Wisconsin snowmobile tinkerer headed to Hall of Fame

The snowmobile whizzed around the snowy trail’s corner, moving much too fast to complete the turn. It flew over an embankment, sending its rider, Russ Lemke, on a 40-foot free fall straight toward the unforgiving ground below. Lemke left the hospital four days later with 57 stitches and a cast covering his shattered knee.

But for Lemke, it wasn’t the end of his snowmobile career. It was only the beginning.

The accident occurred during Lemke’s first year of racing snowmobiles in 1966. Despite calling it quits on the racing business after another serious accident in 1969, Lemke has transformed the snowmobile industry in remarkable ways during the past 48 years — an accomplishment that will be recognized by some of the most prominent pioneers of the snowmobile world, Daily Herald Media reported.

A selection committee from the World Snowmobile Headquarters in Eagle River has chosen the 71-year-old Kronenwetter man to be inducted into the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame this September. Lemke’s close friends nominated him in May for a lifetime of work improving the parts and performance of snowmobiles.

“Russ will definitely be known for being an innovator in the manufacturing part of snowmobiles,” said Russell Davis, former vice president of sales for Bombardier Recreational Products and a close friend of Lemke. “He took snowmobile engines to another level in a unique way that other manufacturers hadn’t. He’s more than a mechanic, he’s a person that could detect problems and solve them almost instantly.”

Lemke and four other 2013 inductees were invited to a Sept. 14 ceremony at the World Snowmobile Headquarters in Eagle River to celebrate their induction to ISHOF, which currently has 92 members. Davis, who became a member of ISHOF in 2012, said the formal reception usually brings together a couple hundred snowmobile enthusiasts and involves a presentation of the large photos of the inductees that will join other famous snowmobilers on the wall of the ISHOF room at the World Snowmobile Headquarters facility.

Lemke said his interest in mechanics began at an early age.

“I started playing with motors when I was 6 or 7 years old,” Lemke said.

“I’ve always been interested in what makes things go fast or go faster than they were intended to go,” he said with a laugh. “My father owned a Ford garage in Medford so I was around mechanics all the time growing up.”

Lemke worked as a mechanic until 1965 when his brother, Dave, invited Lemke to ride his new Scorpion snowmobile. Russ Lemke had never heard of a snowmobile and after hopping aboard, he was disappointed in how slow the vehicle was. After numerous visits to the Snowmobile Sales company in Marshfield, Lemke convinced the company’s owner, Sid Trulan, to sell him a snowmobile without an engine. What Lemke installed in the snowmobile was something snowmobile manufacturers had never seen before — a 40 horsepower, 4-cylinder engine with liquid cooling.

And that was only the beginning. Lemke began racing snowmobiles with Trulan in 1966 and saw great success against other popular snowmobile manufacturers. Trulan soon offered Lemke a sales and service position with Snowmobile Sales, where Lemke developed new methods of windshield and wear runner production that caused the business to boom.

After a heart-stopping racing accident in 1969 that left Lemke in the hospital suffering punctured lungs and broken ribs, Lemke’s wife, Marlene, told him it was time to quit racing.

“The doctor said I must’ve passed out from exhaustion because I don’t remember anything after coming out of the starting line … ” Lemke wrote in a document for his ISHOF nomination. “I rolled off and landed in front of the second-place sled, who’s skis drilled me in the back while flipping me end over end.”

Lemke agreed with his wife and began focusing all of his efforts on producing better snowmobile equipment for other racers. He built a retail Scorpion store in Schofield in 1972 and sold more than 120 snowmobiles in his first year, proving his expertise in snowmobile production.

After taking a few years off from the snowmobile business to be a truck driver, Lemke answered Davis’ call to be a Bombardier parts dealer and repairman in Wausau in 1988. His efforts there helped put Ski Doo snowmobiles at the forefront of the racing industry.

With his snowmobile interest rekindled, Lemke formed Russ Lemke Enterprises in Kronenwetter in 1989, where he and his son, Lorne, continue to improve and enhance parts for snowmobile and grass-drag racers today.

Lemke said the honor that comes with being an ISHOF inductee is not something he is used to.

“It’s quite a prestigious group there,” Lemke said. “I’m usually the person standing on the sidelines. I was never the person to brag about whether it was my motor that won the races or anything. But I think the honor will sink in more after the banquet.”

Lemke also fills his time developing hot saws, or saws with continuously rotating circular blades, for use by participants in lumberjack competitions. Since he began building his modified engines into chain saws in 1980, Lemke has sent his saws to Canada, Australia, Germany, Romania and Denmark, where competitors have used them to set several world records.

The record-setting saws soon attracted the attention of ESPN, which featured Lemke on the STIHL Timber Sports series multiple times.

Although his life is comprised of one major accomplishment after the next, Lemke said one achievement stands out in particular — performing during halftime of Super Bowl XXVI at the Metrodome in Minnesota in 1992. Ski Doo asked Lemke to modify six snowmobiles for the halftime performance to meet Super Bowl regulations, which required the snowmobiles to run for 20 minutes without producing any smoke or damaging the Metrodome’s turf.

Lemke was chosen to drive the snowmobile with figure-skating legend Dorothy Hamill aboard for her halftime performance.

“The highlight of my Super Bowl experience was being able to parade Dorothy Hamill around the Metrodome …” Lemke wrote in his ISHOF nomination document. “I can still remember, and will never forget, the roar of the crowd as we drove by and Dorothy waved.”