Jim Bernat's 1977 440 Triple Polaris SnoPro "Leafer"

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The Back Story

Headed into the 1977 SnoPro race season, Polaris completed three machines like this, and two completely different ones that were equipped with an independent front suspension (IFS). All five machines went to Alaska in October to be tested on the first ice to be found anywhere. 

The IFS proved to be so effective at high-speed cornering, that team manager Bob Eastman called back the mothership in Roseau, Minnesota with instructions to cancel the build of the other leaf spring models and build IFS models as fast as possible. 

The three leafer models that went to Alaska were the only ones built, and the only ones raced, and the only ones to survive. The machines that were in progress were destroyed. 

Brad Hulings’ 250 leafer was raced during the 1977 season until sometime after Eagle River, when it was replaced with a new IFS machine. 

Bernat’s original 440 triple was converted right after Alaska to a 250 for Steve Thorsen to race. Steve raced that machine until sometime after Eagle River and then he got an IFS 250. 

Don Omdahl’s sled started out as a 340 triple in Alaska. That engine was discarded in favor of a 340 twin in Alaska. By the first race in Ironwood, it had been changed into a 440 for Jim Bernat to race, and in Alexandria, the same sled once again had a 340 twin in for Jim Bernat to race. 

That is this sled… originally Don Omdahl’s 340, then it was a 440 for Bernat, then a 340 for Bernat. 

The Famous 340 TRIPLE

Originally this machine was equipped with a 340 triple, the only known complete engine of the sort. It was so gutless that some of the Polaris race team members recall throwing it in the trash in Alaska. However, that is unlikely; Polaris did leave any of their latest and greatest tech just laying around. It more than likely went back to Polaris and was scrapped properly. 

At the book signing for The Starfire Kids – Midnight Blue Express, most of the Polaris race team was in attendance and they revealed that the 340 triple was, in fact, a sleeved-down 440 triple. Later discoveries by Troy Pierce were of a different crank, pistons, rings and heads that made it all work. 

As of this writing, none of these motors exist. 

Race History

Throughout the weekend in Alaska, this sled won its fair share. But that was not a points race and a lot of the other manufacturers were working out bugs. In Ironwood, we know from records and photos that Jim Bernat lost a cleat, and it tore through the clutch side of the tunnel, near the rear of the sled, so he did not finish. In the race in Alexandria, Minnesota, Jim finished 4th in SnoPro 340. 

No record or photo of this machine being raced by the Polaris factor after Alexandria has been found. Nor has any photos of the sled in Alaska been found.

Ironwood Michigan Photos

December of 1976

Bernat gets around the Arctic Cat Driver, and in the last photo, you can see the “SM III” on the rear of the tunnel. This was a big clue in figuring out the sled. 

AlexAndria Photos

The 440 engine was put into a new IFS chassis for Jim to race by Alexandria. The leafer got a 340 twin so he could run that class. Note in the last photo, you can only see the “S” in the “SMIII”, because the rest of it is behind a plate that was used to cover the hole from the cleat going through. 

Jim Bernat Alexandria, MN Polaris 340 Leafer Starfire Kids Midnight Blue Express Larry Preston

Lee Huasken Photos

After 1977, Lee Hausken’s race team picked up this sled from Polaris, along with a new 1978 340 IFS. Because he was going to run a twin, the Hausken team talked Polaris out of the twin hood that was on Brad Hulings’ 250. They also, for reasons unknown, got the skis from Hulings’ 250. They raced it until the hood literally crumbled and was thrown away. It was last raced in around 1982 in drag races, where they had cut it up a bit and fit a heavily modified IFS hood on it. 

Lee Hausken 340 Leafer 1979 Midnight Blue Express - Larry Preston

Lee Hausken did very well racing in Mod Stock with this sled. It did not meet the production requirements and almost was not allowed to run. But the Eagle River track officials checked with the Polaris guys who were at that race, and they helped Lee out by telling the race officials “Oh about 100 of those were made.” That was not true, but who could prove them wrong? 

Bernat Leafer Midnight Blue Express - Starfire Kids Larry Preston
Bernat Leafer Midnight Blue Express - Starfire Kids Larry Preston

Last two pictures of the sled the last year Lee’s race tream ran it. 

As Found and doing the research

All I knew when I bought this like this was that it had a serial number that made it a 1977 model (starts with 03), it had a magnesium bulkhead (Polaris only did that on factory race sleds), and that the rear cut off, handlebars and skis looked correct. 

I carefully documented every rivet hole, dent, scratch, and component before I touched a single thing. 

The biggest clue came when I finally pulled the plate off the rear of the tunnel. The original “SMIII” was still under it, and it was originally a “SMII”. The last “I” was a piece of electrical tape that was added on later. Why would they do that? because in Alaska, this was Omdahl’s 340 (SMII) and when Bernat raced it in Ironwood it was a 440 (SMIII) and in Ironwood the cleat went through the tunnel. They put this plate over it, and in Alexandria where Bernat is racing it as a 340, you can see part of the “S” but the rest is under the plate. 

Once I figured that out, and by cross referencing photos with Brad Warning (who owned the Thorsen 250 leafer at that point) were able to figure out both sleds, and what both needed to be restored. 

SMIII Decal Jim Bernat's 1977 440 Starfire Kids Larry Preston
SMIII Decal Exposed Jim Bernat's 1977 440 Starfire Kids Larry Preston

Imagine discovering the original SMIII decal under a plate!

1977 Polaris SnoPro Midnight Blue Express - Starfire Kids Larry Preston

As it was when I first saw it in a storage shed in Wisconsin. 

Restoration #1

Finding a real 1977 440 triple engine, pipes and ignition seemed like a daunting task at the beginning of the restoration, but the hood was even more of a challenge. At the time, I only knew of one original hood. Brad Warning had it, and he was not about to risk it by making a mold. So after searching for another hood for a couple years, I finally decided to try making one. 

I did not want to let the original chassis out of my site, so me and Jim Haug built a clone that could be used to create the hood. The magic man of Thief River, aka Kenny Halverson took the first stab at creating the hood, and very nearly nailed it. 

However, I sent it back, after creating the graphic roughs for it for refinement. Shortly thereafter, Kenny’s barn burned down with the hood. I was back at square one. 

Enter Justin Bergstrom who was taking over his fathers fiberglass business. My hood reproduction was hist first gig, and I thought it came out about 95% right. But after seeing Brad Warning’s hood in person, I realized there was some serious flaws in it.

Kenny Halverson 440 Polaris SnoPro Hood Rough Mold
Working out the decals for a 1977 440 Polaris SnoPro Starfire Kids - Larry Preston

The Restoration Team:

Larry Preston did all the research, emptied his wallet, hunted down all the parts, brought the team together and got it all bolted together, but without the people listed below, nothing would have ever happened with this machine:

If I forgot someone, please let me know.

Restoration #1 Results

It came out great, and we got to ride it one cloudy day on Wolf Lake in Alexandria, Minnesota. It still needed a lot of setup work on the carbs, clutching and ski pressure, but it was still a handful! 

It won it’s class at the famed Waconia vintage show and pretty much every show it went to thereafter. 

Restoration #2

In progress as you read this. The big news is that with the help of Don Ogan, I was able to find and put the original hood back on it and put together a lot more of the story of this sled after Polaris raced it. The short version is this: Don owned Brad Hulings’ 1977 250cc leafer this whole time, and it had the Bernat hood on it. Don even remembers seeing Bernat’s name on it the first time he saw it. 

So I had a twin hood made for him (just the one, so no, I cannot get any more), and I gave him the Brad Hulings skis that were on this machine. 

So the current restoration is fixing the hood up and getting it to stay on, putting the new skis on, replacing the fuel line with the original red colored line (thank to Boyd Burke for catching that!) and a little clean up. 

Stay tuned.. the original hood looks AWESOME!