Brad Hulings is considered by many to be one of the very best oval racers in the history of snowmobiling. He first earned the respect of the factory racers in the mid 1970s as a fierce independent racing Mercury Sno-Twisters, soon to be hired by Bob Eastman at Polaris. Brad quickly became part of what many believe to be the most famous period of all time in oval racing as a member of the revered Midnight Blue Express. This is the period of oval racing where Polaris introduced their IFS RXL sleds which led to nearly a complete domination of the sport. It wasn’t uncommon for Polaris racers to finish 1-2-3 in a final event, sometimes doing it in multiple classes – to the point of sweeping all classes in such fashion.
After the death of teammate and fellow racer Jerry Bunke, Polaris disbanded their factory racing effort, leaving Brad to land on his feet as part of a newly-created “Scorpion Squadron” race team. Here Brad, along with fellow Polaris racer Steve Thorson, took on the “Underdog” role on Arctic Cat-based race sleds and the team became a force to be reckoned with, often times beating all others – including the Arctic Cat factory team. Following the shut-down of Scorpion, Brad again landed on his feet in a big way as he became part of the Ski-Doo factory racing effort, where he was instrumental in furthering the development of the Ski-Doo Twin Tracker oval racer, which clearly and quickly made all other race machines obsolete.
Here we will be sharing Brad’s story covering the early days of his getting into snowmobiling and on to his independent racing the Mercury Sno-Twister machines. Brad has agreed to work with his friend and fellow member of the Scorpion Squadron Greg Marier – who is also a contributing editor to SnowTech Magazine. Told by Brad in his own words, this is a classic glimpse into the world of snowmobile racing from the late 70s and into the 80s during a period of fierce competition and technology explosion.
Brad Hulings’ Background
and Mercury Sno-Twister Racing
How did a kid in Pennsylvania get started in snowmobiling? Any sled standout as a favorite?
Dad bought us a used Ski-Doo in 1967, it didn’t take long for my brother & I to wear that one out. Dad got tired of the ‘ride it for an hour and fix it for a day’ program so he bought us a Polaris Mustang. It wasn’t much better so he bought us a brand new Massey Fergusson Ski Whiz. We rode that sled for three years and I don’t remember working on it much, it wasn’t fast but I remember it well because I could ride it without worrying about walking home. I actually have & still use the chassis dyno that Massey Ferguson used to do sled development here in Michigan. My uncle had Arctic Cats and they were the best back then. They were fast and drove good but he didn’t let me drive them much because I was always race riding them in the field.
How did you get your start in racing?
An older high school friend’s dad owned a Ski-Doo & Skiroule dealership and he was racing sleds with his dad. They offered to help me get started and take me to some races. I convinced my parents into letting me try it but I had to buy the machine. I was working at my family’s gas station when gas was 25 cents a gallon and I don’t think I was making a dollar an hour but I managed to scrape enough money together to buy a Skiroule 340, since they were cheaper than a Ski-Doo. Back then snowmobile racing was everywhere and there were many places that had oval & drag races in the grass/dirt and we had a track close by called Runamuck Raceway. That was my first race experience with my brand new Skiroule on the dirt. We welded files to the ski runners and went racing. The sled was not fast in the drags but I was under a hundred pounds and put a whipping on the older guys on the grass oval track. That was 1971, I was 15 and I was hooked.
The Skiroule was a dog on the snow and I didn’t race much until later in the season the local Cat dealer asked me to run his Puma EXT at a local race. We won every class we could race that day. A few weeks later my best friend Rick and I loaded that sled in the back of my parents Oldsmobile station wagon and went to a National race at Oswego, New York. It was a 100 lap oval race on a half mile paved car race track on SNOW. Well it was spring and the snow was more like a lake and the race was called after about 50 laps. I don’t remember how many started but we were one of the few running at the end. Jim Sull won $10,000 that day on a Polaris TX but I remember we won enough money to pay for the trip which was a big deal.
After that race John Zuern & Marshall Bell, the owners of Northwest Engines in Erie PA, asked me to join them on their race team for the next season. Northwest Engines was a well-known engine shop in the eastern US and specialized in cylinder porting & mod work. They had a deal with the Arctic Cat distributor and I bought a ‘73 EXT 340 to run in super mod class. They had 295 & 440 mods which Marshall raced. Back then everyone ran Methanol fuel. It was hard to make them run right every day, especially for a young kid. We ran OK with the 340 and later that year a local guy had a new EXT 650 he asked me to ride. It was a lot of sled for a 100 pound kid but I ran pretty well and won a couple races on it.
When did you get your first Mercury race sled?
In 1974 Mercury came out with the 400 Sno Twister. A local dealer asked us to run one on the USSA circuit in stock class. We also raced a couple Polaris mods. We focused on the 400 stock class and finished top five in points that year. We met Tom Wehner from Merc at Eagle River for the USSA World Series race that spring. He was instrumental in my building a relationship with Merc. Wiseco & Klotz also helped us with product that season.
What was your first impression of the Mercury sleds?
I was very “Johnny Skeptical” about racing a Mercury snowmobile in 1974. I’m sure you remember they were not known for speed at that time. When we took that first SnoTwister out of the box we thought it might be pretty good, after the first test ride we knew for sure. Out east we still raced on some snow tracks and the Mercs were good there but on ice we struggled with the Cats. The Mercs had good speed and a wide front end so they cornered well but the rubber tracks were not as good as steel cleated tracks especially off the line on the ice. In retrospect I must say Mercury’s SnoTwister and crossover TrailTwister were great trail sleds at that time and really were not built just for oval racing.
What was your experience with the Mercury SnoTwisters as they were developed from 1974 to 1976?
The 1974 Mercs had clutch and engine reliability problems. Comet clutches were a new item then and they had lots of roller & bushing problems. SnoTwister parts were scarce and belts didn’t last long. We were buying our parts then so when the cylinders broke we were done.
In 1975 Mercs had Arctic Cat clutches which were much better. The engines were improved and ran all season stock without problems. We also had more sponsor & parts help then which let us keep the sleds in better condition each week.
The first two years of the SnoTwister showed that the sled was pretty good across the country. They didn’t dominate but they won their share. The engines had good power and with Cat clutches they were as fast as any of the others. The drawback was the rubber track. It was heavier and didn’t work as well as cleated tracks for oval racing. In 1976 the Twisters dominated the field with no problem areas that I remember.
The 1976 SnoTwisters were the sleds to beat in Super Stock racing and were ahead of their time in many ways. They had a few problems with harmonic vibrations wearing out clutch parts but they fixed that right away. Other than that, they were bullet proof sleds and with free parts they ran like new every week.
In all three years, Merc Racing Support was always keeping all the Merc racers informed of problems & fixes almost weekly. This was way before the internet and it was a huge job to keep racers informed the way Merc did. I’m sure they developed that from many years in boat racing and it really helped all the Merc owners.
My only tricks to beating the other guys was learning to be fast off the line, going fast around the corner and being strong so I didn’t fall off the sled. I rarely fell off and was never hurt racing sleds until my accident at Peterborough in 1984 when the track derailed.
Can you give us some more details on your SnoTwister racing?
In 1974 and 1975 stock class racing, you had to run the sled as it came out of the box. Very few modifications or additions were allowed. Everything on the sled including the skis, handlebars, seat, suspension & track all had to be STOCK as built by the factory and most of the manufacturers didn’t build oval race specific stock sleds, they were trail sleds that we installed traction products the best way we could and learned to drive them. As it turned out my motorcycle oval dirt track experience was extremely helpful in setting up and driving these sleds. They had to be loose in the back so the sled didn’t try to tip over but still have enough traction to launch off the line and not spin out in the corners. I always used studs similar to trail carbide studs used today. I had a lot of them but the rounded tips would let the back-end slide and keep the inside ski on the ground. This is why my sleds always looked so different going around the corner – sideways but FAST.
After 1975 some of the snowmobile manufacturers decided they wanted a stock class for purpose-built oval race sleds, so in 1976 the Super Stock class was born. That winter Mercury, Arctic Cat, Yamaha & Ski-Doo all had Super Stock oval race sleds for sale to racers only. They were mostly production versions of the factory SnoPro sleds from 1975 with new liquid cooled engines and twin pipes with mufflers. They had offset steering, special handlebars, low seat, small gas tanks, very little suspension travel and they were SMALL & LIGHT. John & I could pick up our Mercs and load them by ourselves.
My dad let me take the 1975 winter season off work from my family’s business to work fulltime on racing. I bought a new Dodge van and we built an open trailer to haul 4 sleds. Merc gave us a 440 SnoTwister for stock class and we bought one to build a 440 mod stock racer. We also built a SnoPro 440 sled that year. John & Marshall built & dynoed the engines but I did all the chassis work myself. John was my best friend & mentor at the time. He was older and had some fabricating experience. As an example, in 1973 we built a tube chassis grass drag sled with a Polaris 295 Mod engine. It was 200 pounds and was fast until I destroyed it testing. I was hard on stuff back then and it took a while to learn when you’re pushing something too hard. We built the mods together with tech help from Merc race support, they had kits & tech help which we used but we had our own engine & pipe program. Our engines ran well but the cooling system wasn’t good enough and races longer than 5 laps were a problem. Back then you couldn’t call up the aluminum radiator shop and have one built. Looking back, we never really had the tools or training to build mod sleds properly. We could win in Mod classes when the factory guys weren’t there but we never did beat them that year
With Northwest Engines & John Zuern as my primary sponsor & mechanic plus Wiseco & Klotz sponsorship we won the USSA eastern division points and the USSA World Series race in Weedsport, NY that year in 440 stock. Our mod sled was OK and we won some races but the engine had a cylinder breaking problem which took us out of many races. By this time the #35 Northwest Engines Merc’s were becoming well known in the East & Midwest.
In 1976 Merc gave us a 250 & 440 for stock, a 440 for mod stock and we bought one to build a mod for Eagle River WC race. Wiseco, Klotz & Kalamazoo Traction Products were on board with money & product support. We ran our SnoTwisters very close to how the factory put them together. The tech shed was really watching us then and they were looking for everything. At Eagle River they tore down our 440 Super Stock sled down to the crank – the rumor was that Arctic Cat said we were injecting methanol in the engine from the cooling system since we were always adding coolant, but we really weren’t that smart. The only thing we did was clutch tuning and we may have altered the Cat hex drive clutch slightly but we were never disqualified for anything that year. Mercury gave us as many parts as we needed and we kept the sleds like new every week. All these sleds were bad fast right out of the box and they still are today if you can find one actually out at a vintage race. They are so valuable you rarely see one racing. I kept my 250 until 1983 when I just didn’t have room for it and I had a hard time selling it for $300 – sure wish I had it now.
In that season, we had lots of wins in the stock classes and we were undefeated in the 440 Stock class. We almost won the Hetteen Cup race at Alexandria against the factory guys with our mod stock sled and yes it had a stock muffler. One trick that we did back then was to check the ski carbides and the Kalamazoo Klaws after every heat and take a disk grinder and sharpen them right on the sled. We qualified for the WC race at Eagle River and went out when the belt blew before half way. We won three classes at the World Series in St. Paul that year. After the race Jim Bernat & Bob Eastman invited me to Roseau the following week. After a tour of Polaris, Bob made me a job offer for the following season. This was unexpected and a little bit of problem since Chuck Rencurrel & Sam Sessions from Kalamazoo Engineering had made John & I an offer to race for them the next season which we had accepted. After a few days of phone calls, I accepted the Polaris offer.
By this time, I had become friends with Jerry Simoson, Steve Thorsen and Dean Swartzwalter, who raced Merc sleds out of Minnesota as Team Frustration. I spent the next few weeks with them and we went to the spring races at Ironwood, Beausejour and West Yellowstone together. We took the Team Frustration bus and my sleds & trailer to Ironwood in a snow storm where Steve & Dean both won races on my sleds, since I couldn’t race there because I had a Sno Pro license. The following week we went to Beausejour and won a few classes. The next week Steve, Dean & I planned to go to West Yellowstone, Wes Pesek from Polaris came with us to help, and have a good time since the spring race in Montana was a BLAST. We ran my sleds and won several classes including the mechanics race by Dean. We were all broke by the time we got back to Minnesota.
Author Greg Marier started as a Test Engineer with Polaris in 1974 (when snowmobile development was so rapid that just about everything you worked on you could make significant improvements), followed by his time at Scorpion, leading to his long tenure at Yamaha, working in Product R&D, Snowmobile Product Planning, Marketing and Racing. After his retirement from Yamaha, Greg moved on to work with Walbro (small engine carburetor, ignition and fuel system manufacturer) before returning to his home state of Minnesota.
Photo: Wayne Davis
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