Polaris: The leading star on the handle of the Little Dipper, which is also known as the North Star.
‘Twas the winter of 1954-55 that an over-the-snow vehicle appeared in Roseau, MN, and it was available for Joe Consumer. Edgar and Allen Hetteen, along with David Johnson (brother-in-law to the Hetteen brothers), were the first to create, market and mass-produce “snowmobiles.”
After 10 years of Hetteen Hoist and Derrick, a company that the brothers had prior to busting into the snowmobile industry—along with manufacturing various other products for the farming industry—this trio decided it was high time for some creative tinkering and decided to make something for recreation instead of work. Hence, Sno Traveler—later to be known as Polaris—snowmobiles were born.
Polaris genealogy shows a heritage of integrity and durability as proven in 1960 when the sport of snowmobiling was only five years old. Edgar and three other people traversed 1,200 miles across Alaska from Bethel to Fairbanks. The expedition was completed aboard three Sno Travelers and done so with no serious mishaps or malfunctions.
In 1966 Clark Dahlin and James Langley took a trip from Vancouver, BC, to South Portland, ME, an excursion of 4,018 miles and it wasn’t in the company car. These fellers were aboard a couple of Polaris Colts for 24 days.
Also in 1966, Polaris swept the top three at the finish line of the inaugural running of the Winnipeg to St. Paul I-500 cross country race. The I-500 was raced for 20 years with Polaris snowmobiles winning the first two and the last one, while compiling more wins in between than all other manufacturers combined.
The year 1987 brought the new Jeep International 500 race, with the course starting in Thunder Bay, ON (replacing Winnipeg as the start city), and running these woods jockeys down to St. Paul. Polaris never missed a beat, winning three consecutive races.
These endurance races were proving grounds for Polaris engineers and innovative ideas such as liquid-cooled motors and brakes, along with suspension refinements, were the result. The development of the highly touted Independent Front Suspension (IFS) and the Indy chassis were fine tuned during these mad dashes across the countryside.
This is the era when Hall Wendel was calling the shots at Roseau. Wendell was a very savvy businessman and saw Polaris through some difficult times while keeping himself surrounded by good management and employees. Somewhere within Wendel’s brain trust came a vision to pursue a new demographic sect.
Even though the Polaris LT had been around since 1983, the new idea was a fun one. The LT was an off-trail machine designed to be a utility worker, with a 148x15 inch track and big cargo rack. Even with its modest horsepower, the go-ability of the LT off trail was impressive. So the new idea was to soup it up, lighten it up and go with a nice in between trail and utility length of track, which would be around 133 inches.
In 1987 Polaris introduced the first recreational off-trail snowmobile, known as the Snow King Special. Why Snow King Special? Well, there’s this wild-ass gig every year at Jackson Hole, WY, known as the World Championship Hillclimb, that goes straight up the face of Snow King Mountain on Exhibition Run. The SKS badge made it very obvious that Polaris was confident that its new off-trail snowmobile would set a new precedence in the disciplines of hillclimbing and western/mountain riding.
Now that Polaris had established a new market segment, it’s a good time to do a background check into the gene pool of the 2007 Dragon RMK and see what has transpired from that little town in northern Minnesota the last 20 years. Just keep in mind some of the following upgrades were time sensitive to the mountain lineup, not the complete lineup, and were also industry-leading innovations.
With 1987 being the inception of the new SKS, the lineup was short with the 488 fan-cooled Trail and the 400 liquid. In ‘87 there was no track of choice. The industry standard was a 15-inch wide rubber molded track that had half-inch traction bars with the leading edge rotating toward braking traction, not acceleration traction. Polaris and Yokahama opted for the 133.5-inch length for the SKS, which was substantially longer than the 121-inch trail sleds, yet significantly shorter that the 148-inch utility machines. With this new market segment, Polaris opened the door for aftermarket companies to supply goods to further enhance the off trail riding experience. That included traction products which were already a given because of the Jackson Hole thing.
• 1988 The SKS 488 Trail and 400 received minor refinements while inheriting a big brother. The 650 triple was a new motor in the Polaris lineup that year and an SKS model was included.
• 1989 Just minor refinements for the SKS 488 Trail and 650, while the 400 was axed for a new 500 liquid twin.
• 1990 This was the year the S.K.S. lineup shrunk as the Trail moved to the touring platform while the 500 and the 650 received minor refines.
• 1991 Once again the SKS 500 got subtle changes and the carbed 650 SKS was replaced with the new RXL 650. Polaris began to explore fuel injection as an alternative to elevation changes and jetting woes.
• 1992 The SKS line was loaded with fuelies as the RXL 650 returned and the 500 lost its carbs to fuel injection.
• 1993 A big transition year for the SKS with some major changes and new models. Also a track manufacturer stepped up to the plate and started a track revolution. The Indy chassis received some major upgrades including the XC 100 suspension with the pivot points being moved forward for better weight transfer and overall ride. Another major change was out with the old molded rubber track and in with new track designs offering gobs more acceleration and braking traction. These tracks had the same 15x133-inch dimensions but had more aggressive bar or block designs with the Deep Wiper or Storm track being the most aggressive at .91 inches. The SKS line for ‘93 had the 500 EFI and 650 RXL returning and to be joined by the 440. Brand new was the 580 Xtra Lite Triple (XLT) and the 750 Storm.
• 1994 The Indy chassis received even more suspension upgrades for more improved weight transfer and deep snow performance. For the second year the Wiper, Inline Block and Deep Wiper were the tracks offered for the Snow King Specials. The 440, 500 EFI and 580 XLT returned as the 650 RXL went Touring. The sport 440 Fan was picked up as the entry-level model and the big boy Storm was pumped up to 800ccs.
• 1995 The SKS lineup remained virtually unchanged and received minor refines except for the XLT, which was beefed up to 600ccs. The 1-inch deep Lightning track was added to choices along with a 1.5-inch paddle track being offered through an early order “snow check” program.
• 1996 Back to another year of lots of changes as a new moniker came to the forefront. The Rocky Mountain King nameplate would now be the top of the line models with all being outfitted with a deep lug 1.25-inch paddle track. The Snow King Special nameplate would remain and be geared out with either the Deep Wiper or Lightening tracks. New in the fuel delivery department was the Altitude Carburetion Compensating System (ACCS) for a carburated model. This system helps to keep the jetting closer to spot on as elevations change during riding. The model lineup now consisted of a 500 RMK and SKS, a 500 EFI RMK and SKS, a 600 XLT SKS, a 600 XLT RMK and SKS with ACCS, the new 680 Ultra RMK and SKS, an 800 Storm RMK and SKS. Wow, was that a herd of ponies.
• 1997 Yet another year of big changes as mountain riding continued to evolve. The Indy chassis was upgraded with a different bulkhead complete with new Control Roll Center (CRC) steering and a slightly rolled or rotated chaincase that decreased the approach angle of the track. Also new were the flexible composite Sidehiller skis. The ‘97 lineup had the 500 and 600 XLT RMK and SKS return as did the 800 Storm RMK, but the Storm would be built on the aggressive platform for its last year as a long tracker. The Ultra was dropped and the 488 Trail returned after a seven-year absence from the long track lineup. The big news was a brand new 700 twin RMK and SKS that received all of the upgrades and the RMK had some extra flotation as the 15-inch wide track with 1.5-inch paddles was stretched another three inches to 136 inches long.
• 1998 A year of minor refines and model trimming as Polaris gained momentum with the RMKs. One more year for the 488 Trail, 500 and 700 RMKs with the addition of a new 600 twin. Gone were all the Snow King Specials and the 600 XLT as it went Touring. Tracks for the offering that year were the 15x133 with either a 1.25 or 1.5-inch lugs or the 15x136x1.75-inch lug as traction continued to increase.
• 1999 Back to major changes that year as Polaris gave us an appetizer of things to come with the new Gen II style of hood and belly pan. As the needs of an off trail rider continued to change, so did the ergonomics of the RMKs. New for the riders that year were longer and straighter handlebars for increased leverage and good boot traction on the running board’s outer roll. Say good-bye to the 500 after a whole decade of the long tracks. Back for more were the RMK 488 Trail, 600 and 700. The 600 and 700 carbs were controlled with the ACCS. Tracks available were the 15x133x1.25 for the Trail and a 15x136x1.75 for the 600 and 700 with the option of a 2-inch lugger on special order.
• 2000 A huge year for the RMKs as Polaris intros the all-new Gen II chassis to mate up with the new hood and pan from last year. The Roseau gang became weight conscious as the world of mountain riding continued a rapid transition and stand-up riding had become the style to get around in the hills. The lighter Gen II chassis came with the perimeter cooling system that heated the running boards, improved front suspension geometry with an inboard mounting point for the back of the trailing arms and an increase in the rolled position of the chaincase for improved deep snow performance. Up front the suspension was lighter and had an adjustable ski stance with an improved Sidehiller II composite ski. Out back was a new Xtra Lite 12 rear suspension, boosting the travel two more inches. The Xtra Lite skid frame had a bent rail design, known as the Dual Purpose Rail, for reducing the forward push when cornering, which is created by the longer, more aggressive tracks. Bringing up the rear was a new cargo rack for extra gas or gear for going into the backcountry. New in the cockpit were 2-inch taller handlebars with end hooks and a mountain strap and a noticeable increase in boot traction on the running boards. Returning from ‘99 was the RMK 488 Trail, 600 ACCS and 700 ACCS. Back in the lineup was the RMK 500 and SKS 700. Also, add a new big brother with the 800 RMK twin coming on line. Tracks available are the same as ‘99 with the new 15x136x2 track being standard equipment on the 800.
• 2001 A warm over year with no majors done to the Gen II package, other than a motor upgrade that included a Throttle Position Sensor with flatside carbs and a Water Temperature Sensor. The Trail returned for the fifth straight year and had been pumped up to a 550 fan cooled twin with ACCS. The 5, 6, 7 and 800 RMKs were also back with the 600 and 700 minus the ACCS. The 700 SKS also returned. Add the new 800 Snow Check Special with a premium suspension package. Tracks were stretched yet again, with the release of a 15x144x2 and 15x151x2 paddle wheel.
• 2002 The Gen II chassis was only two years old and already phased out by the new Edge package. Polaris focused on weight issues by building the Vertical Edge, minus 150 small pieces and parts. By doing this, the weight was 10 lbs. less than the Gen II. The new chassis was fitted with a dual angle tunnel to accommodate the new Edge suspension with its whopping 17 inches of travel. Other improvements included a new seat, front suspension changes and taller handlebars with the post moved forward to advance the ergos for the changing riding styles. The domestically manufactured twin cylinder motors were now referred to as Liberty and performance had been enhanced with the addition of a Variable Exhaust System. Also, the 600 was a new motor being built on a small block. Model lineup for ‘02 was identical to ‘01 with the 800 Snow Check Special debuting the new Series 3 15x156x2-inch paddler.
• 2003 A refinement year with rolling the chaincase some more for deep snow performance and a lighter, better performing Sidehiller II ski. The RMK lineup lost the 500 and kept the 550 Trail, 600, 700 and 800 with the addition of the 800 SKS. The big news was the Snow Check Special Vertical Escape 800. First off, the Escape was 17 lbs. lighter than the Edge. Second, the Escape had the new push button electronic reverse control (also on Edge 600). Last, but not least, the Escape sat on a new 15x159x2 Series 4 track, not to mention the superior suspension package.
• 2004 RMK Edges were now Escapes and got nearly all the goods that came on the last year’s Snow Check Special, which included the Series 4 track, lighter and taller resculpted seat, taller and adjustable handlebars, new chaincase and Phantom brake and the DET detonation sensor for engine protection. The models available were nearly cut in half as the Polaris mountain department terminated the Snow King Special badge and replaced it with the Switchback and moved that concept to the performance department. Also cut was the Snow Check Special sled, leaving the RMK 550 Trail, 600, 700 and 800. Standard tracks start at 15x136x1.25 and end at 15x159x2.
• 2005 Here we go again. Only three years for the Edge platform and another newbie shows up. The IQ platform was a new direction for Polaris (read between the lines if you like). No more trailing arms with the IQ chassis as a variable caster design A-arm front suspension took over. The new chassis came with an adjustable steering post fore and aft, known as Rider Select. The IQ’s seat, a very tall and narrow seat, was a welcome addition for the transitions that come with mountain riding. The whole new look and suspension was rounded out with a new 900 motor. This power plant was fueled by means of the new Clean Fire Injection System that was developed with concern for the escalating emissions issues. Joining the 900 RMK 900 IQ in the ‘05 lineup were the 550 Trail, 600, 700 and 800 continuing to be built on the Edge platform. Polaris added a Snow Check Special to the line with the 50 Year Anniversary Special that was atop an incredibly long 15x166x2 track. And if that wasn’t enough rubber for you, a 2.4 inch lug was also available.
• 2006 A year for minor tweaking on the IQ chassis to refine characteristics included a relocated chaincase and drive train, modified front suspension geometry and reintroduction of adjustable ski stance after a two-year absence. There was some new news with the motors as a 750 CFI and 600 H.O. joined the IQ lineup. The RMK 550 Trail was the only Edge based machine left as all others were axed for the 600, 750 and 900 IQ lineup.
• 2007 Information embargo for this article. Stay tuned in upcoming issues of SnoWest for details on Polaris’ current lineup.
Now that we are through that family tree/gene pool thing, let’s delve into the archives of accolades and accomplishments of the track records for the Snow King Specials, as well as the Rocky Mountain Kings and see if they have been worthy of their namesakes.
The first order of business is to look at the impact Polaris has had within the industry. Competition can be rewarding and help make sales, but the bottom line is industry numbers—well, actually, the two go hand-in-hand, as we will soon see.
In 1980 Polaris intros the innovative Indy chassis and Independent Front Suspension; in 1987 Polaris created a new market segment with the Snow King Special line; 1990 saw Polaris take the No. 1 one position in the industry, owning 30 percent of total sales. Polaris would hold the numero uno slot for 14 consecutive years.
The western market is by no means the big slice of the pie in reference to total sales numbers, but the Snow King Specials and the Rocky Mountain Kings have more than carried their weight in the bolstering of those numbers. In 1994, Polaris copped the top spot in western sales, and like a stingy only child, held that position a whole decade. And if that wasn’t selfish enough, in 2003 these bad boys hogged up a whopping 50 percent of western market sales.
The world of close competition does create a direct reflection in sales numbers. Who knows? Maybe it was the Hetteen brothers who coined the phrase “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday.”
The world championship in any sport or activity is what it’s all about and Polaris’ performance at Snow King Mountain, with its terrain racers and mountain sleds, has been impressive to say the least. We ran out of sources and time to compile individual class wins since 1987, so we’ll look at king titles, which are more important. Besides, you have to win classes in order to win king titles.
Until 1996 there was only one King of the Hill title per year, forcing the stockers to have to run against the modified rockets. As a result, all king titles were won by mods until the format was changed. But this was still bragging rights as to which manufacturers’ sleds responded the best to modifications. When the Snow King Special came on line in 1987, Polaris had already won three consecutive king titles and then won two more. Another brand stole the crown in 1989, but Polaris came back with a vengeance for a six-year rout through 1995.
In 1996, the format finally changed to include Stock and Improved Stock king titles. So with the completion of the 2006 race season, there have been 33 opportunities for a World Champion class king title and Polaris has nabbed 17 of them. Just more than 50 percent makes for slimmer pickins for the three competitors.
Other notable accomplishments include 1998, when the 700 RMK won all but one Stock King title and swept all the Improved Stock Kings on the RMSHA circuit. And then there was 2001 and 2003 when Polaris riders bogarted all three king titles at the World Championships.
Mixing It Up
We at SnoWest like to keep our spoon in the pot and mix up some friendly competition on a yearly basis with the Dealer Shootout/Deep Powder Challenge. Since 1997 Steve Janes has put together a special invite to the dealers that not only tests the current year’s mountain sleds go and ride-ability, it tests the dealers’ ability to tune for conditions. There’s never been a proverbial “winner” chosen for the Challenge, but the recorded Stalker results as much as confirm what’s hot and what’s not. Every year the Polaris dealers have posted very competitive, if not winning, runs and numbers. From 2000 through 2003 the Polaris dealers opened up a big ol’ can of whoopass and laid down some dominating numbers.
Another acknowledgement of accomplishment we used to have fun with was our all-star selections. SnoWest started this fanfare in 1993 along with the drive track revolution and continued until 2003. You may say that this is just an opinion thing and opinions are like a sphincter muscle—everyone has one and they stick. Funny thing is, nearly all our picks were justified with what was available that particular year.
SnoWest’s criteria consisted of comparing innovation, ride, power and ergonomics. These are Polaris-only results
1993 The XLT 580 SKS wins the inaugural All-Star Snowmobile of the Year.
1995 The XLT 600 SKS wins the All-Star Mountain Sled of the Year.
1997 Now it’s the 700 RMK winning the All-Star Snowmobile of the Year.
1998 The 600 RMK wins the Mountain Sled of the Year along with the 700 RMK taking the Mountain Muscle award.
2000 The 6, 7 and 800 RMKs win the Snowmobile of the Year award.
2001 This time it’s the 800 RMK Snow Check Special taking top honors as Snowmobile of the Year.
2003 The last year of any SnoWest Snowmobile of the Year Award goes to the 800 Vertical Escape.
During those years when Polaris was winning the awards and its sales were at the top of the charts, there was a fair amount of finger pointing going on, accusing SnoWest of being “PolarisWest Magazine.” Looking back, as well as at the time, we weren’t sugar coating anything. We were just telling it the way it was.
A Star was born.
(ED—Special thanks to many who helped with information for this article, including Polaris Industries, Heidi Tobin of the Jackson Hole Snow Devils and Harris Publishing’s Catherine Sanders.)