Sunday, November 8, 2009

THE MIDNIGHT BLUE EXPRESS

It was the winter of 1972 and I was 8 years old. I heard my father’s truck pull up to the front door and as I looked out the window, I saw a big red machine in the back of his truck. From that time until I graduated high school, the winters were all about snowmobiling.

A Bolens was our first machine and then a second one was added. I think we had a couple John Deere too.

Sometime in 1976 He became a dealer of a brand called Polaris and the New London Version of the “Midnight Blue Express” was born. He soon became known as “Tweak”. If anyone needed their sled faster than the next guys, my Dad could "tweak" it. It was funny because we would be walking down the street and someone drivivg by would yell out their window "Hey Tweak!" My dad would yell back "Hey" . It was like he was famous or something. Every season he would search out races and trailer his sleds to them and blow everyone’s doors off. Our house quickly filled with trophies.

The 1978 season, Polaris, sent him a video machine that had a tape of the corporate racing team “Midnight Blue Express” I was hooked. I’d watch it over and over again. The next summer I took all my savings and bought a full faced helmet and suit similar to theirs.

The Polaris factory race team began a few years earlier with team leader Bob Eastman. The 1976 racing season was dismal from the start. Budget cuts meant the team could not build the machines for 76 that they wanted. They had to take stock sleds off the line and modify them as best they could. The motors were down on horsepower. As one reporter put it, Polaris drivers Don Omdahl and Jim Bernat found themselves "scrapping like prize-fighters for 2nd place."

Polaris management took notice; not winning races reflected poorer sales numbers. The budget for 1977 was increased before the winter of 1976 was even over.

The 1976-1977 racing season for the Polaris race team started the day after they arrived back at their home base of Roseau, Minnesota after the very last race of the winter of 1976. The team made a commitment to themselves to have the very best machines and the very best drivers for the next year. With Don Omdahl and Jerry Bunke returning as drivers and the addition of Brad Hulings (who had been beating up on the factories with his little Mercury Snow-Twisters), Bob Eastman was confident that the driver talent was already there; now it was time for the machines.

Gordon Rudolph had built several 73 Starfires into IFS machines at his shop in Illinois. With one of them, he qualified for the 1975 World's Championship. That got the attention of the boys from Roseau, and that summer he and one of his machines were invited up for a demonstration. Most were very impressed; some were skeptical. Either way, the team decided to build some machines with the strange new front end.





Heading into the fall, just two IFS machines were built. Many on the team were not convinced that it would work, so they planned on going into battle with a new rigid front-end machine. The rigid front machine was lower and lighter. It contained a host of improvements over the 1976 version. They also had a new bunch of liquid cooled motors that did show promise on the dyno. New improvements in clutching were developed, getting more power to the ground. A new track and rear skid frame that worked much better was employed. This sled, although still a rigid front end, was new from the ground up.

The team left for Alaska well ahead of the race scheduled there in October. They wanted some serious time on the ice with the new machines. Out on a lonely Alaska lake, all by themselves, they were careful to make sure no one was around when they tested the new machines. Just two IFS machines made the trip, a 440 for Jerry and a 250 for Don Omdahl. Three rigid front end machines also came up: A 440 for Jim Bernat (who would drive part time in 1977), a 340 triple cylinder machine for Don Omdahl (this would be the one and only 340 triple Polaris would ever make) and a 250 for Brad Hulings.
From the first tests, they knew they had something special with all the machines, and Jerry Bunke (pictured at right), Brad and Don were on fire on the new machines. By the time the rest of the teams showed up and the first race was run, it was obvious the new IFS was going to work, and was going to work well.

For the rest of the trip, the team down played the IFS, even though they won nearly every race that weekend. A couple of near accidents kept the competition thinking the IFS wasn't any good - and worse, it probably wasn't safe. But while they were all talking it over, Bob Eastman was on the phone back to Roseau to chief chassis builder, Arlyn Saage. Bob told Arlyn to chuck the rigid front end machines they had been working on and order all the material he needed, and start building those IFS sleds as fast as he could. Bob would later recall it as the most exciting time he had ever had in racing. "I knew we had 'em" referring to the competition. "We had them."

When the team got back home to Roseau. Don Omdahl was involved in an after-hours altercation at a local bar, resulting in a broken neck. He was not only out for the season, but his doctors warned him that another race accident could easily leave him paralyzed or dead. Don, who had been racing since 1970 for Polaris and had a ton of trophy hardware to show for it, was all done with racing.

By 5:00 that night, Bob Eastman drew up a list of three names, had a couple discussions with the rest of the team, and by 6:00, he was on the phone to Steve Thorsen (pictured at left), another hot little Mercury Snow-Twister driver who had impressed Bob and the team that year. A few hours later, Steve was in Roseau with his suit on, ready to try driving the new machines on the lagoon, a pond near Roseau, all lit up with lights from as many pick-up trucks as they could find. It was a Friday, and Steve would be racing the new sleds on Saturday in Ironwood Michigan.

The rest of the industry was given a mild shock at Ironwood. Heavy snow had stopped the races early on Sunday after Jerry Bunke won the 250 class. Races would resume Monday, albeit with a much smaller crowd due to it being a work day. But crowd or not, Polaris won every one of the super-mod SnoPro classes. The competition blew it off as a fluke, and was more concerned with their own issues rather than what Polaris did.

The shockwave of the new sleds and the new drivers would not hit completely until the next weekend, at the Dayco Holiday Spectacular, in Alexandria, Minnesota.

The competition may not have believed the new Polaris sleds were all that hot even after Ironwood, but they were sure paying close attention now. Brad Hulings won the 250 and 340 class, and dramatically pushed his dead race sled over the line in the 440 class to walk away with the Hetteen Cup. If Jerry Bunke was relatively unknown before the Dayco Holiday Spectacular in December of 1976, he became an overnight success after that race. Jerry Bunke stunned the crowd of over 15,000 people when he won the 15 lap 440X feature race, with Brad and Jim Bernat right behind.

The other manufacturers were not pleased. They called a special meeting demanding that the Polaris sleds be limited to the X class only. Bob Eastman was called to that meeting, and after two hours and yelling and screaming, he simply opened up the rule book and asked "Where, gentlemen, does it say in this rule book that we cannot run those machines." The meeting was over Bob had proven his point - besides Ski-Doo and Kawasaki also had IFS machines. The Polaris sleds just worked better.

The rest of the 1977 season was like a broken record. Polaris won almost 90% of all the races, often winning first, second and third position. Jerry, Brad and Steve proved to be excellent drivers and excellent mechanics. The rest of the team by 1977 had over a decade of experience with snowmobile racing, so all that knowledge was made available to the new young drivers.

The IFS allowed the Polaris drivers to find a line in the corners, and stay there as though they were a train on rails. They barely had to let up in the corners and they blew right past the competitors. This handling and the dominance of the team gave rise to them being referred to in the press as "The Midnight Blue Express".

At the Eagle River World's Championship, Jim Bernat won the 440X class, and Brad Hulings driving a 340 won the regular 440 class.

In the World's Championship race, Jerry Bunke and Steve Thorsen pulled out in front very fast. Many people considered it to be the most exciting race ever run at that historic race track, with Steve and Jerry battling back and fourth like mortal enemies. For thirteen of the fifteen laps, they traded placed for first and second, neither giving an inch, often bumping one another. On the last lap, for a split second, Jerry's track bounced off its slide rails, and slowed his machine way down. It was all Steve needed to pull away. Even though Jerry's track popped back into place, it was too late for him. But in what was described as a very normal reaction for Jerry, he was not the least bit upset at the loss; instead he was thrilled that team mate Steve Thorsen won the 77 World's Championship.

That's the way it went for the rest of the season. It was Polaris, 1-2-3. In the final points standings for the year, The #874 machine of Jerry Bunke came out on top, Steve Thorsen's #2 machine would stay #2, and Brad Huling's would take 3rd overall. That meant that next year, the leather racing suits and the sleds from the Polaris factory would proudly display the numbers 1, 2 and 3.
Going into 1978, the success from 77 had created quite a demand for other snowmobile racers to have access to one of those IFS machines. The other manufacturers had closed the gap by the end of the year, and for 1978, a new Super-Stock class was created for a consumer version of the IFS race sleds. Polaris would build 106 340cc machines for sale to specially qualified drivers. Rolling chassis would be made available to any qualified driver who wanted to put in his own 250, 340 or even 440 Super Modified engine.





The factory had a bit of a cut-back in the budget for 1978. So rather than cut back on drivers or machines, Polaris opted instead just to skip a few of the smaller races, and only make their presence known at the really important ones. Once again, Jerry, Brad and Steve would compete with a sled each in Super-Mod 250, 340 and 440. Each would have one special 440 machine for the 440X class, with a magnesium bulkhead to reduce weight and some other trick parts.

They found out just how much the other factories had caught up at the very first race: Ski-Doo's Doug Hayes walked away with top honors. By Alexandria, Polaris had caught up, but so had Arctic Cat. While Hayes would walk away with the Hetteen cup, Steve Thorsen would win the 440X 15 lap feature race.

At Eagle River, the team got three new machines just in time to put them on the ice at the big race. Brad Hulings crashed his special built machine on the first lap - the throttle stuck when he fell off, and the sled bounded into the parking lot and smashed into an ambulance. Jerry and Steve made the big final race, and Brad won the 440X class on this other machine.

In the final, it looked like Jerry Bunke was finally going to win the big title. For most of the laps he led with Steve Thorsen right behind him. On about the 12th lap, Jerry broke a spindle but kept going. Steve and others passed him - but Jerry kept racing. Concerned that it might be a safety issue for Jerry, race officials black flagged him, but no matter - Steve Thorsen came around the corner on the 15th lap for the win. Except when he looked up, it was not the checkered flag he expected - it was white. Steve kept going and won anyway, finding out later that a lap counting mistake caused the extra lap. Back in Roseau on Monday, Steve was more than a little relieved it didn't go beyond 16 laps. The sled was not designed to last any longer then it had to, and several key components were near failure.

Although the competition had closed the gap in 78, the Polaris race team, heading into the last few races looked like it would triumph again. Brad Hulings was well on his way to being number one in points; Jerry and Steve not so far behind.

Then came the race in Beausejour, Manitoba in March of 1978, the second to the last race of the year. The weather was bitterly cold, and the machines going around the long, flat ice covered track were leaving a "wall" of ice-dust that just hung in the air - making it nearly impossible to see. Conditions were so bad, at least one major independent team packed it up and went home.

In the 440 class, things got serious. Jerry Bunke was thrown from his machine and fatally injured when he was struck by another machine.

Jerry Bunke passed away a couple of hours later at a nearby hospital. The loss was devastating to Polaris and the people of Roseau. To this day it is difficult for many to talk about. Jerry was just 26 years old and had fans everywhere - his biggest being his wife Pam and son Gabriel.

There had been talk of Polaris getting out of racing due to the expense for years. But Jerry's accident gave the corporate headquarters the reason they needed to make the final decision. Just a short time after the accident, Polaris announced it would not field a factory race team ever again.

Instead, Polaris decided it would send their top guys out to help independent racers in 1979. They released an update kit for the RXL that included a new hood with a windshield, new cylinders and new pipes amongst other things.

Secretly, they built three more special RXL's for three top drivers; Tim Bender, Ron Barnes and Frans Rosenquist. The three machines known as "no-coasts" (for their ability to go through the corner wide open), came from the factory ready for Rotax engines that were installed by the drivers.

These would be the very last oval ice race machines officially built by the Polaris factory.

By 1980, it had become clear that the RXL's were already not very competitive with the newer, higher horsepower machines and they started to disappear from race tracks almost as fast as race tracks were disappearing from the landscape. Oval racing across the snowbelt had reached it's peak. Although it would remain popular at the big tracks like Beausejour and Eagle River, it never would recover the popularity it enjoyed in the 1960's and 1970's.


But the RXL remains one of the most sought after machines ever built at Polaris. Collectors all over the globe covet the little midnight blue race machines, and they keep gaining fans among younger snowmobilers every year. Many snowmobile shows, both for vintage and new machines, prominently feature an RXL or two every year - a testament to the fact that the fascination with the machine - and the people behind it - is as strong as it was over 30 years ago.






Information was provided by Larry Preston and Images by C.J. Ramstadt Library,Gordon Rudolph and James Blieke

4 comments:

  1. I had a great time reading your post. Thanks for making this. God bless.

    Count
    www.imarksweb.org

    ReplyDelete
  2. very interesting story,and touching about the sleds and the death of such a young guy jerry bunke...leaving behind a son and wife at 26 yrs young

    ReplyDelete
  3. sad story about jerry bunke death at 26 yrs old,and leaving a wife and young child,totally miss adventure that day.interesting story of young man and machine and the history of the legendary RXL from them days of ice and ages.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Life is a battle, if you don't know how to defend yourself then you'll end up being a loser. So, better take any challenges as your stepping stone to become a better person. Have fun, explore and make a lot of memories.

    n8fan.net

    www.n8fan.net

    ReplyDelete