The story of an early snowmobile retailer, who formed a successful race team to promote sales on Mondays, the day after Sunday races. The MacCharles Ski-Doo dealership became the largest in the Lake Minnetonka area and the race team was widely known for dominating local Rod & Ginny Mac Charles races.
Written by Phil Little
We might be able to drop this entire story on a young college student from Crosby Minnesota - Virginia Zontelli. In 1956-60 Virginia attended Macalester College. At the same time a Winnipeg lad, Rod MacCharles, attended the same school. They met and married in October of 1964. Virginia was the catalyst and without her this small bit of history would never have happened.
Rod’s major was Mechanical Engineering. Upon graduation he went to work for the Caterpillar Dealer in Winnipeg. After one year he returned to Minneapolis to work for Honeywell as a sales engineer. After 5 years at Honeywell, they wanted to transfer Rod to Des Moines as the General Sales Manager. Virginia was earning good money as Sales Manager at Sedard World Travel so Rod with his specialized talent wasn’t afraid to tell Honeywell “NO”. He was soon working for a Honeywell competitor selling Building Management and Fire Control Systems.
In the 1964/65 time period, Rod and Virginia became interested in the newest winter craze. They lived on Lake Minnetonka and snowmobiles looked like fun. As a former resident of Crosby, Virginia knew of the people at Trail-A-Sled who were making mechanized snow contraptions. The couple drove to Crosby with the intention of buying two Scorpions. Their timing in 1965 was perfect. Trail- A-Sled had just earned a patent for an all rubber track. That year they produced 500 Scorpions with rubber tracks and fiberglass bodies. They did a blistering 40 mph. The Trail-A-Sled representative was happy to sell the couple two sleds but informed them if they bought three at a better price, they would become a dealer. They bought three and their lives changed.
Rod and Virginia rented building space in Spring Park on the western side of Lake Minnetonka. Rod took care of sales. Virginia took care of the office in addition to her travel business. Rod’s ‘wheeler- dealer’ side emerged as he sold more and more sleds. At this time Ski-Doo was the dominant brand and Rod wanted part of the bestselling snowmobiles. In 1967 Rod contacted Halverson, the Bombardier distributor in Duluth. The minute they learned Rod served the Lake Minnetonka market they were all over him. Lake Minnetonka was desirable to them because it was a large lake, famous for its recreation and was surrounded by money.
In 1967, their first year with Ski Doo, MacCharles sold 80 Ski-doos mostly 10hp Olympics. They dropped Scorpion when they took on Ski-doo. In 1969 they sold 150 units. Also, in 1969, Halvorson favored MacCharles’s sales success by allowing them to purchase more of the hot consumer race sled that year - the 400 TNT. Dealers at that time had to place their orders in March or April for the next winter’s sales. In 1970 Rod ordered 377 sleds. That’s why he had snowmobiles for sale when the other dealers were sold out and couldn’t get more. In 1971, city ordinances around the lake depressed his sales to 200 units. MacCharles then decided to hedge his bet and added Yamaha motorcycles and marine products by Signa, Lund and Chrysler engines. After 1974 MacCharles stopped selling sleds—the other products returned more margin. After their recreational retail days were over both Rod and Virginia got into real estate in which they still active.
One of Rod’s best Ski-Doo customers was Al Reay. Reay owned an auto body shop and earned enough to replenish his Doos annually for his wife Donna and himself. About 1964 Al got a hankering to go snowmobile racing. Al convinced his brother-inlaw, Ric Little, who was just starting to race Polaris, to join him. Ric convinced his brother, Phil to race Doos too.
In 1970, Rod MacCharles made a deal with Al Reay and his wife Donna, Ric Little, Mollie Little (Ric’s wife) and Phil Little. The deal was to provide Blizzard race sleds to drivers at cost. Rod cleverly avoided company cost of race sleds but did help with parts and had a yellow school bus painted with the team name. Other Blizzard owners drifted into the team’s orbit—Brad Boltz from Cokato/Howard Lake and Kenny Rathje from Annandale. As we all know the 1970 Blizzards from Bombardier were an almost unfair assault on other manufactures who offered race sleds. The Rotax powered Blizzards; 292, 335, 440, 650 and 800 were faster than anything else on the snow. The two smaller single class machines came with chambers for the mod classes. Stock can-shaped tuned mufflers were provided by Virginia, Minnesota, Doug’s Incorporated (later Performance Products), Halversons’s outside race tech suppler. An owner switched mufflers and chambers to race in stock and mod with same sled. Years later we discovered the muffler-silenced Blizzards were faster than those with expansion chambers.
Blizzard in all class displacements were faster than all other brands. The only negative was steering control. Ski stance on singles was a miserable 24 inches inherited from established Olympics of the time. The 440, 640 and 800 Blizzards had stance of 27”, a carryover from Nordics. Weight distribution was decidedly to the rear so the skis were ineffectual for steering. The driver’s only option was to load the front end by hanging off the inside and planting an ear near the left ski. Cats cornered better but didn’t have speed in the straights. If other brands beat a Blizzard it was a giant clue they were beyond bore specs or using other modification skullduggery.
Remember now this was 1970. There was no such thing as carbides or studs. About half way through the season, at a Brainerd race, Kenny Rathje on a 650 won going away with controllable steering. The first reaction from the pits was from Steve Ave, Halverson’s race director. He stomped over to Kenny’s sled and lifted the ski without so much as a “may I?” Steve discovered a ‘V’ trench machined the length of the wear rod. That was the secret. By the next race Halverson was handing out cut skegs. Not long after, the idea of soldered-in carbide inserts were used and racing was never the same. Ric Little, in a private quest for positive steering, bolted an 8” long angle iron to his skis and sharpened the edge like an ice skate. The effect was too good and he dropped the idea. Actually the idea dropped him. He turned his Blizzard sled on ice and it cornered so fast it threw him off the sled. As skis of the day turned, they angled unequally and that’s when the angle iron bit and spit.
The MacCharles Race Team
Members of the team were talented and they were riding the fastest sleds of the day. The reason the team created a stir in the pits and along the straight-a-way fences was that they looked like a real race team. Every member wore the same modified Ski-Doo brand suits with yellow sleeves, matching helmets and big MacCharles tunnel graphics. And at some races, the yellow team bus would appear. MacCharles team was one of the first to harmonize the team look in snowmobile racing.
L to R: Kenny, Phil, Donna, Mollie, Al and Ric
Al Reay - Mound, MN
In 1970 Al Reay was 28. He was from Mound on Lake Minnetonka. He started racing in 1964 on 250cc, 10hp Olympics. He preferred cross country events. Al was religious about machine maintenance and kept his body trim too. In addition to oval wins on his 800 he entered and finished the Winnipeg to St. Paul race several times. A racing back then on narrow Ski-Doos was grueling. Often racers who crossed the finish line had to be peeled off their machines with cramped hands and pounded bodies. Al favored the big displacement Blizzards in oval racing.
Al after the racing days
Al got into ultralight flying in a huge way. He bought and tricked out brand name planes and built his own. Enthusiast magazines featured several of Al’s planes. He was known all over the country and particularly at Oshkosh. In 2005 Al was killed in one of his many ultralights due to a part failure. The funeral at the Winsted Airport was most momentous. Thousands were there and multiple fly overs were arranged—ultralights naturally and some WWII planes as well. He was well liked by the people he knew because he virtually lived at the airport and every morning other flyers would gather in Al’s hanger for donuts and coffee. He had an infectious personality.
Donna Reay - Mound, MN
Al’s wife, Donna assisted Al in his auto body business doing the paperwork while Al was getting his overalls dusty. Prior to the stellar 1970 season Donna had been racing for three years because “Al wanted me to.” Donna didn’t hold back in a timid way. She was competitive and she enjoyed racing. When asked what her big moment in the 1970 season she responded by saying, “Strangely it was at a small race somewhere in Minnesota. I raced the hardest race in three years and I beat teammate Mollie Little. The race was nip and tuck between us. We raced so hard that the others girls in the race had no chance at all.” Donna said she always tried to race well “for Al.”
Donna after the racing days
After racing she and Al did a lot of snowmobiling which was easy because they lived on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. Today Donna is 82 and finally retired in 2016. In her early days she did bookkeeping and taxes for Archer Daniels Midland and Al’s Body Shop. Later she was a cashier for Minnetonka Orchards and did greenhouse work for Otten Brothers Nursey. Today she tends to her house and garden. Just two years into retirement she is looking for another interesting activity.
Ric Little - Plymouth, MN
Ric got into snowmobiling early and turned to racing in 1967. His work contributed. He was a service shop foreman for a Wayzata Minnesota marine and snowmobile dealership. He started riding Ski-Doos because that was the favorite of his bother-in-law, Al Reay. Ric however moved to Polaris (with those mighty 372cc JLOs) raced them in 1967/68. In 1969 he knew Ski-Doo was a comer and smartly joined the 1970-1971 MacCharles team. In 1972 and 1973 he went back to Polaris and raced on the Larson-Olson Polaris distributorship team and did very well. He placed in the top three in several World Series races. He favored big bore sleds but always had a small displacement sled for his wife Mollie which he raced too. He did his own sled tuning and spent much time perfecting which would result in his being the top of his class wherever he raced. His winning platform was “a quick start, a faster machine, a heavy throttle hand and using my bean.” Why did he race? Honestly he admitted ”I enjoy the fame and glory of winning. I like speed, the competition and beating others.”
Ric after the racing days
After sled racing he turned to fishing and hunting. In early 2000s he and his brother, Phil, attempted a return to vintage snowmobile racing. The results were disappointing. The then vintage race crowd was way beyond in technology and the Littles soon dropped out. Along about 2009 he made the mistake of taking a car racing school the Brainerd International Race track. He was hooked and considered a move into car racing but the costs were prohibitive. He centered on kart racing and was soon the fellow to beat in his shifter classes, 125cc and 500cc two strokes. When Mollie died Ric dropped most of his other activities to chase a little white ball. For the last three years he’s been a 365 day golf fanatic. He spends his winters in Florida as a snowbird and returns here to golf too. Ric is now 74.
Mollie Little - Plymouth, MN
Mollie was an unusual as a powder puff racer. Most gals displayed a reserved demeanor on the track. Mollie did not. She was aggressive, somewhat reckless and was driven to win and she did—almost always. In one contest she beat nationally known Polaris driver Dorothy Mercer. Mollie raced a 292 Blizzard. Her off-track time centered on being a house wife, mother of two boys and a secretary for various companies. In 1970 her total money winnings was over $250 and she won 17 trophies—that was a big thing back then. In 1973 riding Polaris 295cc stock and mods, Mollie was season high points champion in the American Snowmobile Assn in; 300 stock Powder Puff, 300 mod PP, 340 mod PP and second in 340 stock PPthe only classes for women.
Mollie after the racing days
In her post race years she too enjoyed fishing and hunting with husband Ric. She would take a ladder down to the edge of the swamp on their 40 acre farm and perch herself on top waiting for deer. One night she walked up to the house and she said “I got one! Ric was flabbergasted. They traveled all over the state in search of prey and here she popped one at home. Mollie died of COPD in 2014.
Ken Rathje - Annandale, MN
Kenny obtained a 650 Blizzard from another dealer and started racing. In the pits Kenny and the MacCharles team members became friends. Kenny got a matching suit and joined the team. He was a very good racer. He was a quiet and calm individual. To combat race jitters he reminded himself he was as good as any other racer on the track. He was wrong, he was better. Ken would survey the track on his on his first lap then set up his strategy on how to negotiate the track and beat the others. When asked what his biggest moment in 1970 he said “beating Bob Eastman in the 650 modified class at Brainerd for first.” Eastman was the number one Polaris factory driver and Brainerd was a huge race in Minnesota. Committing Eastman to less than a first place was major feat.
Kenny after the racing days
When the Blizzards of 1971/72 turned out to be disappointing compared to the ’70 Ski-Doo race sleds Kenny lost interest in racing. From then on he just rode sleds around Annandale area which is perfect terrain for that pursuit. Today he has three sleds; a 600 Polaris, a 400 Polaris and a ’75 TX. During and after racing Kenny was as heavy equipment operator and retired after 48 years. He is 73 today and is as chipper as he was back in 1970. He and his wife Connie enjoy road trip traveling and from time to time he can been seen on his Harley or in a convertible.
Brad Boltz - Howard Lake, MN
Brad raced four years before he joined the MacCharles team. He was a top ten ASA driver and had a reputation for fearless driving. He drove so hard that his competitors couldn’t keep up unfortunately that was also true of his sleds. He was a self-employed masonry contractor and worked so hard serving clients that he didn’t have the time for machine prep between races. Prior to a race in the pits he was usually furiously working on his Blizzard- tools and parts scattered all around his trailer. When asked about racing he said “I go into the corners faster than I think possible and somehow I make it out.” In 1970 he computed that he spent $3000 (in 1970 money) but shrugged it off to “It’s the thrill, it gets in your blood.”
Brad after the racing days
About the age of 76 Brad’s body gave up him and he died in 2016/7 time frame. He had a tough life. Cement work and smoking broke him down and he left the planet early.
Phil Little - Plymouth, MN
Phil was two years older than Ric but jumped into racing at Ric’s encouragement. Phil was lucky to be an advertising account executive and Polaris was his first client in 1967. Of course that meant he was able to ride a loaner sled from them. Later he bought a 1968 Colt with a 372 JLO and stared racing with no particular success. Then the Al Reay influence affected the Littles in 1970 and they all bought Blizzards. Phil’s was a 340 single with an aftermarket front bumper to protect the hood and ease sled movement. It was hard to loose with a Blizzard and he had a great year. In 1972 he bought a 440 Blizzard and modified it to the max to run on methanol. That race year was constant break downs and he gave up on Ski-Doo. The next year he raced Polaris for Larson-Olson, the Minnesota Polaris distributor. After a year or two of that he got out of sleds.
Phil after the racing days
On a 1972 visit to a hop-up shop with a sled engine, the techs suggested he go flat track motorcycle racing with them because “your hands won’t get cold working on the machine.” He took their advice and started dirt track racing in 1989 at the age of 29 which was late in the game for that sport. He raced for a bunch of years, then promoted flat track races for eight years then returned to racing. His last race was in 2013 at 71 and he finished in first. Shifter class kart racing followed with his brother for two years. During the bike racing years he started building fiberglass race parts which he still does as Phil Little Racing.com. Today at 76 he enjoys snowmobiling when there is snow (with five sleds) and off road riding on various bikes.
The 1971 race season and Freddy Smith
The Blizzards of 1971 did not compare with the ’70 speedsters. Some team left the team but other MacCharles racers stuck with Ski-Doo. The success of the ’70 team drew new members to join the team in 197: Gary Gall, Bobby and Bevin Mitchell Bill Eisengher, Tim Clapp and Freddy Smith. 14 year old Freddy Smith watched the ’70 team win and focused on that exact same winning goal. In 1971 he pursued many cold trails for a 1970 292 Blizzard. Finally he bought Ric Little’s 292 and started in the youth classes.
Smith won his first race dressed as a MacCharles racer. He said “When I got my MacCharles suit and helmet it was truly a dream come true.” And he went on winning and learning right through 1975. He had to suffer many breakdowns before he learned remedies and the people sources to help him. He placed high in some big races of that period; Ironwood, Eagle River and others. He favored ASA sanctioned oval tracks. In 1975, oval racing faded and factories focused on SnoCross racing.
In 1980, he started speed runs and his technical expertise paid off and he became the man to beat in his classes. He earned straightline fame right through to 1990. His record speed run was 157mph which was topped only after he left the game as the big money sled owners started appearing. In 1990, the Deckers owners of the Eagle River track, finally realized vintage oval racing was the answer to shrinking crowds due to factory snocross racing. Smith jumped back into ovals and dominated. Smith eased away from oval racing in 2012.
Fred Smith after the racing days
In 1973 at the age of 17 he ignored his mother’s advice and started as an iron worker in his father’s bridge building business. Before Smith married, his earnings supported racing. At age 52, he retired. His leisure hours were spent boating, fishing and building sleds for young racers. Occasionally he still races snowmobiles at age of 61 but picks a few races on a relaxed schedule. 1970 was a perfect time for the MacCharles snowmobile dealership and the racers who joined his orbit.
© Phil Little, 2020