Snowmobiling a way of life for 82-year-old Fort Dodger

Submitted photo Gary Foster poses for a picture after winning in Waconia, Minnesota this year. Pictured left to right are, Foster; Joe Thelen (son-in-law from Des Moines), Mark Foster (brother), and Ryan Foster (nephew) both from Rogers, Ark. Foster’s snowmobiles won first place in both races.

Editor’s Note: this is the first part in a two-part series. The concluding story will publish in Tuesday’s Messenger.

Most people dread the thought of ice, frozen lakes and cold temperatures for extended periods of time.

Mother Nature has extended winter conditions well into April this year, and the majority of us have been pleading for warmer temperatures.

This is all fine by Fort Dodge’s Gary Foster, who spends more time concerned about the ice depth on the waters than the temperature in the air.

For the past 36 years, Foster has spent the cold months on the ice, competitively racing his vintage snowmobiles.

Some people enjoy riding snowmobiles as a hobby. For Foster, it’s a way of life.

He works on and drives his sled, which can reach 95-plus miles per hour. And and when he’s not tinkering with his snowmobile he’s in his garage, restoring cars.

Foster’s not the type to just sit back and relax at home. He likes to be keep busy and enjoy his passion.

By the way, Foster is 82 years old.

“If you don’t stay active, you’ll deteriorate around 70 (years old),” Foster said. “I’m always tinkering, wanting to get better.

“You only have one life, so you might as well live it and do what you feel you can do.”

The love for snowmobile racing started in the 1970s, when Foster used to race on the river with a bunch of his friends.

He started racing his vintage snowmobile in 1982, and has been all over the midwest ever since.

“Okoboji is one of the main spots I’ve raced at, but I’ve also been to Marshalltown, Lake Cornelia, Clear Lake, Independence, Minnesota and Waconia (to name a few),” Foster said. “I haven’t (slowed down) like most people my own age … I still get around pretty good.”

Foster’s love for competitive snowmobiling dates back to racing with his son, Tom, in 1982. Tom won the World Series of snowmobile racing in 1984 in Wisconsin.

After being crowned champion, Tom tragically died in a motorcycle accident later that year. Gary decided to continue his legacy by staying loyal to the sport after Tom’s passing.

“A lot of people told me Tom would not want me to quit, and for me to keep going is honoring him,” Foster said. “But I’ve never been back to the World Series.”

Foster’s daughter, Ann Thelen — who now lives in Johnston — saw father’s drive grow from that fateful day in 1984 on.

“My brother was 24 when he died and won the World Series. I would say the love for racing grew together up until the time my brother died,” Thelen said. “Then my dad’s passion for the sport increased, because it was something they did together. There are so many incredible memories and he is really honoring his legacy.

“Now, racing and memories are somewhat intertwined. He does it because it is his passion and because it keeps those memories of my brother alive. It’s like a lifeblood for him. It’s all he thinks about every winter season.”

Whether he knew it or not, Foster’s commitment to the sport reached not just his son, but daughters Ann and Deanne.

“My mom (Geri, who passed away in 2014) was extremely supportive of my dad going and doing this on the weekends,” Thelen said. “It gives me enormous pride to see him do this. His character has always been something I’ve aspired (to follow) in my life. He’s honest and works hard. He’s shown me the value of hard work, helping others and not wanting to be in the limelight. He doesn’t do it for the credit, he does it for the right reasons.

“He taught me how to follow your passion, find something you love to do and enjoy it.”

Foster’s dedication to snowmobiling hasn’t changed, but the sport itself has evolved.

When he first started, races were 750 feet from a deadstop to the finish line. Then it was reduced to 660 feet. The present distance is 500 feet.

The humble 82-year old Fort Dodge resident takes pride in the fact that most of the work done on his two sleds are by his own two hands.

“I do all my own tuning,” Foster said. “I’ve won in the Pro Stock division of 440 Liquid, and jumped up and won the 540 Liquid as well. I have two sleds. I used to run a 1972 340 Ski-Doo and a ’73 440 Super Mod. Now I run two 1977 Blizzards 440s.

“I tinker with them in the garage or work on cars. Occasionally, I’ll let a younger person ride it in a race. My nephew (brother’s son) came up from Arkansas and he rode it in the middle of February. He won all the heat races and two classes up there.”

Foster enjoys the success he’s been able to sustain as a competitive snowmobiler, which has helped him become an icon in the sport.

“He’s out there still doing this, beating people of all ages,” Thelen said. “He’s a legend. Guys in their 40s treat my dad like he’s their own dad.

“They look up to him and respect him.”

Tuesday: Fellow racers speak of Foster’s accomplishments and dedication to the sport.