After graduating from Hotchkiss High School in 2010, Jesse Hotchkiss didn't plan to race snowmobiles. But in 2012 he traveled to the Rocky Mountain Snowmobile Hillclimb Association (RMSHA) national championships in Jackson Hole as part of the Weekender Sports crew. On their way to the race, co-worker and longtime racer Dennis Durmas asked if he wanted to race. "I entered one class," said Hotchkiss, a former high school athlete who goes by "JT." He finished second out of 50 racers.
Hotchkiss has been racing ever since. In his first year on the pro circuit he garnered multiple top-10 and top-five finishes. For Hotchkiss, racing is a natural extension of his job as a service mechanic. This year he's following the RMHSA pro circuit with Team Durmas, which races for Polaris. He competes in five classes and is currently ranked in the top 10 in the nation in four classes -- 600 stock, improved stock, 700 stock and 700 improved stock.
Team Durmas will compete this weekend in the Ultimate Snowmobiler Hillclimb at Crested Butte, the only Colorado race on the circuit. The two-day race will attract upward of 150 competitors from throughout the western U.S., said Durmas, the race promoter, "It's a big deal. To win one of the pro classes at Crested Butte you could walk away with $1,500."
Durmas, who lives in Whitewater, grew up in Crawford and is a 1984 HHS graduate. In his 28 years of racing he's won numerous titles. He's currently ranked second in the masters division in improved class, and fourth in modified stock. In January, the Durmas family purchased Weekender Sports. Racing "is perfect for our store," said Durmas, who has been a part of Weekender since it opened in 1985. Durmas retained all employees and is making a few changes and updating the inventory. "If it has to do with fun, we've got it," he said.
Son Johnathon Durmas, 16, has been around racing all his life and began competing in the RMSHA at 14. "I just kind of grew up in it, so I thought it was pretty cool and I might try it," he said. In the juniors division last year he amassed the most points in the nation, claiming wins in every race but one. In his first year as a semi-pro racer, he's ranked in the top 10 in three classes heading into the final races of the season. "It's been a pretty hard year," he said. "Up here everybody's a little faster and it's a lot more competitive."
Races are run on ski hills. Think black diamond runs. "It's just like slalom skiing, but uphill, said Johnathon, and with a lot more horsepower. At Crested Butte the vertical climb ranges 800 to 1,500 feet. Racing requires quick thinking and strategy to maneuver the gates and obstacles. Power is important. The machine itself plays a big part in the competition, said Johnathon, who is also a mechanic.
The steeper the course, the more challenging the race, said Dennis. With recent improvements to suspension and traction, lighter weight chassis and fuel injection, "These days, there's really no ski course we can't climb on a snowmobile."
As riders push the snow around, the course can change dramatically, said Johnathon, who lists Crested Butte as his favorite course. As the day wears on, "It could be easier, it could be harder" to maneuver the obstacles, he added. "It depends on the hill and depends on the rider."
In addition to Weekender, their sponsors include Durmas Racing, Applied Construction Technology, The Pit Racing, FXR Mtn, Walker Evans Racing, Elk Basin Outfitters, Maxima Oils, Triple 9 Optics, Hotchkiss and Sons, BoonDocker, Goodwin Performance, EZ-Ryde, Studboy, Starting Line Products, SCS Wraps, Hotchkiss Ranches and Camso.
"We can't do it without those sponsors," said Dennis Durmas.
After Crested Butte the team will travel to Beaver Mountain in Utah on April 15-16 and finish the season April 22-24 at Grand Targhee in Wyoming.
The seventh annual Eckert Crane Days, the annual viewing of the sandhill cranes migrating north from New Mexico through Colorado's West Slope, will be March 16-18. Representatives from the Black Canyon Chapter of the Audubon Society (BCAS) will be at the viewing site east of Eckert at Fruitgrowers Reservoir, 9 to 11 a.m. each day, to answer questions and provide binoculars and spotting scopes.