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40 years after hanging up their helmets, the Binkley brothers return to Lower 48 for snowmachine races

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Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2011 12:13 am | Updated: 1:38 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — When brothers John and Jim Binkley made their first trip to the Lower 48 to race snowmachines in the fall of 1971, they built a custom-made covered trailer to haul their snowmachines and motorcycles in.

“We took three-quarter inch electrical conduit and bent it around a fuel tank to get the right bend for the top of the trailer, then covered it with plywood and had Bob Rocheleau spray urethane foam on the inside and outside,” John Binkley said.

Inside, they had a work bench, tools, generator, heater and air compressor, which was used to lift machines so they could work on them. They towed the trailer behind an old camper they slept in.

“We had the whole thing rigged up with lights and music,” John Binkley said of the small trailer. “We had an eight-track player in the camper, and we wired speakers in the trailer.”

The sight of the Binkley brothers towing the trailer around the Lower 48 from race to race was a novelty back then.

“Nobody had a covered trailer,” John Binkley said. “The factory teams had big semis and threw tarps over them.”

The Binkleys’ trailer even earned a nickname from their racing rivals.

“They all called it the igloo cause it was round and white,” Jim Binkley said. “They’d say, ‘Hear come those Alaskans in their igloo.’”

Jim was 21 back then, and John was just 18. They were already accomplished racers in Alaska and wanted to see if they could compete with the top racers in the Lower 48.

Reliving the past

The Binkleys spent the winter of 1971-72 touring the Lower 48, traveling from snowmachine race to snowmachine race. John did all the racing, mainly because Jim shattered his left arm in a head-on motorcycle wreck with John prior to leaving on the road trip.

The brothers were practicing on a track they had carved out of the woods near their home and ended up going in opposite directions. They collided head on coming around a blind turn and Jim shattered his arm against the forks of John’s motorcycle. He still has a titanium rod in his arm as a result of that accident.

Jim still made the trip to the Lower 48, but instead of racing he spent most of his time turning wrenches as John’s mechanic.

“I wasn’t about ready to give up,” he said. “We planned it all summer.”

John ended up making a name for himself on the Lower 48 racing circuit and earned a spot on the Rupp factory racing team. Rupp was one of many snowmobile manufacturers who sponsored racing teams at the time.

John spent the next three years racing for Rupp, winning the World Series of Snowmobiling at Ironwood, Mich., in the fall of 1972, which was the Daytona 500 of snowmachine racing at the time.

Jim, meanwhile, returned home to Fairbanks and opened a Rupp distributorship with another brother, Skip, which they operated for three years until Rupp, like dozens of snowmachine manufacturers at the time, went bankrupt. That pretty much ended John’s racing career, too.

Now fast forward 40 years. Jim is 61 and John is 58.

Both Binkleys have carved out careers as successful businessmen in Fairbanks, following in the footsteps of their father, Jim, Sr., who owned and operated the Riverboat Discovery, which for decades has been one the most successful tourism business in Alaska. Jim is pretty much retired now, while John still serves as president of the Alaska Railroad Corp.

But both men still have snowmachine racing in their blood, which is why they got on a plane Wednesday night to fly to Ironwood, Mich., where they will compete in one of the country’s biggest vintage snowmachine races this weekend.

The race is being held on the same half-mile ice oval track that John claimed his biggest victory on back in 1972 and John will be running a custom-built sled made by Fairbanks gear head Steve Darby of Darby’s Performance Machine.

The Binkleys also plan to travel to Wisconsin in two weeks to compete in the Eagle River World Championships, another big-time vintage snowmachine race that is part of the Vintage SnoPro Series.

Too good to pass up

It was Darby, a long-time friend and lifelong Fairbanksan, who planted the seed in the Binkleys’ minds for a return to the race track.

Last year, Darby talked both Binkleys into going back to Waconia, Minn. for a vintage snowmachine show featuring Rupp sleds. The Binkleys were treated like celebrities. They ended up signing autographs for 2 1/2 hours.

“It was amazing,” Jim Binkley said. “There were 10,000 people at the race.”

As it happens, Darby has spent the last three years building a vintage snowmachine with a friend from Wisconsin, Kurt Kreuger, that both men planned to race at Ironwood and Eagle River. When Darby found out a couple months ago that he couldn’t race because of medical problems, he immediately thought of John Binkley.

“I said, ‘If I can’t race it I’m going to find somebody who can,’” Darby said.

Darby suggested the idea to Binkley, who was reluctant at first.

“I sent him some pictures of the machine and 15 minutes later got a call back and he said, ‘I’m in,’” Darby said.

Or as John Binkley put it, “This was one of those things that was too good to pass up.”

When Jim found out about it, he wanted in on it, too, so Darby pulled some strings and arranged to get a Rupp sled provided for Jim to race on at Ironwood and Eagle River.

As an added bonus, John Binkley’s former Rupp racing partner in the 1970s, Gene Bloom, who also lives in Fairbanks, will be making the trip to Ironwood to ride in a parade lap of dignitaries prior to the race. Bloom won the World Series of Snowmobiling at Ironwood in the fall of 1971 and spring of 1972 and is a member of the Snowmobile Hall of Fame.

“I had no intention of going down there but when I heard these guys were going I said, ‘I can’t miss that,’” Bloom said.

Racing at Ironwood holds special memories for the Binkleys, especially John, whose biggest victory came there when snowmachine racing was in its heyday.

“We really dominated that track,” he said, referring to he and Bloom.

While they are 40 years older, the Binkley brothers are still fit and trim. Jim Binkley still has the snowmachine suit he wore while touring the states back in the winter of 1971-72 and he plans to wear it at Ironwood. His name is stitched on the front, as are patches from the Ironwood and Eagle River races held that year. A Rupp Riders patch adorns the back.

John Binkley still has his leather Rupp riding jacket, too, though it fits a little tighter today than it did 40 years ago.

While neither Binkley has raced competitively in almost 40 years and the trip is more about nostalgia than competition, that doesn’t mean they won’t be trying to win.

“If I’m going to go down there I’m going to win,” John Binkley said.

To which Darby replied with a laugh, “Ego is more what it’s about than anything.”

High hopes

At the Ironwood race, classes are determined by the size and age of the machine. In Eagle River, classes are determine by age and machine size. John will race in the Masters (over 50) class while Jim will compete in the Senior (over 60) class.

One of the machines Binkley will be racing at Ironwood is a duplicate of the Rupp 440 Magnum that he rode to victory in 1972.

“A guy from Ontario has one just like the one I won with and he’s bring it down to Ironwood for me to race,” John said.

The sled that Darby and Kreuger built was designed after a 1979 Moto Ski SnoPro. It has a 340cc SnoPro engine, one of only about 75 or 80 that were built, and has all modern components.

Darby even ordered a special cowling that will be designed after John Binkley’s 1972 Rupp Magnum SnoPro that he raced at Ironwood 40 years ago, complete with original racing numbers and decals..

Darby estimates that he and Kreuger have spent $25,000 to $30,000 building the sled Binkley will be racing.

“He’s going to have as good a sled as anyone in that class,” Darby said. “It’s every bit capable of winning.”

It remains to be seen if, after 40 years, the Binkley brothers can recapture the feel of hanging over the edge of a machine and leaning into a corner at 90 miles an hour.

“We’ve been practicing,” Jim Binkley said the day before leaving Fairbanks. “We’ve got an oval set up on Metro Lake (off Phillips Field Road).

“We’ve got it up to 85 mph in the corner right now,” he said. “We’ve got to get another 10 mph out of it. Some of these guys get up to 100 mph on a half-mile oval.”

Contact outdoors editor Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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