Blast from the Past Billy Bissonett

My name is Billy Bissonett, and I was blessed with the opportunity to be a racing partner (NHRA Drag racing, mostly) with Ky “Rocketman” Michaelson for about 6 years.(1968-1974). To be associated with a man with the fantastic creative genius, and boundless energy of Ky was a real treat! I remember one night in 1971, I was in my home just relaxing, and The phone rang, and it was Ky sounding even more upbeat than normal (normal for Ky that is). He said “Billy, hang on to your hat, we’re going to New York to reset the world’s Snowmobile speed record”! “ we’re starting to work on the machine tonite, so c’mon over to my shop and don’t plan to be back home until mid-morning!” When I got to Ky’s shop, he told me that the United States Snowmobile Assn. (USSA) was going to hold a” record speed run” event in upstate New York (Booneville) in 2 weeks, and he intended to get that record! He said he had talked to the USSA Technical Director and was told only that the machine must be “track driven” and have skis on the front to support/steer it. When he asked how the track must be mounted, and what kind of power was allowed, they responded ”anything you want!” WOW! Give Ky Michaelson that kind of open door on design and you knew this was going to be a VERY exciting project to be a part of! Ky took an old dragster chassis that we had raced and bought a pair of 18” wide Indy type racing tires and some WIDE wheels to mount them on. He then took the tires over to 3M Co. in St. Paul and had them mount snowmobile tracks onto the tires with some space age adhesive that their chemists brewed up. he first installed MANY VERY sharp 3- pronged “studs” onto the track to help with traction on an icy surface! (and to crush the foot of anyone who got run over by them) He also mounted a pair of chrome plated large size snowmobile skis on the front end where the wire dragster wheels had been. He then built a beautiful sheet aluminum cockpit enclosure with a windscreen to protect the driver from anything the tracks kicked forward, and had well-known custom painter, Kevin Winter apply Many coats of meta-flaked green paint with metal-flaked silver flames set off by black pin striping! It was beautiful! He told me that it was my responsibility to build an engine/clutch combination for the machine that would not overpower the track surface, (they told us it would be “hard packed” snow) but the engine/clutch combo must have enough power to propel the machine to 150 MPH ( Ky’s goal – the existing record was in the one hundred teens) in a 1/2 mile distance! I dragged out an old supercharged ’58 Chrysler “300” 392 cubic inch engine and built it up so it would produce about 600 horsepower, down from the 1,000 horsepower it could be built up to . I then attached a Hays 2 disc adjustable clutch unit to the back of the engine. That clutch unit could be setup to be “soft” on the bottom end of the run, so it would not overpower the track surface and still provide the “grab” necessary to propel the machine to over 150 MPH in a ½ mile span! The 1000 H.P. engine with that clutch in the dragster (on asphalt) had propelled it to 193 MPH! We loaded the “monster” into Ky’s dragster trailer , and hooked it to the trailer hitch on my ’64 Chev Suburban( modified to include a “souped up”Chev 454 CID engine, heavy duty turbo 400 transmission, and a bed built in behind the rear seat, so we could take turns sleeping on the long journey. Ky’s Mom, Pearl Davis, decided that she would like to to fly in to Boonville & join us for the run AND the ride back to Minnesota.( her almost constant giggles were a real treat). We took a route through Wisconsin, & through Chicago, and then onto the Turnpike system through Ohio and Pennsylvania to the up-state New York area. We heard a news report while on our way that Boonville New York had been hit with a “lake effects” snow storm that had deposited 54” of snow on the area.( well, so much for our hopes of a solid, hard packed surface to race on!) the Turnpike system through Ohio and Pennsylvania is mostly concrete paved with asphalt stuffed expansion joints every 100 feet or so, providing us with a “bang bang bang” bumpy ride all the way into New York! When we got to Booneville ( A scenic heavily tree covered small town in the Adirondack mountains, (about 4000’ above sea level) We were amazed at how well the streets had been cleared of the huge snowfall! they have that happen often in that area, and have huge auger type snow blowers to deal with it . ( similar to what we see at Mpls. St. Paul Int’l Airport. We were also impressed by the friendly/ courteous people we met at gas stations, restaurants, and our motel ( just like in Minnesota)We had a 5:00 A.M.wake-up call in our motel( mainly so we could get to a Chinese restaurant for Ky’s chou mein breakfast( fortunately they had coffee. juice, & pastry, too! After breakfast, we headed out to the race track to see what we would have to run on. We were amazed & pleased to find a 60’ wide ½ mile long surface with 6’ high snow banks on each side. the track surface had been compacted by a golf green/blacktop roller and was in GREAT shape! When we drove through the pit area to the place where we could unload Ky’s “missile” and fire it up, we saw MANY other machines being prepared to assault the record books! We noticed that Arctic Cat Co. also had an automobile engined streamliner,(Supercharged Big Block Chev engine) but with more conventionally mounted track. They started it up just as we went by, and I told Ky “no Sweat, that engine sounds sad!” 

Arctic Cat also had a conventional type sled with a “Turbonique” rocket booster mounted on the rear of it.” Those Turbonique rockets are dangerous” Ky said,” especially if they have the throttle linkage for both engines run together” “ if the regular snowmobile engine loses traction and the rider backs off the throttle to regain control, he will also back off on the rocket engine when the linkages are hooked together which “loads” the rocket chamber,with fuel and will cause a violent explosion if he hits the throttle again!” Ky said he’d go over to that machine & check that out & talk to the Arctic Cat crew chief.

To see if separate throttle linkages for both engines could be installed. A Large crowd of spectators (over 5,000) began to lineup behind the snow barriers on both sides of the track, and in the grandstands that were placed near the finish line of the track. We decided that we would start the engine on Ky’s machine to warm it up, and also that Ky would be the driver, cuz he was the sponsor and engineer for the project, but he asked me to wear my dragster fire suit when we went up to the starting line, in case something happened to him that would make it impossible for him to drive! Fortunately, Ky had purchased a “heavy duty” starting motor that spun the engine fast enough to get it started in the –10 below temperature and 4,000’ altitude! I attached the starter to the front of the supercharger & Ky got into the “hot seat” as the engine turned over, a spectator who had come over to help us squirted gas into the fuel injector scoop. Ky pushed on the “loud pedal” a couple of times to get gas down into the combustion chambers, and then turned the ignition switch to “on”!

The big Chrysler engine came to life with a VERY LOUD ROAR! ( I’ll bet those mountains hadn’t heard that loud a roar since George Washington’s troops fired cannons at the “redcoats” in the Revolutionary war! To say that we attracted attention is a GROSS understatement! MANY spectators AND the USSA tech officials came running. (Keep in mind USSA is made up of the three major snowmobile manufacturers, (Arctic Cat, Polaris & SkiDoo) ALL of whom wanted that record BADLY ,so they could advertise their sleds as “world’s fastest” When the Tech guys got over to Ky’s machine, they looked it over & said”disqualified”( Wouldn’t look good to have a couple of Minnesota hot rodders go faster than the Major manufacturers, now, would it?) Ky pointed out to them that his “sled”was built EXACTLY in accord to the specifications that they had given him! But, I guess the sound of that big Chrysler engine crisply barking at high decibel levels was more than they wanted to compete against, so “disqualified” remained their position! A LARGE/loud number of spectators gathered around us and Loudly made it clear to the officials that they wanted to see the “Minnesota Guys” run their machine! When threatened with tearing apart of their headquarters trailer by a large/angry group of fans, they changed their minds & said “OK, lets see just how fast they can get this thing going!” I’ll have to admit that they were courteous enough to us to let us be one of the first machines to run, which, at least kept the starting line from getting chewed-up by the many high horsepower sleds waiting to compete. Ky eased the clutch out and slowly drove the machine up to the starting line. I pulled my Suburban up next to him so we’d have the starter motor and LARGE battery pack close to the machine. however, prior to Ky’s attempt, Arctic Cat pulled their “Turbonique” rocket boosted sled up on the other side of my truck. driver Dale Cormican is one of the best racing sled riders in the world, and a really nice guy! Ky told me that their crew chief had told him that there “wasn’t enough time” to install dual throttle linkages, so they’d have to run it “as is”! Ky then told me to “stand back” when it runs, I was standing about 15 feet back from it when they fired up the Arctic Cat 650 cc motor to launch the sled. Dale nailed the throttle and the track started to spin a bit, the rocket booster fired, and gave him a VERY quick launch for about 50 feet which brought it up to about 25 feet from me, but right next to my truck.Dale, then, backed off on the throttles to regain traction & then hit it, again, Ky was correct, the Turbonique went “BOOM” and I was hit with a large blast of flying debris & propelled back into a nice soft snow bank! I was lucky, I only had a few black and blue marks on me, My fire suit protected me from the heat blast! My Suburban, however did not fare as well. ALL the glass on the driver’s side was in mini sized shards & fragments, and the body looked like it had been side swiped by a Semi truck Ky’s mom was sitting on the passenger side bucket seat in her parka (with hood up, thank God) and she was covered with glass fragments/shards. I ran over to see how she was, and saw her BIG smile & she said “I’m OK, Billy, Just a little shaken up, no cuts or bruises that I can find”! (now, how many 65 year old women would be that “cool” after sitting through an explosion? Ky Michaelson had a really neat mom! ( the reason I say “had a neat mom” is that since this happened, that sweet woman has lost a long,miserable struggle with cancer, and was called home to provide cheer in heaven. I then ran over to the Arctic Cat sled to see how Dale was doing That explosion could easily have broken his back! The machine was on fire, but Dale had a good fire suit on, also. With my fire suit protecting me, I leaned into Dale’s driving cockpit and released his seat belts I asked him how he was doing & he said “fine, just a little sore in my neck” The Arctic Cat crew went into full “panic” and one guy came running over yelling “We’ve gotta get him out of there”! and grabbed him by the helmet & shoulders & started removing him from the seat. If he didn’t already have a broken neck, those guys were in the process of giving him one! I yelled at them and told them to “go easier or they would kill him” but, with full panic in their eyes, they pushed me aside and dragged Dale out of the cockpit, and over to a waiting station wagon. I moved the remains of my ‘Burp up to the starting area and went over to assure Ky that his mom seemed to be OK! I then attached the starter motor to the front of the engine & started turning it over, getting another assist with the squirt of gas into the injector. Ky pumped the “loud” pedal and hit the ignition switch, and the big motor, again roared to life! I leaned into the cockpit & Ky had a HUGE smile on his face! HE WAS READY! He eased the clutch pedal out and started the machine moving down the race course, slipping the clutch & putting a little pressure on the brake lever to avoid losing traction( I might point out that Ky had A LOT of experience getting conventional HIGH horsepower dragsters off the starting line while maintaining a good degree of traction, so that experience, plus his own abilities as a race vehicle driver gave him the ability to start the snow dragster moving down the course without losing traction. As he continued down the track the big engine was building up RPM and I could hear the RPM drop just a little when the clutch locked up at about ½ track.then it was MORE RPM as he got closer to the end of the track, and a loud “POP” as the drag ‘chute caught air and bloomed to slow him down. My experience with drag chutes has been that you don’t hear that “POP” until the vehicle is going at least 150 MPH!so I started jumping up and down and cheering our obvious success! Then like a blast of ice water hitting me in the face, I heard the announcer’s voice say 107 MPH! And, next, a loud group of spectators yelling “no way, he was going at least 150” I drove the remains of my truck down to the end of the track to tow Ky 
back, and he really looked dejected when I got to him “107, we got shafted” was all he could say. I said “fantastic job of driving, my friend, ya done really good” by then, a number of fans had gathered around us expressing loudly that they thought Ky was going MUCH faster than 107! And echoing my compliments on his driving job! We went back to the starting line to watch the other sleds run & even Dale Cormican said “you guys got screwed”! The Ski Doo factory team made a run that was 123 MPH! the Arctic Cat Team Manager handed me a check for $1,000.00 to pay for damages to my truck & that was very close to what it took to get it repaired!a couple of modified Arctic Cat & Polaris sleds made runs of 110 MPH & a factory Ski Doo went 119. When we left Booneville to start our long tow back home ( the “bang bang” of the highway was still there. We got to a highway exit for a city called “Canastota” N.Y. and the trailer started swaying back and forth behind the 1:00 A.M. I pulled up the exit ramp and into the driveway of astill open gas station, hearing a loud scraping sound from the trailer. As I pulled into the station, the guy working there, came running out & said, “It looks like you’ve broken your trailer axle”(the “bang bang bang” bumps had finally taken their toll on Ky’s trailer! The guy told us to pull in to the service bay of the station above the hydraulic lift ( how many people in any area would do that at 1:00 A.M? with the aid of the lift, and a hydraulic floor jack the guy also let us use, we got the damaged axle out, I thought he looked familiar, It was the same guy who had squirted the gas into the air scoop for us at the track! He then said”would you guys like to use our arc welder?” “YUP” we said in unison I’m a pretty good welder, so, I started on it first & had NO success! “that must be some really strange metal” Ky said, “Let me try it” Ky is a VERY good welder & even he could not get it to work on that axel! About 2:00 A.M. a highway patrol officer stopped in for a cup of coffee & said “you guys really got shafted out there today, I was in the grandstands near the finish line & you were going MUCH faster than 107 AND, the driver was doing a FANTASTIC job of keeping that machine going straight!” When he noticed the trouble we were having with welding the axle, he said to the service station guy, “I’ll bet Steve Adams could weld this, he’s a welding instructor at the Vo-Tech school & the best welder in this area”! He then went to a phone & called Steve (AT 2:00AM.!) He then said, “no problem, Steve said he’d come down if I can drive over in the squad car & get him” WOW! !talk about nice people! About 2:15, the squad car came back with Steve & we immediately bought him some coffee. He looked at the axle & said”I can weld this, It’s some foreign steel that’s really tough to weld!” he then said, let’s grind off some of this other weld first so I can weld to the axle base metal” he then said “I was out at the speed runs today & you guys got screwed! “That machine looked like a green blur as it went by us in the grandstands!” I just couldn’t believe that the driver could control it the way he did” “Awesome job of driving”! about a half hour later, the axle was repaired, and I had a very good welding lesson Ky said, “how much do I owe you”?

Steve responded “an autographed photo of your machine would be all I want” Ky had brought photos of the machine with him in the cockpit and me standing behind it. and quickly autographed one each for Steve, the officer & the station manager “WOW” Ky said. I’m gonna send the Canastola Chamber of Commerce a letter !” “do you treat every visitor this nicely”? With Pearl keeping us laughing all the way, we headed on back to Minnesota. The snow dragster went on the “show circuit” for several years, attracting big crowds wherever it sent. It was easy to find in a show auditorium, Just follow the holes in the concrete floor made by the studs in the track!

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