AFTER LAURIE BRINKMANN MARRIED Jeff Spencer in 1991, her friends jokingly called her the winter widow. For years, Spencer, Laurie’s childhood sweetheart, had been devoted to his winter hobby: racing across frozen Wonder Lake in Illinois, sometimes at speeds over 100 mph, on his green-and-black Arctic Cat ZRT 800 snowmobile. At their wedding in the town of Wonder Lake, Jeff had insisted on a color scheme to match his sled. Laurie complied, ordering bridesmaids’ dresses with green skirts and black velvet bodices.
Last Dec. 18, though, the winter-widow joke turned chillingly prophetic. That evening, as she cooked dinner at a friend’s house near the lake, Laurie, 28, heard police sirens converging on the shore. “I hope Jeff is okay,” she told her friend. At 5:30 p.m., Jeff, 31, an electrician, and his closest buddy, Eric Hoffman, 24, a heating technician, had taken the Arctic Cat to race on the three-mile-long lake. Sometime after dusk, Hoffman apparently ran the 650-pound sled into Jeff, who was standing on the ice clocking Eric’s speed with a radar gun. Both men died, probably instantly; Hoffman’s neck was broken, and Spencer suffered internal injuries. “I knew there was no giving up the snowmobile,” says Laurie. “He just loved it. I can’t even tell you how much.”
Sadly, as snowmobiles have soared in popularity, so have such casualties. Spencer and Hoffman were only two of more than 149 people who have died this winter in snowmobiling accidents. Others include Eric Croteau and Josh Kleusch, both 20, who collided head-on after a night of drinking and snowmobiling in northern Minnesota; Michael Staring, 35, of Pulaski, N.Y., whose neck was nearly severed when his snowmobile ran into a barbed-wire fence; and Cory Moehlenbrock, 15, a high school sophomore from Biwabik, Minn., who didn’t see a poorly placed stop sign and ran his sled into a semi-truck speeding up Highway 135.
Safety experts attribute the increased number of fatalities to several factors: excessive speed, alcohol consumption and the sudden spurt in snowmobile sales—a jump of 22 percent last year to 134,000. According to manufacturers, the new machines are heavier and safer than earlier models, but for the sport’s core enthusiasts—young men between the ages of 18 and 35—one of the main attractions is their blazing speed. On average, the new sleds can hit 80 mph (some models go much faster), even though manufacturers recommend a daytime top speed of 60 mph and 40 mph at night since headlights illuminate 200 feet and a snowmobile takes twice as long to brake as a car. But for some operators, the temptation to go too fast is irresistible. “The major problem is the speed of these things,” says Gary Jock, a sheriff in Lewis County, N.Y. “We’re sitting here with rockets flying down our trails at 70, 80, 90 mph.” Adds Mike Grupa, an officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: “If the snowmobile goes 100 mph out of the box, they have to see it go 100.”
At such high speeds, even the simplest oversight can lead to tragedy. According to Jeff Spencer’s father, Leonard, his son and Hoffman were both expert snowmobilers. Leonard Spencer, 54, an electrician who was named Illinois snowmobile instructor of the year last November, inculcated his students and his children—Jenny, 21, Jeff and his late brother, Clifford, who died at 18 in a 1987 motorcycle accident—with the need for stringent safety precautions, including helmets and protective clothing. “I worried about Jeff with everything,” says his mother, Cherie, 51, a quality control supervisor for a filter manufacturer. “But one thing I didn’t worry about was the snowmobile.”
Jeff’s reputation as a free spirit dated back to the hair-raising waterskiing jumps he performed as a teenager on Wonder Lake. That’s where Laurie, who grew up in a house by the lake, first met him. “I remember we started a ski club in May,” she says, “and on July 28, 1982, at 11:30 p.m., at the end of my driveway, we kissed for the first time.” Jeff was 18 and drove a Camaro Z28; Laurie, who was just 14, was swept off her feet. After graduating from Woodstock High School in 1982, Jeff water-skied professionally for a season at Sea World in Aurora, Ohio, where he performed the same risky stunt—jumping out of a speedboat, landing on his seat, then skiing barefoot onto a stage—340 times without a spill. Laurie earned her business degree from Northern Illinois University in 1989 before returning to Wonder Lake, where Jeff had taken a job as an electrician two years earlier. “Getting married was the best thing [we] ever did,” Laurie says.
Although Jeff persuaded Laurie to buy her own $4,500 Arctic Cat in 1993 for touring (most enthusiasts spend much of their snowmobile time on group trips), when it came to racing, he preferred the competitiveness of buddies like Hoffman. According to Jeff’s father, the pair had done hundreds of “radar runs,” in which one would stand directly in the path of the charging machine to get an accurate speed reading with a meter.
Late in the afternoon on the day the friends died, Jeff was working on the lakeside house he and Laurie had recently bought when Hoffman stopped by. “Jeff probably thought, ‘We’ll do a couple of runs, and then I’ll go back to work,’ ” says Leonard. For safety reasons, after dark the men normally used a flashlight to mark the spot where Jeff was standing, yet police found no flashlight on the ice after the accident. Two 12-year-olds saw Jeff try to jump out of Eric’s path—obviously too late. “It’s really hard for us to know exactly why this happened,” says Leonard, fighting back his grief.
Alarmed by the mounting death count, authorities in Snow Belt states are taking action. In Minnesota, where the number of fatalities this season reached 21 before the New Year, state enforcement officers mounted late-night patrols, arresting dozens of drunk snowmobilers. Since then, only two deaths have been reported. But other risk factors have yet to be addressed: Sledding trails are seriously overcrowded in some parts of the country; the machines may flip over when turning corners abruptly; and since snowmobilers must shift their weight to maneuver, seat belts are not used, and many injuries—from broken legs to broken necks—occur when drivers are thrown. “There’s very little, if any, protection, unlike a car when you’re seat-belted and metal is surrounding you,” said Tom Wrasse, a supervisor with Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources.
Laurie Spencer buried her husband last Dec. 22 in a casket of Arctic Cat green, which friends had plastered with dozens of snowmobiling stickers. “They keep making snowmobiles that go faster and faster,” she says pensively. Too fast, according to some experts, for good sense to keep pace.
GIOVANNA BREU at Wonder Lake, MARY GREEN in Chicago, MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis and TOM DUFFY in Boston