The story of the West Yellowstone Snowmobile EXPO captures a quarter-century evolution of snowmobile technology, racing, and fans.
Snowmobiling and West Yellowstone, Montana have gone hand-in-hand since the first snowmobiles models designed for trail riding hit the market in 1964. Snowmobile races were held in December and a “round-up” of the season in March sponsored by the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce began in 1965. The annual March Roundup was a gathering of racers and snowmobile manufacturers. At that time, there were 73 snowmobile manufacturers including Sears & Roebuck, John Deere, and Harley Davidson. Today, there are four.
A speed oval track was created about a ½ mile west of town with a Special Use Permit from the US Forest Service. A permanent oval earthen bank held an ice base created from the truckloads of water hauled in by local volunteers. Other volunteers plowed the road to the racetrack and prepared the track and pit areas for races. The oval races were sanctioned by the Western Snowmobile Racing Association and attracted all of the top manufacturers and their racers.
Other race venues included a cross country race that included 100 miles of terrain, the “close” course made up of about seven miles, and a slalom course. This was prior to trail grooming, so snowmobilers spectators encountered some rough riding.
Over time, the speed oval ice track became so expensive and time consuming that the location was moved back to what is still called the “old airport,” a large flat meadow at the western edge of West Yellowstone that was the site of the first airport used to bring in planeloads of Yellowstone Park visitors each summer.
The first official 1990 “Annual Snowmobile EXPO” was the brainchild of local businessman Glen Loomis, Jerry Schmier with the Chamber of Commerce, and a dozen volunteers. Harry Jorgenson of Bombardier and Arctic Cat’s Joey Hallstrom had also been looking for an event in the West that could showcase their new snowmobiles.
A promoter was hired to coordinate the event, schedule, and marketing for the first EXPO. The race venue was changed to a “SnoCross” design with jumps and turns that would challenge the riders and excite the crowd. SnoWest Magazine became a major sponsor of the SnoCross races, along with SnoRider and Western Power Sports.
The four major snowmobile manufacturers displayed their upcoming model releases at the Old Railroad Depot building, where heat was a challenge but attendee’s didn’t seem to mind.
The Mountain River SnoRiders snowmobile (Idaho Falls, ID) ran the radar runs which used a quarter-mile track groomed to a smooth hardpack, and were open to anyone with a snowmobile and $2 entry fee. The radar track changed over to a drag track on Saturday. Entrants were sorted into classes with no restrictions on traction except stock sleds were stock through the powerplant.
The four-day event continued to expand to include power pulls, poker rides, hot dog roasts torch-lit parades, and entertainment from The Hager Twins of “Hee Haw” fame in 1992 and 1993. A surprise birthday party was planned for Tucker Sno-Cat to recognize their grooming contributions to the track.
EXPO attracted the top racers from across the nation. The 1993 SnoCross races followed Rocky Mountain Circuit rules and included the likes of Kirk Hibbert, Jason Jones, and Jack Struthers in the pro class. The 1998 EXPO SnoCross competition was a sanctioned ISOC event and featured racers from across the U.S. and Canada including Blair Morgan, Kurt Crapo, Brian Call, Greg Hyde, Todd Wolff, and Brad Pake. For the 1999 EXPO, Jeremy Crapo, Chris Vincent, Dennis Eckstrom, Todd Tupper, and TJ Gulla joined the list of competitors.
Tucker Hibbert began his legendary racing career at the age of nine racing in the Junior class while his father, Kirk, competed in the pro class. Tucker had won his first gold medal in the 2000 Winter X Games at just age 15. In 2008, Tucker returned to West Yellowstone to win the Pro Super Stock class of the national Jack Links SnoCross.
Blair Morgan, fresh from Canadian motocross, entered his first SnoCross race in Wests Yellowstone on a dare. He brought his stand-up style to the track and changed the sport forever. Morgan stood while riding the entire time, even thru bumps and jumps, and went on to surprise everyone with a second place finish. This was the beginning of a streak of wins and national championships.
Over time, the EXPO Headquarters moved from the old Railroad Depot, out to a tent at the old airport, and then to the Holiday Inn Conference and Convention Center where remains today. Marge Wanner took over the role of Snowmobile Events Coordinator as a volunteer which evolved into a paid position. Marge is as much of an institution as EXPO. Without her efforts, and those of countless volunteer, EXPO would have not continued through the years.
“Freestyle” big air snowmobile shows were added to the 1999 EXPO. Freestyle snowmobiling was created in West Yellowstone. Kourney Hungerford and his brother Whitney began snowmobiling as youngsters. Kourtney’s first sled at age 10 was a Yamaha Sno Skoot. They were also freestyle motocross fans and wanted to figure out a way to do similar stunts with a snowmobile.
With the help of a shop class teacher and friends, they constructed their first ramp in 2001 and starting modifying their snowmobiles. Within a few years, West Yellowstone hosted the first freestyle event, followed by other cities until in 2007, ESPN’s Winter X Games added snowmobile freestyle to its list of extreme sports competitions.
From 1999-2005, FSX hosted a freestyle or “Big Air” competition. Scoring was complex with 50% based on number of tricks and their consistency and timing, 30% on degree of difficulty, and 20% on showmanship. The EXPO 2004 competition included Heath Frisby, Chris Burandt, Jimmy Frejes (famous for his backflips), Tim Needles, and Lee Stuart who were also known for appearing in back country freeriding films.
After a hiatus in 2006, freestyle returned to the 2007 EXPO when the SCS Sledstyle Invitational prequalified 10 competitors include Heath Frisby, West Yellowstone’s own Kourtney Hungerford, Sam Carver, Chris Burandt, and others. Beginning in 2008, the freestyle competition was replaced by Billings-based Octane Addiction’s freestyle show.
Vintage sleds have been a feature since 2004 when the Western States Vintage Snowmobile Association (WSVSA) held their first annual “Vintage Roundup” during EXPO inviting vintage snowmobile clubs and members to participate in competitions, poker runs, and other activities. Vintage races and “hot laps” were included in 2007.
The Vintage Show and racing events have continued to expand reflecting an increasing interest in anything vintage from snowmobilers. In 2014, the SnoCross track was transitioned to an oval racing track reminiscent of the track used by the first EXPO racers.
Other changes in EXPO reflected changes in the sport as well. Cross country races were dropped in favor of more SnoCross although that could be reintroduced in future EXPO’s. The next generation of racers (with encouragement from parents and grandparents) battles in the M120’s races with increasingly expensively modified sleds. In 2012, the inaugural 120 Western Grand Championship Races were introduced to the racing line-up.
Other racing events were tried over the years including ATV and UTV, a “Big Truck Bash,” and snowbikes. A free afternoon show from SWOOP Productions was added featuring a sport-bike freestyle show for bike fanatics of all ages.
In other ways, however, EXPO has not changed. Ten months of planning, hundreds of volunteers, deliberations for grooming the track and stands, and steadfast support from snowmobile manufacturers, SnoWest, and the participants. It is still the best end of season show for snowmobilers in the West!