PRESQUE ISLE — An icy nip in the air bites at uncovered ears, yet Kevin Ouellette is bare-handed, seemingly not noticing the cold while tweaking a screw and keeping an attuned ear to the whining, madly blaring howl coming from the engine of an 800 cc snowmobile.
Shawn Ouellette, who will drive the high-powered sled down an icy track in a matter of hours, is there as well. He offers suggestions, as do three others on the Ouellette Racing Team, while preparing four snowmobiles, all Ski-Doos by Bombardier, for the New England Snowmobile Ice Drag Championships Saturday morning.
The two men, whom many believe are brothers — some calling Bob Ouellette, who is Shawn’s father “Le Pere (the father)” — are not related.
They were preparing for a weekend of racing down a 660-foot long ice strip where they could reach speeds of up to 130 miles per hour. Outside their 28-foot long workshop in a trailer sits the four machines, a Formula III 600 cc, a Mach I 700 cc, a Mach Z 800 cc and their 1,000 cc MXZ.
They are at or near the top of their racing careers, always a force to reckoned with, in the ice drag competitions in eastern North America, and it may well be their last season.
It was the third year of racing on the Presque Isle Stream. Weather conditions again bothered organizers and the race start was pushed back, twice, for more than two hours Saturday in sleet and freezing rain.
Dan Collins, co-chairman of the event, said there were about 200 entries from as far south as North Carolina and north and west to Quebec and Ontario. By the end of the weekend, 22 classes of races competed for more than $12,000 in prizes.
One after the other Saturday, after racing got going, and Sunday afternoon, race director Randy Norsworthy kept the heats going — four racers at a time in elimination races.
Before official winners were determined, officials of the Maritime Snowmobile Racing Federation inspected winning machines, making sure they meet racing requirements.
Kevin Ouellette, 31, of Fort Kent is a paper mill worker and has 15 years of racing experience. He is a former champion in the MSRF. He has competed in more than 1,000 races, but now is at a juncture in life where time is at a premium.
“My wife Collete and I (they’ve been married 10 years) are looking to have children. We have none. I also want to open a good performance shop in Fort Kent. It’s just the time. Maybe I will race again later,” he said.
Shawn Ouellette, 26, is single and owns a convenience store and gas station in St. Agatha. He has been racing six years and is at the top of his class in running ice drag strips.
“I just can’t afford to take as much time off as I would need to continue being really competitive at this sport,” he said.
Being a great competitor means hours a week in the shop playing with engines. It’s also about being away from home almost every weekend in January, February and March each winter.
Both men said, “It’s just a matter of not having enough time to do it all.”
While they are on the circuit, they are giving it their all. This past weekend in Presque Isle, Shawn was driving in six classes. By the end of racing Saturday, Shawn had captured the championship in the 600 cc Pro Stock and the 700 cc Pro Stock Divisions. Winning times in both of those races were just more than six seconds to cover the 660-foot track.
He also competed in the 800 cc Pro Stock division Saturday.
He also raced Sunday. It was turning out to be a good weekend, Shawn Ouellette said Saturday just before they stopped the competition for the day.
Kevin Ouellette hasn’t raced in more than a year since an accident broke his right wrist, which is still in a cast.
“It bothers me not being able to race. I had to learn to cope. I set up the machines and Shawn races,” said Kevin while warming up in the heated trailer-workshop.
Bob Ouellette of St. Agatha, and Pete Gervais and Mike Pelletier, both of Fort Kent, are other mechanics and helpers in the team.
The team, in which Kevin believes they have $150,000 invested, is for sale.
“It’s a hard business to be in,” he said. “We used to have a lot of sponsors but it’s hard to get sponsors up here. We have to make do with our own money and a few supporters like Fort Kent Ski-Doo and a couple of performance shops.”
“We are running out of pocket this year. We don’t win, we pay out of our own pockets for the next race,” Shawn Ouellette said. “We are hard on ourselves. Anything less than a win is not good enough. We all have to make sure things are at their peak and running good.”
It’s been that way. The team did well last weekend at Grand Falls, New Brunswick, last summer at grass races in Minnesota and this weekend at Presque Isle. They are hopeful of doing well at the Canadian World Series of Ice Drag Racing at Riviere du Loup, Quebec next weekend.