October 3, 2007

Project Puff



SnoWest 2007 project sled

Puff the magic dragon lived on the snow
And boondocked in the winter’s fluff
On mountains in Idaho
 
Guys at SnoWest and Bucky’s loved that rascal Puff
And installed pipes and lightweight skids
And other fancy stuff.
 
Together they would tune Puff and polish his fancy hood.
Paddle tracks and plastic skis turned into something good.
Modified sleds and stockers would stop to watch Puff go
Mountain slopes would welcome Puff to power through its snow.
 
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted hoods and performance pipes make way for summer toys
Days became much longer and warmer weather came
And Puff that mighty dragon saw snow turn into rain.
 
His season was quite over as white turned into green
The snow was gone and it was time for Puff to leave the scene.
But some day Mother Nature will bring back winter’s chill
And Puff that mighty dragon will be back upon the hill. Oh 
 
Puff the magic dragon lived on the snow
And boondocked in the winter’s fluff
On mountains in Idaho
 
Puff the magic dragon lived on the snow
And boondocked in the winter’s fluff
On mountains in Idaho
 
(Poorly adapted from the lyrics made popular by Peter, Paul & Mary … and we don’t think the author was smoking weed.)

 

There’s no gust of illusion; nothing supernatural, unexplained or mysterious. In fact, Puff the Magic Dragon, this past season’s SnoWest project sled, didn’t resort to any cloud of trickery. It was a straight-forward, what-you-see-is-what-you-got snowmobile that featured great power, superb handling and an incredible ride.

Starting with a pre-production Polaris 700 Dragon and with outstanding support from Gary Neely and his crew at Bucky’s Outdoors in Pinedale, WY, we created a reliable snowmobile that never missed a beat during the entire winter.

Project Puff may have started from a humble beginning, being just your basic 140 hp 700cc sled trying to compete in the world of 150-plus horsepower sleds. In fact, going into the season, we fully anticipated punching out the 700cc Polaris Liberty engine to at least an 800. After all, some engine work was certainly expected to make this snowmobile worthy of SnoWest’s standard of excellence in project sleds.

But it wasn’t needed.

The 700, with just a little added performance boost from Starting Line Products and Boondocker, never lacked for horsepower. With SLP lightweight pipes and a programmable Boondocker Control Box with “happy juice,” Puff maintained a solid heartbeat, whether it is twisting through the trees, mashing over moguls or soaring up the slopes.

Myth or Legend

Some say dragons originated in mythology. Stories of fire-breathing dragons were created by the ruling class to cast fear on the uneducated… making those people easier to control.

When Polaris announced the release of the 2007 Dragon, it’s very unlikely that it put fear in the hearts of the competition. For the most part, the industry was looking at 800cc and 1000cc snowmobiles. The Polaris sled with its 700cc powerplant was more like a big lizard—a Komodo of snowmobiles—not something that strike fear in the hearts of the competition.

Thanks to a very supportive product development team led by Scott Ostroski at Polaris, we were able to get our Dragon nearly two months before the actual production date. Not only did this give us an opportunity to get the SnoWest project sled ready for the Intermountain Snowmobile Show in Salt Lake City the last weekend in October, but it allowed some of the aftermarket companies (SLP, Boondocker and EzRyde) an opportunity to figure out how their products could be installed.

Once the sled arrived in Pinedale, WY, the crew at Bucky’s went right to work with the installation process of aftermarket parts. An extra hood (black with no decals) had been sent to Ermal’s Auto Body in Idaho Falls for custom paint by Jeremy Thompson.

All Show, No Go

Before the first flake of snow arrived, Project Puff was being converted from myth to legend. A hand-built EzRyde rear skid frame was created by Great Lakes Sound and Vibration. Steve Polakowski flew from Michigan to Pinedale to help fit the suspension into Polaris’ new chassis. The combination of a pre-production snowmobile and a hand-built skid made for some on-the-spot engineering. It was an interesting learning process for both Polakowski and the crew at Bucky’s. But after a long day of measuring, positioning, drilling and mounting, most everything pretty much fit where it needed to be.

And after the boys at Bucky’s finished with their first phase of assembly, Project Puff then went to Boondocker in Idaho Falls where Rocky Young could work his magic on it. This gave Boondocker the opportunity to finalize some of its installation kits and figure out the best mounting positions for bottles, gauges, buttons, etc.

By the time the Utah snow show arrived, phase 1 was nearly complete—installing most of the products that were going to be tested on Project Puff. SLP took the time to see how its pipes where going to fit under the hood and provided pre-production pipes to get by for the show. Like everyone else, SLP was caught between that awkward time of season where there’s no product built to allow them to finish their product designs … and there was no snow around to complete product testing.

Project Puff generated a lot of interest at the Utah show, since hundreds of consumers had snow-checked the 2007 Polaris Dragon and were anxious to see what it would look like. Project Puff was literally the only Dragon west of the Mississippi. But the simple truth: Project Puff was all show and no go. Without snow on the ground, everything installed were only good for looks. The tuning would have to wait. In the meantime, Puff was headed back to Pinedale where winter usually arrives early.

Name That Tune

Finally, as the first flakes of winter started to stack up in the higher elevations, Puff was getting prepared to breathe fire. By now, the 2007 Polaris Dragons were showing up in dealerships. Boondocker and SLP had completed their product testing and the finished products were now available.

The crew at Bucky’s was able to get everything working that needed to work for Puff to make noise. Pipes were installed, suspensions adjusted, clutching set up and the pretty painted hood removed (to hang safely on the shop wall until time for photos) for a more “tree friendly” R&M mesh hood.

Puff was ready to ride.

The first official SnoWest ride was Dec. 14. (Naturally, the crew at Bucky’s had already spent a good deal of time on the snow with Puff prior to the “first” ride. When you have a dealership’s reputation on the line, you make certain things are running like they are designed.) We unloaded at the Sherman Parking Area, 18 miles west of Daniel Junction, WY. Our first impressions of Puff were just how we had hoped—it was crisp, responsive and floated through the bumps. Most of the riding in this area ranges from 7,000 to 10,000 feet. The snow is usually dry and deep. Although Trail E takes you into the Blind Bull area, most of the locals only use the trail to get quick access to their own favorite ridgelines and ungroomed trails that lead to the backcountry.

We had two other Dragons on the ride for base comparisons; one with the similar suspension setup and the SLP pipes, the other was pretty much bone stock. It was a short ride, only 30 miles, but it was long enough to show us that this 700cc snowmobile had some life.

It handled much better than the stock Dragon, sucking up the big bumps with ease. The suspension allowed it to roll from side to side with less effort, making it simple to pull over into a sidehill. And compared to the other “slightly modified” Dragon, Puff felt a little lighter. But for the most part at this stage of the season there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two sleds.

Now it was time to get Puff back to Idaho Falls so the crew at Boondocker could complete their NOS installation. Although the components for a NOS system were in place, the final hookup and tuning needed to be concluded.

We dropped Puff off at Boondocker on the following Monday and Rocky had it up on Mt. Jefferson and breathing NOS within a couple of days. Once Rocky got things working about how they should, we got together for another tuning session up east of Idaho Falls. This was more intended to familiarize us with the Boondocker’s programming box, allowing us to fine-tune the carburetion at a push of a button.

By the weekend we were out riding with the locals in the Red Butte area, northeast of Idaho Falls and acting like we were experts on the Boondocker system. Puff was programmed to inject NOS automatically under certain conditions or on command with a push of a button located on the mounting brace of the Snobunje left-headed throttle.

Although snow conditions for that Dec. 23 ride were less than optimal, it was still deep enough to make it challenging. There was no solid base and the top layer had a thin crust on it. If you started digging, you could get down to the dirt fairly quickly. There were a couple of other Polaris Dragons and a Ski-Doo Summit X RS on the ride. Puff spent a good deal of its time breaking trail or picking different lines through the trees. On several steep ridges where all sleds seem to have difficulty due to drifted snow with no base, Puff seemed to hold its own or do just a little better. (Of course, that was with a fat-assed journalist riding it … it would have done much better with an actual snowmobiler.)

Only a couple of times did Puff require an extra punch of juice to bust over the drifts. But where it really shined, again, was on the bumpy trails. You would actually look for the worst sections of trail so you could hammer the EzRyde rear and Holz front suspension. The harder you rode the sled, the better it handled.

Everything seemed to be working to design. The power was there, the handling was there. Puff was responsive to the throttle. It was just fun to ride.

It was time for the real test.

Riding With Critics

Although anyone who “didn’t have a dog in the fight” who rode Puff was very impressed by its handling and ride, it was time to go out with some of the top R&D people in the business—the Polaris factory mountain crew, including Ostroski and Marty Sampson. These guys know their stuff and are constantly trying to fix and improve things.

We actually had the opportunity to compare Puff with the 2008 prototypes from Polaris—the Dragon 700 and 800. It was good to see how this year’s project sled would stack up to the sleds of the future.

Our results were somewhat mixed.

One engineer would ride Puff and comment that it was jetted too lean. Another would ride it and say it was jetted too rich. One would really like the suspension setup, the other would find shortcomings in the suspension. All seemed to like the parts of the project sled that said “Polaris.”

For the most part we were riding in the same crappy snow that seemed to be the theme for most of the winter—well used, crusty on top, dry with no base all the way down to the dirt. However, we did find an isolated drainage that for some reason had remained undiscovered and had collected more than its share of the drifting snow. Here we were able to find the kind of powder that served as a good test to the machines.

It was under these conditions that we found an instance in which the EzRyde suspension required a little more tuning. It seems that while trying to carve through the trees, Puff had a tendency to trench a little worse than the other sleds. It was determined that the rear suspension mounting created a predisposition for the rear arm to push the skid frame down in the back and wouldn’t allow it to pop on top of the snow to plane.

Power-wise, Puff could hold its own. And of course through the bumps nothing would even come close to the ride. But we had discovered a weakness in what was expected to be an all-around great sled. So it was back to Bucky’s for more tuning and testing.

Stop and Swap

As we focused on the EzRyde suspension in an effort to make the sled more versatile in the deep powder, we came to one definite conclusion—the suspension in Puff wasn’t quite fitting the geometry as the suspensions Polakowski was testing in Michigan. We soon discovered that the “one-off” suspension that was hand-built for Puff was a few millimeters off from the final production versions.

Neely had removed his EzRyde suspension so he could see how the stock skid handled in the powder. And since his EzRyde had the correct geometry, we slipped it into Puff and headed back out on the snow.

Now we were comparing Puff to Neely’s Dragon which basically had the same SLP setup (so power was identical except for the happy juice). We also had a stock Dragon for comparison.

Puff still had a tendency to trench in the trees more than the other two sleds. But it also was very easy to control. The rear suspension seemed to have a soft roll to it, allowing you to carve around the trees and pick sharper lines. It was only when you were trying to climb up a slope through the trees that you felt the suspension wouldn’t get up on the slow as quickly as you would like.

On a steep, deep powder slope near Lookout Mountain, Puff separated itself from the other two sleds (thanks to the NOS). The steep n’ deep was just too much for the snowmobiles that day … but made for some good highmarking. Two hard runs at this slope put Puff a good 20 yards above the others. In fact, on the second run, Puff got caught up in its own trench and found itself buried just above some pine trees in a very tedious spot. The trouble was neither of the other two sleds could climb up close enough to offer assistance … and the snow was just too deep to make it on foot.

But thanks to a shovel and a little patience, Puff managed to get slid down out of its hole and in position to resume a sidehill above the trees to a safe descending spot.

On the way out of the mountains, we managed to get an infinitive test between Puff’s suspension and that of the stock suspension in Neely’s sled. While Neely struggled to negotiate the trail through the moguls, Puff just flew by like it was out on a Sunday ride. (The irony of the story is that it was Neely’s own EzRyde suspension that was allowing Puff to fly by … and by the way, we did load up Puff and take it back to Idaho Falls with Neely’s suspension still tucked neatly in the chassis.)

Logging Miles

With Puff pretty much in its finished stage, we shifted from tuning to testing. There were several products that we wanted to pound on in various snow conditions. At the same time, we just wanted to log some miles. The winter wasn’t shaping up to be a stellar year for snow fall so we were anxious to ride wherever and whenever possible. (That’s the beauty of this job … we actually get paid to ride.)

First, we were anxious to understand the benefits of the Boondocker (208-542-4411) control box and nitrous kit. One thing we recognized early on with Puff that there seemed to be a flat spot in the carburetion and we wanted to clean it up.

The nice part about the control box is that we could add or reduce fuel throughout the rpm range. So as we would ride, we would find areas of slight hesitation and either increase or reduce fuel flow. (Increasing fuel was always a safe bet—the worst thing that happens is you foul plugs. By decreasing fuel, you can run to the lean side.) The fuel box also made it possible for us to have several different fuel maps programmed into the system. We found that by keeping one at stock and playing with a couple of the others (depending on elevation and temperatures) we could usually stay pretty close to where we wanted to be.

As for that flat spot, we also discovered that when the pipes where heated up, it disappeared. But when we stopped to rest and allow the sleds to cool down, the first few minutes after we fired up again we would notice the flat spot. It really didn’t have much to do with the carburetion as it did with the pipe and engine.

As for the happy juice, we had the control box programmed to automatically inject NOS anytime the throttle position was greater than 90 percent and the rpm was between 3,500 and 7,750. In other words, whenever you grabbed a handful of throttle, the control box would accelerate your rpm over 7,750 to where you were making instant power. This usually would result in NOS being applied for maybe a tenth of a second. You could boondock all day with NOS on demand without the fear of running out of juice. It also allowed you to ride aggressively in some serious terrain without always reaching for the button. Yet, if you had those situations where you wanted NOS for extended periods of time, the button was always right there in easy access of your right thumb.

When it came to pounding through the bumps, the EzRyde rear suspension from Great Lakes Sound and Vibration (906-482-7535) excelled in almost every condition. This suspension was extremely user friendly. Not only was it significant in shedding weight off the sled, but it just worked great. Even though it is fully adjustable, we were able to set it up for the ride we wanted early in the season did then didn’t have to mess with it after that.

Complimenting the rear suspension was the Holz Racing (360-398-7006) lightweight front suspension. For several years we’ve relied on HRP front suspensions to provide precise handling and control. And over the years, regardless of the pounding and abuse we offered, we have yet to have a part fail.

Our handling was complete with a set of skis from Sly Dog (605-983-5244).

We also used HRP’s air vents to help maintain cooler under-hood temperatures.

Speaking of under the hood, as always Starting Line Products (208-529-0244) was very helpful throughout the process to ensure we maintained the highest level of performance. The SLP pipes helped to bring the engine to life. And there was a certain bark to the pipes, without being loud or obnoxious, that radiated power and performance. Although our plans were to punch the 700cc engine out to an 800, we just didn’t see the need as the season progressed.

SLP also came through on providing an air horn kit that allowed us to exchange our stock hood for an R&M Lightning Products (801-467-2442) lightweight mesh hood. We also used Red Line Synthetic Oil (707-745-6100) for injection oil and its GR75W90 gear oil in the chaincase. Red Line features a low-smoke formula that is bio-degradable. It is blended for protection in variable weather conditions, offers superior rust protection and is specifically blended to adapt to the latest pump fuels.

Throughout the season we played around with the SnoBunje (877-250-2015) left-hand throttle. When you’re working in the deep and steep, it’s nice to have a left-hand throttle option. It just allows a little more leverage when you really need to pull your sled to the left side. But we also found if others were riding Puff and had little or no experience with a left-hand throttle, it was easy for them to grab it by mistake.

We realized the safety release that disconnects a left-hand throttle (or similarly, one that locks it out) is very important. We also learned if you choose to install a left-hand throttle, you need to experiment with it in order to develop a level of proficiency.

And for those times when the wrong throttle was grabbed, or those times when the right throttle was grabbed in order to bust through the brush, a sturdy front bumper certainly came in handy. Tri-City Performance (801-298-8081) designed a front bumper for the Polaris Dragon that not only provided strength, but was very attractive, functional and weighed slightly less than all the plastic that it replaced.

This was one product that was easy to test, given our style of riding. The bumper is solid enough to withstand some very heavy brush (in the form of small trees). When you get in areas where there is a high density of log pole pine or aspen trees, sometimes your only option is to point your sled straight ahead and grab the throttle (in this case it really doesn’t matter whether it’s left-hand or right-hand).

Touch of Class

No SnoWest project sled would be complete without a flash of bling. Although function is a big part of any product that we install, we also weigh in the visual value—eye candy, magnetism, charisma.

Somewhere there’s got to be value, whether in weight reduction, performance enhancement or attitude.

Usually, one of our first stops is with Sportech (763-712-3965). Here is a company that not only makes practical replacement parts, but also very attractive and affordable replacement parts. A coordinating set of Sportech windshield and hand guards makes for great looks and wind protection.

We also went with Fourbarr Industries (360-659-8182) lightweight LED taillights. You save a little weight and you gain a unique, clean look. We also added an attractive eight inch Billet Red-Starfire rear wheel kit from Mountain Machines Performance (509-548-9500). If you’re going for the bling, you might just as well go all the way.

And let’s not forget the skin—nothing makes an exclamation like custom paint. Ermal’s Auto Body (208-529-1674). Throughout the year, wherever Puff went the first comment/question we heard was “what a great paint job … who did it?”

By the time this winter faded into spring, we were able to pound out more than 500 miles on Puff. (That’s not bad considering we had 10 other sleds to put miles on.) Although the “good snow” riding days could be counted on one hand, good sled days were encountered each time we took Puff out.

Puff entered the season as a breath of fresh air. It finished as strong as a two-stroke with a burst of nitrous. It may not have been a magical season, but we made the most of it. And Project Puff certainly made the most of any 700cc dragon on the snow.







Yellowstone Adventures, Inc.
Bear Lake CVB


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