Record number finishes first leg of SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge

HOUGHTON – When 10 modified internal combustion engine snowmobiles took off for a 100-mile endurance ride around the Keweenaw Research Center test track and then on to Copper Harbor Tuesday, it was with something of a growl, not the ear-splitting roar Copper Country residents are used to when snowmobiles pass near.

That’s one of the goals for students participating in the Society of Automotive Engineers 2014 Clean Snowmobile Challenge – building sleds that are quieter, as well as less chemically polluting.

That’s key to the future of snowmobiling, agreed several speakers who helped kick off the event. Noise levels, they said, affect whether snowmobiles are permitted on both public and private land.

“What you do here with clean, quiet snowmobiles affects our goals,” said Leon Levine of the U.S. Forest Service. “The quieter, cleaner machines have less impact on trails, and on people that don’t understand snowmobiling.”

According to Michigan Technological University Mechanical Engineering Department Chair William Predebon, co-organizer of the 2014 challenge, noise was the reason the Clean Snowmobile Challenge was asked to leave Yellowstone Park after the event’s first few years, creating the opportunity for the move to Tech’s Keweenaw Research Center.

But while the event remains in Houghton, noise-control advances have allowed recreational snowmobiling to continue at Yellowstone.

“Because of you guys, we’re still allowed to ride in Yellowstone,” said Kay Lloyd of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an event sponsor that advocates for off-road recreation.

But modifying engines to limit noise and emissions creates new challenges when it comes to performance, so when nine of 10 sleds that began the endurance challenge completed the event, it was a milestone. Previously, no more than six snowmobiles had completed the trek, according to a press release from Michigan Tech.

But merely completing the endurance challenge is just the beginning of teams’ goals. Sleds have devices that measure all kinds of data as they run, which are figured into competition scores.

“I’m really looking forward to the data that’ll come out of the emissions,” said Kettering University team member Jeremy Peshkin shortly after the sleds were underway.

“We tried a couple of different things with the exhaust, so we’ll see how that turns out as well.”

For Peshkin, working on Kettering’s Clean Snowmobile Challenge has been a labor of love.

“It’s an engine design playground, there aren’t really any limits,” he said.

That’s an attitude corporate sponsors – many of whose current engineers serve as event judges and who are interested in recruiting students – love to hear.

Srikanth Reddy, a judge who works for sponsor Emitec in Rochester Hills, said the Clean Snowmobile Challenge and similar competitions build skills that can’t be learned in the classroom.

“[Students] learn not just technical skills, but the ability to get something done, to get the parts and make them fit,” he said.