Inside the Hall of Fame: Man and Machine
By Greg Marier
The Man – Mike Trapp:
Mike Trapp set the snowmobile racing world on its ear in 1971 when he drove a SR433 Yamaha to a dark horse victory in the World’s Championship running up against the top factory racers on 800’s. He became the first driver to score consecutive wins at the famous Eagle River, Wisconsin track when he repeated the following year on a 643cc factory Yamaha.
Trapp raced for several years as a Ski-Doo factory driver in both oval and cross-country and served as a Ski-Doo spokesman during the mid-1970’s with Yvon Duhamel. Trapp posted his final snowmobile race victory on a Ski-Doo in Forest Lake, Minnesota in 1977.
Mike was one of the founding members of the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St. Germain, WI and was inducted into the Hall in 1988.
The Machine –
1971 Yamaha SR433 Factory race sled:
This snowmobile has a 433cc twin cylinder engine with Factory-special engine mods including chrome-bore cylinders, special tuned pipes and large-bore Keihin carburetors set up for alcohol. Chassis specifications include aluminum chassis, aluminum skis, aluminum bogie pivot arm assemblies and a deeper lug rubber track.
Hi Mike. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of your 1971 Eagle River World Championship victory, we would like to hear your story about how that came about.
Well, that was fifty years and a lot of race sleds ago! I will do my best, but it’s all based on my memories from a long while back. Anyway, snowmobiles were a big deal as I was growing up so the sport captured my attention early on. I started racing on my own and doing fairly well and that caught the eye of Tom Chiolino (from Mama’s Supper Club), who had a Ski-Doo 669 TNT for me to race that season. Race results on that sled qualified me for the USSA World Series event held in Rhinelander at the end of that season. There’s a story about that race. Yamaha wanted a competitive sled to do some comparison testing so they bought the 669 from Tom, the owner. So I was qualified for the World Series, but without a sled. I ended up called Bob Eastman at Polaris and I’ll be darned if Bob didn’t bring down a Polaris for me to race. I was leading the final and wouldn’t you know it, I blew a belt. So that was the end of my World Series race.
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For the 1970 season I started racing Yamaha, along with my cousins Wayne and Lynn Trapp, for Yamaha North, the local Yamaha dealership owned by Dick Van Gotham. We raced GYT-kitted Yamaha sleds and were pretty much kicking butt everywhere we ran. That success got us discovered by the Yamaha folks out in California and it took off from there.
As the 1970 season was winding down, I got a call from Mike Bowers (the Yamaha U.S. Snowmobile Race Director) to join with Bart Markel (a well-known motorcycle racer) to see just how competitive these Yamaha race sleds could be against true Factory-level competition. You have to remember that Yamaha had only been in the snowmobile business for a couple of years, so I imagine they wanted to see if they could gain more sales through racing, maybe similar to their early success in motorcycle road racing. Anyway, we ran two or three late-season races out west on Factory-prepared 433cc sleds to see how they would stack up. For sure I remember racing in Spokane and the big King’s Castle race in Lake Tahoe. From that trip, Yamaha figured out that they had some speed going on so they decided to go all in for the upcoming 1971 race season.
Ok, tell us about this 1971 team – Who were the racers and how was the team set-up?
There were five racers – myself, my cousins Wayne and Lynn, Ronnie Quimet from out East and Morio Ito from Japan. Additional Japanese members were Tony Hisatomi, who was the Head Engineer and our Factory contact and Sam Ishita. Mike Bowers ran things from the Yamaha US side along with Gordy Muetz plus several other mechanics and support people, but unfortunately, I can’t recall their names right now.
There were 13 to 15 races that we were scheduled to go to. We basically went to every big race event across the US – Eagle River, Rhinelander, then we went out east to Bangor Maine and New York and then west to Spokane, West Yellowstone and Lake Tahoe. We raced against all the top factory teams like Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo and the rest; also the regional distributor teams plus local independent racers would jump in when the races came to town.
We were on the road pretty much the whole season working out of our tractor-trailer. I don’t think I was home for more than a few weekends all winter except for the races close to my hometown of Minocqua. Typically, we would get into the next race by the middle of the week and talk to the local Yamaha dealer to find somewhere we could test. It wasn’t like it is now – we didn’t need a plowed ice oval, all we needed was a snow field dragstrip to run carb calibration checks or side-by-side acceleration runs. So that’s what we did as we moved from race to race while working out of the truck out on the road.
How much support did you get from the Yamaha Factory in Japan?
From Yamaha, it looked like they had an open expense account. Pretty much whatever you wanted you got. Sleds were available along with lots of support from the factory engineers. After every race weekend, the team would make a report of the results and any issues we had. Tony Hisatomi (our Factory Engineering contact) would get on the phone with the Japanese engineers for 3 to 4 hours after every race weekend discussing whatever the team thought we needed. When we got to the next race, there would be a large crate of parts, like more spare parts, different heads and cylinders. I assume Yamaha was constantly testing over there while we were racing here so they could keep improving what we were racing.
What were the specifications on your SR433?
The sled was really light. We had the chassis and skis stamped out of aluminum off the same tooling used to make the standard steel parts. We had a bogey track suspension system so there wasn’t much we could do with that but maybe redrill the holes to move the front set of bogey’s around to increase the ski pressure. We ran pizza cutters and that old scissors-type of ski dampener (PACS) on the skis. Carbide runners were just starting to be used and star-type studs were available for the rubber track, but I don’t remember if we had them at the 1971 WC race.
Even though the chassis and suspension were pretty basic, the SR433 engine power gave us a boost. We were running the latest engine parts sent direct from Japan and we had success with running alcohol using our big-bore Keihin butterfly carbs. You had to pump a lot of fuel to run alcohol and it seems that our setup worked better than the guys running the Tillotsons. Set up right, alcohol really made good power, has good throttle response and also runs much cooler than running on gas. That was important back then because we all ran free-air engines and alcohol kept the engine cooler, which gave you good power throughout the race. One other trick was that Yamaha found an alcohol fuel source that was specially blended for two-stroke go kart racing that came out of California – that fuel worked really well.
What were your thoughts during the 1971 Eagle River race?
There was a lot of talk early-on about the triple-cylinder 800cc advantage versus the twin-cylinder 433cc Yamaha but once we starting the qualifying process – remember that back in those days, to qualify for the WC you had to compete for total points awarded from your results in a drag race, a seven-mile cross-country race and then time trials on the oval track – our team ran very well on all these qualifying events, so I thought that at least we had a chance. Of course, Yvon (Duhamel) was seeded based on winning the championship from the previous year, but our qualifying went well so both my cousin Wayne and I made it into the top-10 racers set to race in the WC.
At the start line my mindset was that, unless something drastic happened, I really could win this race – of course every racer has to have a positive attitude and think like that. Early on in the race, I do remember that Yvon and I were tussling back and forth for quite a few laps. About halfway through I did kind of lay back a little bit (but not on purpose) and I was saying to myself that maybe that’s where it’s going to be – second-place was the best I could get. I had to drop that thought and started pushing harder and all of a sudden, I started to gain on Yvon. Seeing that, I kind of just went ‘Gung Ho’ on the whole deal and pushed even harder to take the lead. Eventually Yvon spun out trying to keep pace and I took first and Wayne took second.
After the world championship victory the Yamaha folks were ecstatic. For myself, at 24 years old, it was hard to put it into perspective but after that race, any place we went to, the dealers were super friendly and just couldn’t do enough for you. Yamaha had a pretty strong 3 to 4 years there in sales as they were just getting started in the industry and the win was a big boost. To celebrate the victory, we were invited to join a dealer tour of the Yamaha factory in Japan, and that was a good time. We met all the big shots there and saw the sights as we traveled around the country. I also went to a test in Australia (Our summer is their winter), and joined test trips to Alaska and to the Yamaha test site in Northern Japan. Those development trips made to try out new ideas were always interesting.
All of us on the team had a pretty good season. Of course, the Eagle River victory was the highlight for me that year.
Tell us about the 1972 season and the second WC victory.
The 1972 racing season was pretty much the same as the year before with 13 to 15 races on the schedule. The one major change was that our top machine had a 643cc engine mounted on a wide track chassis. We had a lot of crankshaft problems that season on that engine. That crank design had a long shaft that also served as the center shaft for the primary clutch. That really put a lot of force on the end of the crank and there wasn’t a lot of meat there to support it. The Yamaha engineers in Japan knew about the crank issue but they couldn’t get the new cranks here in time for the Eagle River race. We were sitting at the Eagle River race track without a solution and it was up to the guys in the truck to solve the problem. But you know, Gordy (Muetz) was a pretty ingenious fellow – he had a lot of hands-on racing experience and motivated to solve the problem. Gordy and Mike Bowers actually took the sled over to Gordy’s buddy in Minneapolis that had a machine shop in his basement. Those guys made up a support system that went between the primary and secondary clutches to carry the load that spiked when you let off the gas to slow down. The thought was that the belt pull force would spike before the clutch would downshift and that would take out the crank. That race was the first time that this primary-to-secondary bracing system was tried, but the crank made it through the whole race and we won. I think that Gordy and Mike Bowers were in a bunch of hot water from taking the sled out of the truck right before the most important race of the season, but since it worked and I won, I guess they were forgiven.
For the 1972 season were you still running alcohol?
No, they banned running alcohol after the 1971 season. It’s funny when I think about it – there are two things that were banned from racing that that had something to do with me – one was after I won the 1971 Championship, they banned alcohol so that was a no-no. And in 1972, the World Championship winner was still seeded for the next year race – well, then I went to Ski-Doo and all of a sudden, the talk was that “All Ski-Doo did was buy the position”. Well, the Derby quit that rule after the 1973 season too. So at least I got the attention of banning two things that went on in the sport. My wife says I’m a ‘rule maker’ (laughs).
Okay, for the 1973 season you made the change to Ski-Doo. What was the trigger for that?
You know, after we got done with the 1972 season, the Yamaha US folks asked me, Wayne and Lynn to come out to California to meet with each of us individually to get set for the next season. I felt that I put those guys on the map but the offer for the 1973 season was pretty light. Yamaha would pay us so much a day based on a four-day race week, they would cover our airfare and travel expenses and that was it – so for me it came down to the dollars. Yamaha wanted to know if I was going to sign the contract right away and I said I needed to go home and think about it.
So once I got home I got a hold of Tom Chiolino, my buddy that had sponsored me on his Ski-doo early on. Tom was a pretty sharp business guy and he says “You know Mike, if you want me to call Laurent Beaudoin (Bombardier president at the time), we’ll call the guy right now – you just sit here and let’s do it. Lo and behold, he called the Bombardier factory and they patched us in right away to Beaudoin. Next thing you know I’m set up to go to Valcourt for a meeting. At Valcourt I didn’t even get a chance to give them a number. Right away, they offered me a three-year contract with big money for the first year, and a raise each year for the next two years. It was really a ton of money at the time! The contract also included that I kept all the winnings (of course after sharing a portion with my mechanic) plus two new sleds every year – you know, they threw that deal right out to me; I didn’t even have to give them an offer so really that’s how it went down. I signed up to become a Ski-Doo factory racer.
Now you are racing with Yvon and not against him. Do you have any stories from that season?
There was one race where I froze my eyes in the 340 final but I had qualified my 440 for the finals from previous heats. Something happened to Yvon’s 440 that he had qualified with, so the son of a gun took my 440 and went out and won the damn race! Yvon comes back and was moaning and groaning about how ill-handling my sled was, and all I said was ‘Really – Then give me the damn prize money and you can keep the trophy!’
For me, my best race weekend was once again at Eagle River. I won Mod II and took second in the WC race to Bob Eastman, just missing my chance at a three-peat.
The 1974 Ski-Doo SnoPro racer looked wild but due to the Oil Embargo, Bombardier Corporate decided to take the race season off. How competitive do you think that sled would have been?
There was a SnoPro race that season at St-Lazare, right out of Montreal, so a bunch of Ski-Doo guys went there to get SnoPro lap times. The next week we ran our race sled on the same track and, if I can remember right, we were about a second, second and a half faster with our 650 and running about the same time as the Yamaha’s in the 440 class. That sled had good power, but like everything else you’ve got to work out all the bugs to get top performance. I think that if we had been able to start the season with everybody, we could have had a pretty good year.
You were one of the few racers that competed on snow ovals, ice ovals and cross-country as a top Factory racer. How was that?
I enjoyed a lot of success on the snow ovals running leaf-spring sleds where you had to adapt to racing loose and through bumps. One thing I was saddened about was I never got a chance to adapt to the ice ovals for year or two after racing so much on snow ovals. I never really experienced going around the corners and having the front-end stick rather than having the sled sliding around all the time. Making the transition from leaf-spring to an independent front suspension race sled was just a tough thing for me.
The last year racing for Ski-Doo they ended up getting different racers for their oval circuit race team and I’m set to go racing on the cross-country circuit with Stan Hayes. We were running the liquid cooled RV sled that was fast but also had clutching issues. I was an okay trail guy from riding on the trails all my life, but I really wasn’t a competitive cross-country racer at the highest level. We were running against guys that did that type of racing for years just like I was doing back on the ovals. The guys from Polaris and Arctic Cat – that’s all they did was test ride out in the ditches all week and then go cross-country racing. I just couldn’t adapt to it enough to be highly competitive, to be honest about it.
I’ve had a few strains and bruises when oval racing but you know I’ve never had a broken bone for all the ovals that I ran. Wouldn’t you know that the first time I was out there cross-country racing at the Peace Garden Classic race, I took a flip running in those North Dakota ditches and be danged if I didn’t break my wrist. However, I did come back from that injury to win the cross-country ice-lemans race at Forest Lake. At the end of that season, I had raced for Ski-Doo from 1973 to 1977. I hadn’t thought about retiring from racing at that time but I could see the handwriting on the wall.
What did you do after you retired from snowmobile racing?
Our family has been in the cement and excavating business for 75 years as Trapp Brothers Inc. My dad started it in 1945, and today the construction business has been going very well. At Trapp Brothers it’s myself and my other brothers that are involved in the business and my son is also here. My plan going forward is to retire soon and have my son become more involved in the business.
As for snowmobiling, the sport really needs to get more younger people involved in the sport. Riding snowmobiles is a great sport for both for the enthusiast riders and a great sport to enjoy with your family. For us, my brothers raced, my son Ryan raced and we also had a great time trail riding together as a family. Snowmobiling is a family sport that definitely gave us a lot of great memories and we continue to stay active in the sport.
Log onto www.snowmobilehalloffame.com/mike-trapp-50th to reserve your spot.