exactly what we had to do – and man, we built a pretty cool snowmobile indeed.
Our focus was to fix the weak areas but also make it as light as possible. Keep in mind that I was racing against Brad Hulings and Jacques Villeneuve – and I was 35 to 40 pounds heavier than they were. Even as we were making things stronger, there wasn’t a single part we didn’t try to make lighter. We replaced aluminum with magnesium, replaced rubber hoses with thin-wall aluminum tubing, we relocated the heat exchanger and many other changes that I knew we had to do. I’m pretty much convinced that we had the lightest FI sled on the track – not by just a pound or two, but by a lot!
We also worked hard to increase the durability. We knew the whole drive system needed work. We modified bearing mounts, machined new parts, strengthened some areas – that kind of stuff. One slick change was to the chain case. Originally, to change gearing, you had to remove the right-hand track, the suspension and the driveshaft. We modified the chain case cover so we could change the gearing, but still leave all of those other areas in place. That took a gear-change from a 1 1/2 hour job down to about ten minutes. Another area that was a little bit weak were the hood and radiator mounts. On rough tracks, the hood and radiator would start bouncing and could break the radiator right off the sled, so we reconfigured that area.
We changed the driver ergos to match my style. We made a taller windshield due to my height, bent the bars to fit me, tricked out the skis so they had low drag on the straightaway but would still turn and changed the steering ratio to reduce steering effort.
Early Twin Trackers were famous for derailing the outside track, so my dad built a system to guide the track on the upper part of the tunnel (in addition to the guides along the rail). He also made plastic loops on the front torque arm that fed the track into the front drive sprockets. It worked! We never derailed, even when running a looser track than the other guys, so we had excellent top speed.
The last really big thing was to build new tracks. From Dick Trickle’s Stock Car connections, Goodyear make us a run of special track belting. Back at the shop, my dad built tooling to assemble our own tracks. We also ran titanium cleats with a unique stud hole pattern so we could hook up to fresh ice.
Now it’s time to put it all back together. These sleds were produced as a very limited build, so everything had to be made square and true. We aligned the drivetrain, strengthened some areas, got the tunnel, suspensions and tracks all nice and straight, and stiffened the chassis to reduce flex. All that work increased our drive train efficiency, and efficiency delivers speed. The key man behind all this work was my dad. He could look at something and find a way to make it both stronger and lighter. That really takes a special talent, and he had it.
Speaking about speed – With the top guys running the new RAVE (Auto-adjust exhaust valve) engines, you must have had a disadvantage with your non-RAVE engine
That’s true, so we had to make a plan to counter that. We first tried to get the new cylinders from Ski-Doo Racing but those parts were reserved for the guys running the 1988 models. Once again, Phil Mickelson came through with enough non-RAVE engine parts so we could build spare engines. My dad built one motor and Bruce Kahlhamer at PSI Performance built another motor and we spent time on the dyno to develop the best set-up. I remember we came out with 104-105 horsepower from two different engine/pipe combinations. Even so, once we got racing, the guys running the new RAVE cylinders had more power off the line – my holeshot usually put me mid-pack going into turn one but, because of our overall set-up, I did get to do a lot of passing that season (laughs).
Engine tuning strategy
Our direction was to be fast for the last 10 laps rather than fast for the first 10 laps. If you start with jetting set spot-on with a cold motor, you could really fly for the first few laps, but as the motor gets hot, the calibration goes rich and the power drops off. I would jet a little lean and go to the line with a warm engine, take it easy the first few laps but as the motor gets hotter, the jetting would line up and my sled would be running strong late in the race. During the opening laps, you’re fighting close racing in snow dust but later on the field opens up and that’s the time to be fast. In the WC race, lap times may only be a couple of tenths difference during the first five laps, but by the end of the race there might be a half-to-three-quarters second lap time difference between a fast guy and a slow guy.
We really had a handle on tuning for performance when it counted. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we had the fastest straightaway speed every race, but we were very competitive. However, we were also very consistent, and consistent performance makes all the difference over 25 laps.
1988 Eagle River World Championship
The focus for this season was to win the World Championship. That’s been my dream since I started racing. We get to the Eagle River Championship weekend and we time trial pretty good – we were maybe the third fastest qualifier. In the Friday Formula I event; Allen Decker and I won our heats and semis. In the ten-lap Friday final, Allen jumped to the lead and I worked my way up to get right on his snow flap. Coming off of turn two, I was just a little flat and he would pull away, and I would pick it back up on the rest of the lap but back at turn two he would gap me again. We raced hard for the last five laps and I just couldn’t get by him. It was a great race – but Allen won, and it proved we had to pull harder out of turn two to have a chance to win on Sunday.
We focused on that area all day on Saturday and, of course, adjusted jetting and clutching to account for slightly warmer temperatures. We hit on a great set-up – won our heat by about half a straightaway and won the 15-lap semi race by lapping up to the fourth-place finisher and was right on Jacques’ snow flap when I took the checkered flag. We were fast, but Brad and Allen were really fast too – so it looked like Sunday would be a battle between us three guys.
The weather forecast for Sunday was another 10 degrees warmer, so the Saturday night question was what we needed to do to counteract that. We knew the carbides were going to bite more, so we took a little front end off, but the big question was how to get more cooling. We opened up the front and rear of the hood to increase the airflow and cut some holes to get some snow on the top side of the heat exchanger. Other than that, we just lightened the weights about a tenth of a gram and jetted accordingly for the Sunday final. We didn’t want to over-think it, so that’s all we did.
Now it’s Sunday and the flagman (Ted Otto) lifts the flag. The 10 of us take off and we’re racing! After the first lap, I’m in ninth (laughs). I think “Oh crap, this is gonna be a long race!” We knew we would start out slow because we were a little light on clutching, and our strategy was to start about mid-pack and stay out of trouble for about 4-5 laps, but still keep the leaders in sight. Obviously, now I had to make a new plan. I had to spend some carbide and drove my socks off for the first three laps to move up to fourth. Darcy Ewing got into the bales, and after the restart I moved up to third, with Brad in second and Allen in the lead. Brad had some trouble so I got by him and now it was just Allen and I.
Allen was putting down some really fast times for the next five laps. Eventually I started to cover the gap and by the 10th lap I passed him. Our strategy was to be leading at the halfway point and we were right on schedule. We stretched our lead out to about a straightaway by lap seventeen. Coming up on lapped traffic, JoJo Ludwig spun out right in front of me. Somehow I avoided him and kept going, but it caused another restart.
Now there are seven laps left and I know Allen can really push hard for at least five laps. If Allen gets by me, I don’t know if I have enough carbides left to pass him back – but I also knew there was no way I was going to lose this race. We take off and sure enough Allen is right on my snow flap – he was right there – we ran about two, maybe three laps and then he passes me on the backstretch, so now he’s ahead by a foot, maybe 2 feet. You know what I said? I said “There was no way I’m going to lose this damn race!”
It was time to win this thing. I had finished second way too many times – in 1978 I was running second behind Steve Thorson and blew a belt, in 1979 I finished second behind Bob Elsner, in 1982 I finished second to Jacques Villeneuve, and in 1986, I finished second behind Jacques again. There was NO WAY I was going to let Allen Decker beat me! I drove into turn three and never let off – I drove it in there wide open – and guess what, it turned! Not only did I pass Allen but I probably pulled out a good sled length on him. I thought “Well heck, if I can do that once, I could do it on every lap” so Allen would close up on me coming off of turn two and I would dive into turn three wide open and after a couple laps, I got away from him and saw the checkered flag. We did it! We won the Eagle River World Championship race.
I get back to the start line and Ted Otto gives me the checkered flag. My crew mobs me and all I can say is “Where’s my dad? Get my dad!” The night before every WC race, my dream was to make a victory lap with my dad and the checkered flag, and now that dream will come true. My dad came up and, of course, there’s my dad – showing no emotion but with a smile on his face – I said “Get on! We’re going on a victory lap and your job is to hold the flag!” I still get emotional just talking about it. That is why you race – it is for that moment. It took my whole life to accomplish that and it was really, really, really cool.
When you win the World Championship, it does change your life – and I credit that success to my dad. If he hadn’t been involved all along the way, there was no way I could have accomplished what I have done. That victory lap ride was a “Thank You” to my dad.
Great story about a great race! Thanks. What you are up to now?
After that successful 1988 season, I had achieved all of my personal racing goals and retired from snowmobile competition. I continued to race both Pro Dirt track and Amateur Motocross motorcycles for many more years, basically just having fun racing with my buddies! And throughout the years I have coached many local snowmobile and motorcycle racers, across all types of competition, including working with Cardell Potter for many years, and he won the Eagle River World Championship in 2015. I enjoyed it a lot. Most recently, I have been helping my son Danny, who is into BMX racing. That’s a whole new sport, a whole new challenge for me, and I am having a ball doing that. Through coaching, I now realize just how much I’ve learned from racing for so long and with so many different people. Through it all, I’ve learned a lot about my dad, about myself and I’ve learned a lot about life – and I have racing to thank for all of that.
For my day job, my brothers Terry and Troy, and I own and run Donahue Super Sports. This powersports dealership was started by my dad and mom way back in 1966, and it has grown into an award-winning business over the years. I still love to ride snowmobiles, and am very proud that I still deal with, on a day-to-day basis, the two brands that have brought me success on the racetrack – Yamaha and Ski-Doo!
Snowmobile Hall of Fame:
Visit the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St Germain, Wisconsin to learn more about the heroes of our sport and view the many historic snowmobiles and racing memorabilia on display at the museum. Check us out at www.SnowmobileHallOfFame.com or on Facebook at “TheSnowmobileHallOfFame”.
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