Puff the Magic Sledder: PhD Student Races Snowmobiles Professionally

By Dennis Walikainen

Michigan Technological University PhD candidate Jennifer Fuller grew up dabbling in snowmobiling in her native Saginaw, where they have just a few inches of snowfall per year. So when she got to Houghton and Michigan Tech, she was hooked.

“I started with a local hill climb, found the Sledheads student organization and eventually moved on to the Midwest pro circuit,” she says.

Whether in a hill climb or endurance run (100—and sometimes 500—miles), her Polaris sled can be found battling other women on the USXC Cross Country Snowmobile Circuit.

“The endurance races are true to the original terrain that snowmobiles were designed for,” she says. “We cross ditches, lakes, roadsides, woods, you name it. They are typically 10-20 mile laps that we run numerous times with fuel stops.”

In a separate Pro Women’s Class, she’s finished as high as second in the endurance runs. She is sponsored by Polaris.

“They spotted me at the World Championships in Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” she says. “The team owner, Gabe Bunke, and his family were there and invited me to race for Bunke Racing.”

“Jen has been fun to work with the last two years,” Gabe Bunke says. “She’s got a real good attitude and somehow manages to get though situations that may be over her head. And she never gives up. We call her ‘Puff,’ from the old Powder Puff female racing days.”

Bunke Racing fixes, prepares and moves her Polaris IQR 600CC sled to the eight different sites on the Midwest circuit. That’s a big bonus for a PhD candidate.

“Depending on my workload, I can be driving off to a location at the last minute,” Fuller says. “Sometimes, I’m getting in at 2 a.m. for a 9 a.m. start. It’s huge that the sled is there ready for me.”

They also keep the sled so Fuller isn’t tempted to bring it back to Houghton, where she has been known to break it.

“It’s better that I focus on school,” she says.

Polaris is one of the four big sponsors in snowmobile racing, with Ski-Doo, Yamaha and Arctic Cat.

It was in the hometown of Arctic Cat, Thief River Falls, Minn., that Fuller’s 500-mile race took place this February. She made it through 430 miles of the three-day race before crashing and heading to the hospital with a concussion. She also missed Winter Carnival at Tech.

The differences between the endurance events and hill climbs are many, including the time they take: one minute versus two hours (for the 100-mile version).

“And that’s with no lunch breaks or bathroom breaks,” Fuller adds.

And what does her family think about all this?

“They think I’m crazy, but they always support my decisions” she says.

Whether or not she sticks with snowmobile racing depends on where the PhD leads, she explains. “I’d like to keep racing, but I just don’t know where my career will take me.”

But Bunke says, “I know, when she’s trying to figure out the next step in her life, she’s always looking at staying connected with Bunke Racing and being able to snowmobile. Jen is a top notch gal, and we love having her at the races. So do the young female fans. She’s big on Facebook, too.”

She’s already had to turn down offers to work for Polaris, in both snowmobile design and the purchasing department.

“They hire engineers, even civil engineers, for everything, they said.”

Instead, she’s studying civil and environmental engineering on an NSF fellowship and charting a much different course in life.

“I actually have some entrepreneurship goals that I will be pursuing,” Fuller says. “But I love teaching and research, so if I could combine them all, that is my ideal career.

Fuller’s race year is wrapping up March 9-10 in Warroad, Minn. Then she gets to enjoy Spring Break.