YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) -- Students from seven universities raced their retooled snowmobiles across the southern portion of Yellowstone National Park to prove to a team of judges that the future of snowmobiling is a cleaner, quieter experience.
Wednesday marked the beginning of the Clean Snowmobile Challenge 2000, a competition that started this year as a way to promote the industry but has become more serious since park officials announced a ban on snowmobiles may be inevitable.
The guidelines are tough. In the days leading up to the event, only two of the seven sleds passed emission tests, a critical step in the competition in which carbon monoxide emissions must be reduced by a quarter and unburned hydrocarbons by half normal levels.
''Emissions is the most heavily weighted, in addition to noise,'' said challenge coordinator Lori Fussell.
As the teams sped along an 80-mile route to test their machines' fuel efficiency, they passed a riverbank where a coyote had been gnawing on a elk carcass and where eagles soared overhead. Earlier, park officials made sure the area was clear of elk and bison so the drivers would not get hurt.
The goal of the challenge is to develop a snowmobile that is environmentally friendly but retains performance that riders demand.
''I think it's our only hope really, to stay in the park,'' said challenge judge Craig Koll, owner of Old Faithful Snowmobile Tours.
Bill Paddleford, a Teton County commissioner who estimates that a snowmobile ban could eliminate 15 to 20 percent of the area's winter economy, said he helped start the competition because of frustration with manufacturers he thinks are too slow to put out environmentally friendly products.
The students are given six months to retool handed-down sleds.
''We've done more in six months than the industry has done in six years,'' Paddleford said.
The National Park Service has helped sponsor the challenge. The primary sponsor is the Society of Automotive Engineers, based in Warrendale, Pa.
''I think the park is just excited to promote cleaner, quieter snowmobiles,'' said district park ranger Mary Wilson.
Challenge officials are not saying until the end of the event who passed the emissions test, but a leading candidate is a snowmobile from State University of New York-Buffalo that has a four-stroke engine.
''You can't even smell the exhaust and if you have cologne on, that's all you'll smell,'' said driver Andrew Mills.
Donald Ableson, past president of the Society for Automotive Engineers, said he was impressed by what he heard as the sleds zoomed by.
''You weren't plugging your ears as they went by,'' he said.
But Jason Bohrer, assistant editor of SnoWest Magazine, based in Idaho Falls, Idaho, said he could not tell much difference.
''At normal running speeds, they don't sound a lot different than a typical fan-cooled snowmobile,'' except for the four-stroke engine snowmobile ''that was noticeably quieter,'' he said.
Colorado State University competitor Justin Mick put himself through a bachelor's degree in ecology by repairing snowmobiles. Now he is getting his masters in mechanical engineering.
''My professors said if you don't like the noise, tell the manufacturers,'' he said. ''I don't like to complain. I'd rather get involved and try to fix it.''
The students are competing through Friday for a share of up to $23,000 that will be donated to their schools, probably to continue the sled design work for the following year of competition.
Other schools competing this year are Colorado School of Mines; Minnesota State University, Mankato; Ecole de Technologie Superieure, Quebec, Canada; University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; and Michigan Technological University.
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