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It’s about speed, but it’s more than NASCAR on skis

OK, there’s the whole speed thing. The appeal of going 50 miles an hour on the back of a machine capable of going so much faster. Think NASCAR on skis.

And yes, there’s the family fun element. The opportunity to get out of the house on a cold winter day and share with your kids a lifelong obsession. Think “Brady Bunch” in insulated boots and mittens.

Throw in the opportunity for fashion statements, making new friends and immersing yourself in nature and you have all the ingredients of today’s snowmobiling community. Think “Duck Dynasty” meets “Project Runway.”

“It’s more fun than sitting inside,” said 12-year old Brookelle Sauers of Amherst. “And walking in the snow is not the same thing.”

No indeed, and that may be a big reason why the snowmobiling subculture, despite some aging, is thriving 50 years after the first sled revved its engine here.

Largely rural and suburban, it’s a community that tends to hand the sport down from generation to generation.

“It’s more of a family thing for us,” said Greg Sauers, Brookelle’s father and a second-generation snowmobiler.

Sauer learned from his parents and now his daughter and 15-year-old son, Brandt, are learning from him.

Together, they help disprove some of the myths about snowmobiling:

Myth No. 1: It’s a sport for guys.

Brookelle Sauers is proof that it’s not, and so are Mary Jane Fitzpatrick and Phyllis Decker.

“I’ve been doing it for a lot of years,” said Decker, now in her 70s.

There was a time when Decker raced snowmobiles, and she insists women always have been a part of the local snowmobiling scene.

Fitzpatrick said she got hooked in 1968, just a few years after the sport took off. She was baby-sitting for a family of avid snowmobilers and quickly got the bug. Decades later, after raising a family, she took it up again.

“I got back into snowmobiling, joined the club and met a ton of people,” Fitzpatrick said.

Even more telling, perhaps, were the two dozen teenage girls who showed up at last week’s snowmobiling safety course at Emery Park in Wales, nearly equal to the number of boys in the class.

Myth No. 2: It’s a total party scene.

Like any sport, snowmobiling has its drinkers and partiers, and the recent rash of snowmobile accidents – three people have died this winter – are brutal reminders of its dangers.

But at the core of the subculture there are the 10 snowmobiling social clubs that dominate the landscape.

Groups like the Pioneer Sno-Surfers, Eden Trailblazrs and Marilla Sno-Mob preach safety and responsibility and go out of their way to make the sport family-friendly.

“It’s not a bunch of reckless people driving through the woods,” said Fitzpatrick, a member of the Western New York Snowmobile Club of Boston.

On any given day, you can find dozens of families – Fitzpatrick goes sledding with her grandkids – cruising the 400 miles of trails in Erie County, trails many of them personally have groomed as club members.

Ninety percent of the snowmobile trails in Erie County are on privately owned land and are maintained by clubs, not landowners.

“The quickest way to lose a trail is to abuse a trail,” said Barry Decker, Phyllis’ son and one of the speakers at last week’s safety class.

Myth No. 3: It’s all about speed.

OK, maybe this isn’t all myth.

A lot of snowmobilers love the adrenaline rush that comes with higher speeds, and a few of them, like Phyllis Decker, have gone so far as to join the race circuit.

“Would you ask a stock car racer the same question?” a smiling Decker said when asked if she liked the speed.

But that was then, and this is now. She says her priority now is teaching young people how to drive responsibly.

Bill Held, who came from Elma with his sons, Billy and Alex, says the sport provides a much-needed winter diversion for him and his family. But like Decker, he remembers when he first started snowmobiling and the sudden appeal of riding so much horsepower.

“I’m a car guy,” Held said. “I enjoy the handling of it. The performance. It’s like racing.”

Myth No. 4: Snowmobiling is a sport for geezers.

Dominated by baby boomers, the sport is graying and there’s a big push to recruit younger drivers like Noah Teator of Grand Island.

“I like the outdoors,” said Teator when asked why he loved to ride.

Teator came to the safety class at Emery Park with his father and girlfriend, an aspiring snowmobiler, and like many of the teens there, seemed eager to spread the gospel of sledding.

He and the 40 or so other teens who were there are part of the next generation of snowmobilers, a generation that Hal Fleischman is hoping will restock the community.

Fleischman, president of the Erie County Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, has spent much of a life dedicated to keeping the sport vital and relevant to all ages.

“I made it my life’s work to improve the trails of New York,” Fleischman said. “And we’re well on our way.”

He’s hopeful someone like Noah Teator or Brookelle Sauers will pick up the mantle and keep the subculture alive.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com