The winter of 2024 marks the 50th Anniversary of the 1974 Polaris Professional Sno-Pro team.
They got a hefty budget of $750,000 (which would be $4,650,000 in today’s dollars) for the engines, sleds, salaries, staff, and travel. So, in the early fall of 1973, the team was planning how to win in the first-ever all-professional racing circuit.
It was decided that each driver would run two classes. 1973 World Champion Bob Eastman would run 340cc and 650cc classes. Reigning Winnipeg to St. Paul Champion Stan Hayes would also run 340cc and 650cc machines. Don Omdahl would run 340cc and 440cc, and Larry Rugland and Jim Bernat would run 440c and 650cc classes.
The other teams, Arctic Cat, Ski-Doo, Alouette, and many others, announced the design of their machines would push what was possible. That made sense since the rules were essentially wide open, other than the size of the engines, a minimum weight for the machines, and some safety items.
Eastman and the crew saw some of those early announcements and decided they would make every improvement they could to the 1973 Starfire, including improving the engines, ignitions, pipes, and clutches. They would also push the envelope on the minimum weight rule.
The result was twelve chassis (two spares) made completely from lightweight and robust magnesium. Many parts would be made from titanium, and any steel used would be as thin as possible. Even the skis were made from thin aluminum and shortened to lighten them up. The engines were close to the 1973 versions but with some much-needed changes to the exhaust ports, magnesium crankcases, and all-new ignitions.
Eastman and team manager Gary Mathers put the team on a tight schedule because they wanted to be tuning and dialing in the machines at the first sighting of ice or snow.
When Polaris released its promo photo, the press yawned. The primary comment was that it was nothing more than a 1973 Starfire with a new hood.
When the team got to the first race, they got a good look at all the exotic machinery and were nervous that they made the wrong decision, and maybe they should have made something as exotic as the Alloutte Twin Track machine.
But once the checkered flag flew on the first race, Polaris was all dialed in and ready to, and won most of their races pretty handily.
In the end, Yamaha did an outstanding job in the 440 class, with Arctic Cat and Polaris only piercing their won streak on a few occasions. But Polaris owned the 340 and 650cc classes, with Stan Hayes coming out #1 in points, with Larry Rugland right behind him.
According to three different reliable sources, after the 1974 season, just four of the 1974 Sno-Pros were for sale through Rosco surplus. None had engines, skis, or clutch guards. One turned out to be Stan Hayes’ 650, the other was Don Omdahl’s 440, and one could guess the others were Larry Rugland’s 650 and Stan Hayes’ 340cc machine.
Hayes’ 340 machine is, as far as I know, still sitting in a shed covered in chicken poop, with just the steering, chaincase, and belly pan on it.
I ran into Stan Hayes’ 650 in Wisconsin in the early 2000s, and it has taken almost twenty years to find the parts and restore it. I also found and restored Omdahl’s 440, completing that one in around 2008. Keith Warning found Rugland’s 650 and that one also took about a decade to restore.
Another 1974 Sno-Pro is unrestored in Michigan and belongs to the Paustain family. It was one of the spare chassis that was never raced by the factory, but it was dolled up and used for the 1975 promo picture.
Any 1974 Sno-Pro, from any manufacturer is a scarce machine. They were purpose-built for racing, and each was the best the factories could create.
They are most definitely collector and investor-grade machines.
Only one Ski-Doo and just a couple of Arctic Cats exist. We now know the Alouette twin trackers survived, along with just one Suzuki, a couple of the Kohlers, and none of the Yamaha sleds survived.
It was a unique period in history when snowmobile racing was trying to attract more fans, make it fair for the mighty factory teams, and provide a way for the guy who races out of the back of his pickup to compete.
Did it work? Not so much. Before the end of the season, many of the factories pulled out, some went out of business, and the domination of Polaris and Yamaha had the rest of the factory teams electing not to attend some races. You could say by the time Sno-Pro got to the last race in West Yellowstone, it was on life support.
But the memories that season provided are a vivid reminder of a time when snowmobile racing was a big-time sport throughout the snow belt.
We won’t see the hype around an upcoming season as we did going into 1974. Factories will never again stick that kind of money into racing, and it’s unlikely the crowds will get that big again. The world is just different now.
But you can look at one of these restored sleds, hear the crackle of a two-stroke engine pushed to its maximum, and smell the race fumes.
And that’s worth keeping them around for years to come.