By Scott N. Miller
VAIL - Snowmobiles are fun and often useful, but you can only use snowmobiles when there's snow on the ground. The seasonal opposite is true of four-wheelers, but a Minnesota company believes it can make one vehicle work all year.
A handful of representatives from a company called SVI - Specialty Vehicles International - recently brought some "DuraTrack" vehicles to Vail to show them off to Vail Resorts officials. The vehicles are versions of a Polaris' Ranger, a model that can often be found toting feed and gear for ranchers, among other tasks. In this case, though, the wheels have been replaced by tracks at each corner. Company representatives say that conversion turns the Rangers into year 'round workers.
The vehicles prowled around the mountain Tuesday, mostly to show that the conversion will work on a snow-covered mountainside.
"We went all the way to the top of the mountain today," company representative Brent Wiczek said Tuesday. "They worked really well."
Wiczek said the SVI team was invited to Vail to meet with representatives from the snowmaking and ski patrol crews.
With Vail Mountain about to become a summer playground, too, there seems to be some economic sense in having just one vehicle that can work on dry ground, mud and in snow. Wiczek said a factory-built DuraTrack conversion costs right around $25,000, which is enough to buy both a snowmobile and a utility vehicle.
At the moment, though, Vail Resorts spokeswoman Liz Biebl said the DuraTrack vehicles are being evaluated only as a way to shuttle passengers between the top of Gondola One and The 10th restaurant.
Wiczek said the tracked vehicles can travel in up to four feet of snow.
"They're also more gentle to the terrain than tires," he said.
Beyond the tracks, Wiczek said Rangers come in a variety of configurations, including two-passenger rigs with a cargo box in back and six-passenger units, so they can do any number of jobs.
The 50-horsepower engine is enough to haul just about anything needed.
Mountain Powersports in Glenwood Springs sells Polaris snowmobiles and four-wheelers. The dealership doesn't sell SVI conversion packages, but does sell a track-conversion system by a company called Camoplast.
A Ranger equipped with one of those kits is "virtually unstoppable," dealership representative Kirby Keim said.
Those conversions are becoming more popular with customers, Keim said, primarily because they turn the utility vehicles into four-season workers.
"We're selling a lot of them this winter," he said.
Camoplast and other companies make conversion systems for utility vehicles, but Wiczek said SVI targets its products at the commercial, not consumer market. Wiczek also said SVI makes conversion systems specifically for the Ranger, since SVI's founder has a family connection with the family that runs Polaris.
"We're selling to the military, to governments, power companies," Wiczek said.
Once the tracks are on, the idea is to leave them on full-time, Wiczek said.
Keim said the track conversions work well, except for one thing - top speed. On the other hand, he added, top speed isn't the Ranger's primary job.
It's too soon to tell whether Vail Resorts will end up with a fleet of DuraTracks. This trip, Wiczek said, "was just to get them familiar with us."