One of the first women in snowmobile history is Bessie Billberg. Bessie, along with her husband Rudy Billberg, set out in 1960 with two other men on Polaris snowmobiles in Alaska, to prove the value of the snowmobile as a method of transportation. This daring woman travelled 1100 miles from Bethel on the Bering Sea, across the Alaskan wilderness for twenty days.
If Bessie was the first cross country female snowmobile driver to leave her mark, it’s sad that we don’t know the names of the first women oval racers. According to the history books, fifteen men and a few women showed up to compete in three scheduled events at the first formally titled and well-organized snowmobile race ever, in Beausejour, MB, Canada. Along with the men’s names, the following paragraph appears in Bill Vint’s book, Warriors of Winter. (1977)
“The Novelty Race was the third event, and it was planned as a special race for ladies around the hay bale oval. Novelty was quickly forgotten as the ladies turned demon, roaring around the track at full throttle, scaring the Winter Farewell officials to death. The crowd of more than 1,000 spectators loved the daring and reckless abandon of women’s racing, however, so the Beausejour organizers followed up with plans to include the Ladies’ Canadian championship during the 1964 races.”
1964 also saw the first running of what was to become the Eagle River World’s Championship. This time race results did include the name of the winner of the Girls’ Race. She was Susan Malliette of Antigo, Wisconsin. Her father, Art, also won first in the Open Class. The events that year included ski joring (skiing behind a snowmobile), hill climbing, cross-country obstacle races and speed racing against the clock. Unfortunately we can only guess which event was used to determine the winner of the Girls’ Race.
By 1965 the Girls’ Race had acquired the name of the Powderpuff, as is recorded in the results of the Lancaster, New Hampshire, Grand Prix. Winner in the Class A, was Madilaine Blaise of Lancaster, and Marilyn Lyons of Lyme, New Hampshire was the Class B Powderpuff Champ.
By this point there were women participating at many different levels of snowmobiling and snowmobile racing. One woman with as great a vision as any, was “SnowGoer Susie” Scholwin. In the final issue of Snow Goer’s 1966-67 season, Susie’s article not only outlined the fundamental problems she could see in the rapidly growing sport, but offered suggestions to make the sport safer and better for everyone.
Over the years all of Susie’s suggestions were implemented. Standard rules and uniform classes were developed, as was a snowmobile race sanctioning body, the USSA. The need for safety: personal body protection equipment, ambulances, and insurance, were also recognized as urgent requirements by the USSA, and implemented. During the heydays of racing, they also adopted her suggestion of “professional” and “amateur” drivers.
Many women, whose names do appear in the history books, were in racing teams with their husbands and families. It seemed a natural way for things to evolve. Jim Adema, 1988 Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame inductee, travelled everywhere with his wife Pat in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. She was apparently, a slight 90 pound woman, who raced SnoJet machines to victory in the Powderpuff and itched for a chance to ride the big engines in the men’s classes.
Another family racing woman was Audrey Decker, who has a long history with snowmobiles. From her own early racing days with her husband Richard, to those of her four sons, the Decker name has a permanent place in the annuls of snowmobile racing. Involved as Ski-Doo dealers, Snowmobile Tour Providers, the Deckers also purchased the Eagle River Race Track in 1985 and still run it in 1999. In 1989, Audrey Decker was the first woman inducted into the Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame.