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Shark Hunting!

The Search For the 1977 Kawasaki "Shark" SnoPro Sleds.

Jacque Villenueve leads the field of 1977 SnoPro Superstars through a turn on his Kawasaki SnoPro Shark. Photo courtesy of Snowtech Magazine. By Larry Preston

A rumor can be a dangerous thing. Here's how.

We've all heard the rumors and stories about how some of the coolest sleds have been destroyed, locked in a warehouse, stolen or mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. One such rumor has persisted for many years in my neck of the woods: Those 1977 Kawasaki SnoPro sleds were buried, in tact, at some secret Kawasaki facility in Minnesota.

I didn't think much of the story until late in 2000 when I was having a discussion with Jim Beilke, Snowmobile Hall of Famer, current executive editor of Snowtech magazine, and the one man show that originally wrote, photographed, edited and published that entire stack of Race & Rally magazines you've got locked up in your safe.

One thing led to another and we started talking about those 1977 Kawasaki SnoPro sleds. Nasty, green, shark looking creatures driven by Jacques Villeneuve an Greg Channell for just one season. Jim reminded me of the story that when Kawasaki decided to get out of the snowmobile industry, they were afraid of liability issues from having those sleds around. He had heard that they went behind the shop one day, dug a deep trench, dropped them in and buried them.

"Where was this workshop?" I asked. "Shakopee." He replied. My left eyebrow lifted just a bit as I quickly realized that Shakopee is a sleepy little town just south and east of Minneapolis - and not far from my house.

A seed was planted in my head that would eventually grow into a giant, incurable disease.

Snow Week 1977 Article

Greg Channell at speed, 1977.
Photo courtesy of Snow Tech Magazine.

I had to know where that shop was 20 years ago and where it is today. I had to know if the rumor was true. Jim agreed to call around to some of his old contacts and see if he could verify the story or tell me where the shop was or is. While Jim was searching from one direction, I headed off into another that's easier for me: I searched the Internet high and low for any information about Kawasaki Motors Corporation in Minnesota. Tax records, court records anything. No luck. As far as the Internet is concerned, history began in the 1990's and nothing prior exists. I never did hear back from Jim, but he's always been a very busy guy, so I didn't press it.

The thought I couldn't get out of my mind is that they are just sitting there waiting for me. It's the good old American Dream we've all had of finding lost treasure. You know the story: so-and-so found a very rare such-and-such behind so-and-so's barn, bought it for $20, put a little work into it, won first place at every vintage show, then sold the damn thing for tens of thousands of dollars.

Get rich quick. Win the vintage sled lottery.

I was somehow certain I alone had discovered a major secret; I just needed to find out where they were buried, get a shovel, then sit back and wait for the waives of glory I would surely be afforded.

January 13, 2000

About this time, I had met Mike Decker who raced back in the day and was on the Ski-Doo factory race team for bit. He seemed a nice enough fellow and liked talking about the old sleds. During one conversation I had with him, I asked him point blank: "Do you know where exactly Kawasaki had it's shop in 1976?" I asked. Trying to be coy about why I wanted to know. "Mmm, that would have been Shakopee." He paused for just a bit. "I suppose you know the rumor then?" he said.

Damn it, now I had to let him know what I was up to. No. I thought to myself. I can't risk it. Better to play dumb. "No, what rumor?" I asked.

"I heard they buried those Kawasaki SnoPro sleds behind the shop. Ever hear about that?" "Uh, no, well, I heard something about that.... I stumbled. "I wouldn't doubt it." He said, then continued: "It was very common back then. Ski-Doo buried dozens of sleds that today would be worth a damned fortune!"

Jacque at speed!

Jacque Villenueve at speed, 1977.
Photo courtesy of Snow Tech Magazine.

Shakopee. Now two people had confirmed that the Kawasaki Research and Development center was in Shakopee, but I had no idea where in Shakopee. I went home and dug out the one promo picture I had that I thought might be the Shakopee facility. I also printed out maps of Shakopee and was pleasantly surprised to learn it's a relatively small town and I could drive the whole length and width in just a few minutes. If the building still existed, I was going to find it.

I asked anyone else I met who was involved back then with racing very carefully about the rumor, the Kawasaki Shakopee facility and the race team. None of these people worked at Kawasaki, but they did add more to the original rumors that started to make the actual story harder to guess at. One story said all the sleds were crushed and buried. Another said they used a backhoe and smashed them to bits, then buried them. Many insisted that all were crushed but one, and some thought the one sled was either hidden, stolen or being stored by Kawasaki Corporate headquarters in California for liability reasons.

Another thought kept driving me nuts. I couldn't have been the only one to have heard this rumor! Others must know about it, and someone, in all this time, must have hunted this facility down. For all I knew they could have already dug them up and had them in their garage for many years now. Still I had to press on. I had to find out for myself.

On my first trip to Shakopee, I looked in all the industrial sections of town. I was searching for a building that had bricks that were all perfectly lined up, as in the 1977 promo shot. This seemed to be a good approach, as most brick buildings in Minnesota have a staggered brick pattern. The other clue would have been the tree in the background of that promo shot. It's down in a hole, it has very definite cuts on some branches, and it's a very big tree. If time, fire, wind or man hadn't destroyed that tree, I knew it would be a good clue. After several hours of driving around, I never found a building with that brick pattern. I began to assume the building had been torn down, re-bricked or some how covered.

It was a nice Sunday afternoon, so I stopped in to the only store that was open; the local hunting shop. After standing around for several minutes while the store owner helped the large number of hunters with the animals they had brought in, I finally managed to ask him about the facility.

"I know this is a strange question, but do you have any idea where the old Kawasaki facility used to be?" The room went silent. All eyes turned towards me. I became very aware of the amount of fire power in the room, of which I had none.

The two Kawasaki's running the Sioux 500.

Two machines were built up to run
the Sioux enduro race in Michigan.

A gentlemen at the far end of the store positioned himself so he could see me and cocked his head to one side. "Why would you want to know that?" He said, scrunching his brow at me. How do I explain this without sounding like a complete wacko who wants to dig up 20 year old snowmobiles? "Just curious, I was a big fan of the old Kawasaki racing sleds" I said. Not a real lie, but not exactly the whole truth. After all did he need to know the whole truth? He straightened his head out and grinned a bit and said: "Hell everyone knows where that was. Damn sleds were louder then hell!" An uncomfortable giggle broke out amongst the hunters. "There ain't nothing there though - it's some other company now."

We continued to talk for a bit and between this guy and the shop owner. They told me stories about the testing of the sleds that went on at a near by lake. They told me about all the noise complaints. These were some very nice people, all very happy to help a complete stranger. God I love Minnesota. A crude map was formed. I thanked them all profusely and tried not to act too excited as I raced out the door to my car. Damn this was exciting. I found it just by asking, didn't get shot, and didn't get involved in a scene from Deliverance.

Life was good.

Continue on to part two: The Sharks in the Day.