Jim Bernat and his 1975 Polaris 650 Factory Race Sled Jim Bernat and his 1975 Polaris 650 Factory Race Sled
Inside the Hall of Fame: Man and Machine By Greg Marier The Man – Jim Bernat: One of snowmobile racing’s most durable and versatile... Jim Bernat and his 1975 Polaris 650 Factory Race Sled

Inside the Hall of Fame: Man and Machine

By Greg Marier

The Man – Jim Bernat:

One of snowmobile racing’s most durable and versatile performers, Jim Bernat enjoyed a long and successful professional racing career, beginning just as factory pro racing emerged in the late 1960’s and continuing until the end of the Polaris factory racing team effort in 1978. Always identified with Polaris, Bernat was a tough and talented competitor with a ready, friendly smile.

Jim Bernat

Jim Bernat

“Smiling Jim’s” impressive race record includes victories at nearly every major racing event during his decade of racing. Known as a “big engine winner,” Jim was always a threat on the 650s, finishing 3rd overall in the 1974 season SnoPro 650 class, won the 1975 Eagle River World’s Championship race on his 650 racer featured here and took his last major pro oval win on a Midnight Blue Express IFS race sled in Super Mod III at Eagle River in 1977. Jim was inducted into the Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.

Jim Bernat 1975 world champion

Photo Credit: World Snowmobile Headquarters

The Machine – 1975 Polaris 650 factory race sled:

The Polaris race team members took on two major challenges when designing the 1975 factory race sleds – continue the Polaris factory race team dominance shown during the 1974 season plus use the race team talent to develop future production models. The Polaris factory team of Larry Rugland, Don Omdahl and Jim Bernat did deliver the victories by taking 1-2-4 in the Professional Drivers Circuit (PDC) season-end rankings and the team also delivered a production-ready chassis layout suitable for future TX and TX Starfire production models. However, a close look at this race sled also reveals many factory-racer-only details such as lightweight magnesium clutches and chaincase components, aluminum rear suspension linkages, titanium cleats, aluminum expansion chambers – all powered by the latest Fuji 650cc free air triple-cylinder engine.

jim bernat 1975 polaris 650 race sled

This World’s Championship-winning machine is truly an iconic piece of racing history. At the end of the 1975 season, it was literally taken off the Polaris race shop floor and placed in storage in ‘as-raced’ condition until it was sold to Jim in 1981. This machine is currently on display at the Snowmobile Racing Hall of Fame located in St Germain, Wisconsin.

jim bernat 1975 polaris 650 race sled

Hi Jim, please tell us how you started at Polaris and eventually became a member of the Polaris factory race team. 

Well, you’ve got to realize that this was over 50 years and many race sleds ago, but I’ll give it my best shot. I got hired by David Johnson in 1963, when Polaris was still a fairly small operation. As you may know, it’s a point of pride among long-term Polaris employees with what your employee badge number was. My first employee number was #061 which means I was the 61st Polaris employee hired from the start of the company. When the company got shut down in 1981, we had to get new badge numbers, I was #6035, so I was the 35th one hired back at that time.

Jim Bernat

Anyway, I started in 1963 in the plant paint department working on the Comet model with one other fellow. We would work in painting and also did some assembly. On the Comet front end design, it was supposed to look like it was all one stamping but it was actually welded all the way around so naturally the metal would warp as it was welded so we had to add bondo (body filler) all around the outside, and smooth it out so it looked like it was stamped. Then we would paint it to cover up all of the bondo. Unfortunately, the Comet was not a successful Polaris model – David Johnson once said “We built a bunch of them and they just didn’t work out – I think we got more of them back then we had ever built.”

After working on painting, I moved over as lead man running the warehouse – unloading trucks, keeping the warehouse organized and moving material out to the line. In 1968, I went to work for Don Hedlund when he was in charge of quality control. My area was in Receiving – Quality Control, which primarily meant checking the parts as they came in to be sure that were made to print before they went to the production line.

Throughout all this time, in October 1964 I went into the Army National Guard Reserves for a six-year commitment and was shipped out for active duty to spend six months in infantry training in South Carolina and Louisiana. Due to the Vietnam war, our Reserve training was held two weekends a month, with the chance we could be deployed at any time. We did have two call ups, but for some reason we never got the third call up, which would have sent us off to Vietnam. I was still working at Polaris throughout my time in the Reserves, so I had to fit any weekend racing in between the Reserve training weekends.

With your Polaris production job and your Reserve training, how did you ever get involved with racing? 

Bob Eastman, Jerry Reese and others were racing as early as 1966 for marketing exposure and also as research and development to see what would work better, but it wasn’t too uncommon that anyone in Engineering to also go race on the weekends at that time. Back then, for a big event like the Rhinelander race, they would load two semis up and whoever wanted to go racing could join in on the trip.

Jim Bernat Polaris racing

In my case, since I was checking incoming parts to see if they were built to the print, I would be going over to talk to the R&D and Racing guys and it wasn’t long before I was asked if I wanted to go along on a racing trip. On my first trip, we went to the 1967 Munising, Michigan race. I recall at the time we were building Colts with the 35-cleat track length and Engineering was stepping it up to a 37-cleat length for the 1968 Colt models, which was just a little bit longer track and they wanted to see how it would go. With that extra length, it was amazing on how much smoother the longer track ran than the shorter track version, and that was the sled I was given to run. Well, I got to Munising and I won the cross-country race! The next thing I know, it was time to go on the oval track and I won that race too! My sled had a 300 Hirth in it and I remember that Ski-Doo protested me right away. Well, I didn’t know what that all that was about – I was brand new to this. I guess maybe I had a HD carburetor on it and it was supposed to have the smaller HR carb on it. Don Erickson, (who was one of our Polaris salespeople and acting as our race director at the same time), went up and made our case that the carb was okay in this “stock” class. Don must’ve made a good case for me because I ended up taking home the money – so that was how my racing career started out.

Jim Bernat Polaris racing

After that great start, how did you get into racing full-time?

I went along on several more races for the rest of the 1968 season while still working full time in the quality department. At the end of that season, my boss said “It’s about time to decide – you’re either going to work in quality control or race” so I says “Well, I think maybe I’ll try racing, then” so the 1969 race season was my first full-time season as a Polaris factory racer.

Jim Bernat

What was it like racing on the 1969 Polaris factory team?

At that time the race team wasn’t as organized as it was later on – the race schedule was pretty open, you had many different chassis and engine combinations to race with and you didn’t have an assigned mechanic – you worked with whoever was available. For example, the Midnight Sun 600 race was coming up. There was another racer that was supposed to run the first Fuji 372 cc engine in that race. Evidently, he wanted to run a 744 JLO or 600 Hirth, so they had his 372 Fuji sled all set up with that new prototype engine in it and they wondered if I would want to race it. So I said “Yeah, I would be willing to go there and race that.”

How did you do in that Midnight Sun 600?

We must have been five or six of us that went up there and I ran that 372. That race ran from Anchorage to Fairbanks for 600 miles right down the blacktop road – we really had a lot to learn about how to race the Midnight Sun 600. Running down the highway, our skags (ski wear rods) burned up right away. The first day all we did was change out the skags. After that first day a local Alaskan team, who were also running Polaris sleds, saw that we were doing pretty good compared to them and – don’t you suppose that they gave us their ski setups for us to run for the rest of the race! Well, these skis were setup for that race – they were running carbide inserts brazed onto flat wear rods and were made to stand up to these road-running conditions (they were not the sharpened carbides like we ran later on, but were flat rectangular carbide inserts set side-by-side along the host bar). In addition, they were running wind boards on the ski hoops to help steer the sled around all of those curves on that road. Those wind boards would grab the wind and move the front of the sled over when you turned the skis. You can visualize how they worked if you were riding in a car and stuck your hand out of the window aligned with the wind and you could feel the pressure as you turned your hand. Those local guys knew what it took to compete in that race and we were glad to run their skis on our sleds.

I remember that Tony Burkel won it on a Polaris running a 744 engine. Marv Ode was about 50 miles from Fairbanks when he had clutch trouble and he couldn’t get it fixed. (In this race, you could carry and replace parts if needed and even teammates could help one another in order to finish the race). When Marv broke down, he figured he was out of the race and went into the Lodge located by the fuel stop. I came through a short time after him and we didn’t realize until later that I could’ve hooked up to him and pulled him to the finish line and Marv would’ve won the race!

I did finish the race, I think I took a fifth or whatever, and that prototype 372cc Fuji engine ran great the whole time. At Fairbanks, the guys pulled my engine out and flew it back home so it could be installed into my Winnipeg-to-St. Paul sled being built for me to run when I got back home. In that I-500 race, I ran from Winnipeg and got to about 30 miles from Crookston and I kind of got the sled banged up at a railroad crossing and then I limped it into Crookston. I didn’t make the cut-off time so I couldn’t continue on the next leg, so that was the extent of the race miles on that first Fuji engine.

But I do have another Midnight Sun 600 story – In 1971 the Polaris team went back to race again and I took a 600 Hirth race sled. Now we knew to have the carbide wear rods and the wind boards on the skis so that we could somewhat maneuver our way down the highway so I had a real good machine. We were set to run from Anchorage to Glenallen then from Glenallen to Tok Junction and then the rest of the way into Fairbanks. They would shut the highway down so there was no traffic coming because we would need both sides of the highway to stay on the road. Anyway, I remember that my machine was running pretty good, and I set fastest time on the first day so I would start as the leader for the second day. Evidently, they didn’t anticipate the speed we were running so, if you can imagine, they didn’t get the traffic shut off in time. I came around the corner leaning and maneuvering around on the tar in the wrong lane because I could use the whole Highway and – what do you suppose was there in front of me but a school bus! So I said, “Well, this is it!” All I could do was jump off my sled and let the sled go into the bus, I just didn’t have any other choice! Wouldn’t you believe it, my boots were so stuck into the stirrups that when I jumped, I pulled the sled over just enough so we both missed the bus! I tell you what, the race director was really ready for me when I went after him at the end of that day! <laughs>

Heading into the last day I was leading the race and was way out in front on overall time. Our mechanics could work on the sleds as much is they wanted – all night if needed. We had Lawrence Klima and Erwin Nelson talking back and forth trying to figure out if they should change the track or not for the last 200 miles (we would run rubber tracks rather than cleated tracks on that race back then, and the discussion was if it would be better to keep the existing ‘broken-in’ track or take a chance on putting in a new, unproven one). So, they conferred back-and-forth and finally decided – I don’t know if there was 100% agreement or not – but anyway, the track stayed in. Don’t you suppose about 100 miles from Fairbanks, my track was flying out the back of my sled. So that was the end of that race for me.

At that time did you like cross-country or oval races – did you have any specialty?

Well, back then you ran in both cross-country and oval races. When I first started, we would go to Rhinelander and we would run a cross-country race there then we would move over Eagle River and they would have a short cross-country and the speed run prior to the oval time trials. We had to run all these events on the same sled when we were qualifying for the World Championship. Your sled had to perform well in each area and also had to be dependable enough to make it through all of these trials. As for my personal specialty, I was always on the big iron because I was strong enough to handle those big machines.

Did you ever get hurt bad when racing?

In 1973 I got in a wreck over in Peterborough, Ontario. There were a lot of accidents throughout the day when the racers were all bunched up and went into the first turn. The race officials had a better idea and decided to move the start line all the way back to the fourth corner – that was a mistake because when we did enter the first corner, we were still all bunched up but now we were also going really fast. I got bumped and the next thing I remember, I was in the ambulance. It was the first time I got hurt real bad.

At the hospital, the preliminary diagnosis was internal bleeding with probable kidney damage but they had to do exploratory surgery to confirm the amount of damage. The doctor came to have me sign off on the surgery as my pain meds were kicking in so the last thing I remember was when he asked me “Are you ever going to race again?” I answered “Damn right I’m going to race again!” So, I woke up after the surgery and start checking myself out around the midsection to see how much exploratory surgery was really got done. All I found was a Band-Aid! I expect the doctor had pulled a long shot and went in arthroscopically to check it out because he knew I could never race again with only one kidney. I don’t know for sure, but he must’ve thought “Well, if he doesn’t make it, he doesn’t make it; but if he makes it and keeps racing, he will still have two kidneys.”

Polaris flew out my wife and my mechanic’s wife out to see me and hoped to bring me back on the company plane, but I couldn’t get released yet. Even later, Gary Mathers wanted to get me transferred to Mayo Clinic but the doctor felt that it would be possible but then said that the move would delay my recovery by five or six days. So, I stayed up in Canada until I was ready to be released after my 21-day stay. I was under good care there so that was okay.

Bob won his 1973 World’s Championship race during my hospital stay. As the Eagle River race weekend was going on, the race guys would call to keep me up to speed on the WC qualifying runs and the final race result so I could pull for the team even though I wasn’t there in person.

One funny memory from that time in the hospital was that you know how when you are used to having a beer, but if you don’t have one for a long time it gets to be a craving? Well, I got that craving, so every time the doctor would stop by, I’d ask if I could have a beer and he always said no. Then this one time I forgot to ask him so after he left, I asked the nurse to check if today was the day I could have a beer. The doctor said “Go ahead and let him have one.” There was a fridge across the hall that had beer in it so I went out there, cracked open a cold one and had a sip. That one sip hit me hard and that was enough for me. I went staggering back to my bed and there were visitors seeing some of the other patients – I could just imagine what they were thinking – here I had one sip and I could hardly walk back to my bed! I don’t know if it was the beer or the fact that I was so weak and still recovering, but that one sip cured me from wanting to drink beer while in the hospital <laughs>

You have to realize is this is back in 1970’s, and not like it is today. If our competitors ever wanted to know what the Polaris race team was working on back then all they had to do was to stop in at Stoney’s bar after work. We would have our engineering meetings there! You know how much smarter everyone gets after having a few beers? Well, that’s what would happen and then someone would say – you’re going to have to prove that great idea tomorrow morning and we’ll see if it’s really going to work! <laughs>

1975 World's Championship Lineup - Back Row L to R: Gordon Rudolph, Sam Sessions, Ed Schubitzke, Stan Hayes, Larry Coltom. Front Row L to R: Jim Adema, Don Omdahl, Gilles Villeneuve, Larry Rugland, Jim Bernat

1975 World’s Championship Lineup – Back Row L to R: Gordon Rudolph, Sam Sessions, Ed Schubitzke, Stan Hayes, Larry Coltom. Front Row L to R: Jim Adema, Don Omdahl, Gilles Villeneuve, Larry Rugland, Jim Bernat – Photo Credit: World Snowmobile Headquarters

You’ve raced in the golden time of factory racing against many people on the Hall of Fame – either as teammates or as competitors – any special memories that you could share?

I’d have to say that Bob Eastman was the team leader, both as a racer and as a manager. Just as one example, Bob was the one that would get us out early in the morning to run before we went to work to keep us in the shape. Leroy Lindblad was the mastermind on the clutches, starting with the steel clutches all the way to the final aluminum diecast designs. Stan Hayes was very good at building his sleds, a good driver and very neat – everything had to be in its place. Larry Rugland worked hard on the dyno developing more engine power. We also had great fabricators and engineering support folks like my mechanic Darrell Courtwright plus Aryln Saagge, Willie Wilebski, Jerry Schenk, Jimmy Hedland and many others.

Jim Bernat

Near the end of my driving career, we brought in the young kids – Jerry Bunke, Brad Hulings and Steve Thorsen. They were there when we made the change from leaf-spring sleds to IFS (independent front suspension) race sleds. I was semi-retired as a driver, but my last major win was racing against them on that 1977 IFS race sled. We were all in the 440 Mod class at Eagle River and, looking at the photo, they were all stacked up behind me. I don’t know if I had everybody covered or if it was the young guys taking care of the old guy. <laughs> Anyway, I did take home the victory in that race and that was nice.

When it came to our competitors, you might say that even though we were in different camps, when the race was over we were all friends. We were always around each other at the hotels, restaurants and in the bars – almost like a family situation. Basically, they were rivals on the track but we would also help out if we could. For example, Dalton Lisell fired up the race trailer welder many times to get our competitors back out on the track.

There were some challenges, like when Gilles Villeneuve was out there with the twin track. There was a lot of controversy because he took up a lot of the track when he was going through the corners sideways, but I also remember helping Gilles at Eagle River when he was having trouble keeping his brakes cool while trying to qualify for the World Championship. We got him over to our truck and gave him the brake parts that we were running to help him out.

We also got along with the Ski-Doo folks, especially Gaston Ferland. At a big payoff race at Kings Castle, we traded some of our tear-off goggle lenses for some carbide runners that Ski-Doo was running back then. They needed the tear-offs to see and we needed the carbides to turn, and it was a good payoff for us.

For sure we had no problems with the Thief River crew – we saw those guys all the time. One week I was racing side-by-side with Davey Thompson and at the next race I would be battling with Charlie Lofton. I remember one time when we were racing in Milwaukee on that 1-mile track. I was out in front and Charlie Lofton was right behind me and we’re running close to hundred miles an hour at the end of the straight.  For whatever reason, my machine would die out going into the corner and I would put my hand up and of course Charlie would slow up, but then my machine would light up again and I could take off again. This happened several times and Charlie comes up to me after that and says “What the hell were you trying to do to me!” I told him I wasn’t messing with him – it was for real! <laughs>

Thank you for these stories! Now let’s hear about your 1975 season – your teammates, this race sled and the World Championship race.

Bob Eastman was the racing manager and Larry Rugland, Donnie Omdahl, Leroy Lindblad and myself were the dedicated oval racers. Mechanic and fabrication duties were handled by Darrell Courtwright, Arlyn Saagge, Dalton Lisell, Art Becker, Joey Gust, Erwin Nelson, Dell Hedland and Willie Wilebski.

The 1975 season was the start of the Professional Drivers Circuit. How did that affect the sled build?

We had success in the 1974 season running sleds built under SnoPro rules but the new PDC rules said we had to use a production-based tunnel, so we used the 1973 100-build TX Starfire tunnel. That did eliminate the magnesium tunnels that we ran in the 1974 SnoPro racers, and I think that Arlyn lengthened the wheelbase by making a new front end. Anyway, the race sled layout became the design for the 1976 TX production sleds.

The team built up the race sled components in batches – some guys would bend up and weld the chassis, others would build the suspensions, assemble the clutches; the engine guys would modify, assemble and dyno the engines and so on. Once the components were ready, the driver and his main mechanic would do the final assembly to match what the driver liked and Dalton would fit the pipes. The team built three race sleds for each racer and they were not done on the factory assembly line but pretty much all done in the race shop and the Engineering prototype shop.

Once the race sleds were completed, we would get them out running as soon as we could. We had an iced drag strip out back to try different clutch settings – I guess you could say that Leroy (Lindblad) and I spent a lot of time working on clutches over the years. We would work out some changes and make recommendations to the other guys on what we were doing. Back then we also had an iced oval track out in back of the factory for this early testing, but we eventually moved out to the lagoon later on.

Didn’t you have several attempts to win the World Championship race before you won it 1975?

Yeah that’s right. I made four attempts to qualify for the WC and had made it into the race several times but it took until 1975 before I got it done. I remember one time qualifying where I was doing real good but, there again, I had a cleat track and I spit it out down the back straight – of course, then you know what kind of the brakes you got back then – none! <laughs> I was just on runners but we didn’t crash too bad that time.

Do you remember anything special leading up to the 1975 World Championship race?

All I can remember is, maybe because some of the boys on the team were out too late on the night before the race, Bob Eastman came up to me in the morning and said “Well, I guess these other guys had more important things to do last night – you might as well go all out and win this thing” <laughs> Bob’s comment has always stuck in my mind since then. Bob was a good boss – he knew what was going on and he treated us well.

How was the competition at that time?

Well, everyone was pretty competitive back then. We had Larry, Donnie and myself from our team in the final. I mean Arctic Cat was right there with Larry Coltom, plus Stan Hayes, Gilles, Gordy Rudolph were all in the final – everybody was pretty competitive in order to qualify for the WC title at that time.

Okay – Tell us how the WC race went:

I led the first lap and at the beginning of the second lap I went in too hard and went up high so Donnie (Omdahl) got in underneath me for the pass. I followed him until the 13th lap when I passed him. He kind of did the same thing that I did earlier – whether he was having trouble with his brakes or from seeing in the snow dust, I don’t know, but he went in too hard and got up into the snow berm and I went underneath him. When I went in for that pass, I went in as deep as I could even though I had no brakes left but I managed to slide underneath and took the lead. I know that by the end of the race my brakes were fading and my carbides lost their edge, but it was quite a battle between us two for most of the race.

Jim Bernat 1975 World Champion

Photo Credit: World Snowmobile Headquarters

Congratulations on the win! How did you end up with your factory race sled?

After the season, the sled was sitting in the back of the race shop and we were always having to move it around. One day Bob says “Why don’t you move that sled up on the shelf right next to my speed sled there.” The sled just sat up there for years and when Textron sold the company Bob says “Jim, you better have that sled”, so he sold it to me for a dollar. That sled got parked as-raced after the 1975 season and nothing on it has ever changed.

Jim Bernat 1975 World Champion

Photo Credit: World Snowmobile Headquarters

Wow, what a piece of racing history! Thank you for allowing us to showcase it at the Hall of Fame.

Happy to do it, but one other thing – did you notice the heads on the 1975 WC machine? When I first ran those heads in Ironwood, I came in from the race and my goggles were absolutely froze solid and covered in ice! Darrel Courtwright, my mechanic, figured out that when the snow came and hit those heads, the air was angled back and would send the steam right into my goggles! Darrell built a cover that went over the heads and that eliminated the problem! My sled in the Hall of Fame doesn’t have the cover installed because I think it looks better without it, but I still have that original cover.

jim bernat 1975 polaris 650 race sled

Making the Move to IFS – what’s the story behind the factory becoming interested in the IFS?

Well in our 1976 season we didn’t do good at all. It was really a tough season for us. So, do you remember Gordon Rudolph? He was in my 1975 WC race with his IFS design but he dropped out, maybe from a suspension failure. He wasn’t leading then but he probably also didn’t have the power that we had at the time. I believe that he maybe used Chaparral parts along with his own improvements to build up that machine. Anyway, through Bob, Gordon agrees to bring his IFS sled to Roseau for a summer test on our oval track out back. Of course, his sled turned much better in that test than our leafers, so we worked out a deal for Gordon to build us some IFS sleds out of his shop in Illinois. Bob went down to Gordon’s shop for a progress report and saw that things were behind schedule. Bob decided to take the build up to Roseau and have Gordon come up about once a month to help. Bob and Jerry Bunke were very involved in getting the IFS build all together and the rest of the crew were building the leafers, with the goal to test them both as soon as ice was available.

jim bernat in the lead

What did you think of the IFS sled once the team got it on the ice?

Well, Donnie Omdahl was the primary guy running it against our competitors at the Brandt’s Lake preseason race in Alaska. I remember Don was in each heat race and he was getting out so much in front that Bob said that he had to cool it and not show the competition just how good it was. At the same time, we were calling back to Arlyn at the shop in Roseau to stop the work on the conventional leaf spring sleds and put the emphasis on the IFS design.

Polaris had a major advantage once the full season started. Were there any major challenges with this new design?

The first challenge was getting enough of the IFS sleds built! I think Brad and maybe Steve ran their 250 leaf-spring sleds all the way through to the Eagle River race weekend.

Once we were on the ice we saw that the key to get good handling was setting the bump steer (the amount of ski alignment change as the skis goes through the travel).  We had to make sure that they would always toe out and would never toe in and our goal was to get the maximum toe-out down to a half-inch. Sometimes that was hard to get because we had welded-up steering arms and various mounting points that were in dimensionally different spots in each of the machines we built, so each sled had to get adjusted in order to get the bump steer correct.

That made it a real challenge to get them set up just right – but when you got them set up, they were a dream to drive. If the sled was set up badly, you really didn’t dare drop that throttle because you knew you would have a hell of a handful going into the corner.

When it came to qualifying my IFS sled for the WC race that year, Darrell Courtwright and I worked hard to get it dialed in but we just couldn’t get it as good as those machines would handle. If they were off, they could be terribly bad – as bad as they were good. In that 1977 WC race, my sled’s bump steer was off too much so I never did qualify for the World Championship race in the year that I ran an IFS sled.

Of course, once we got our IFS working in oval racing, the cross-country guys took on the challenge to convert the oval IFS concept into a trail version, which really put Polaris above the other brands for many years.

After retiring from driving, what did you do?

After the 1979 season was done, we prepared to go to Sweden to race over there. I went with the boys up to Beausejour and that was when we lost Jerry. We cancelled all of our overseas reservations, had the sleds sent back from Sweden and pretty much shut down the race team.

I moved into the snowmobile development group. We were primarily working on snowmobiles – and when people weren’t looking – we were also working on ATVs some. Chuck Baxter was VP of Engineering and he was the driver to get Polaris into the ATV market. It was all done on the side and no one outside of Roseau Engineering was supposed to know that we were developing ATVs – when any of the upper management from Minneapolis would come around, we had to hide all of our work on the ATV projects.

The biggest thing we were working on was trying to getour ATV design to work with the CVT transmission. The challenge was trying to get the belt to live with the sand and the water in the mud. Because Salisbury clutches were smaller, we tried them first, but there were many problems. Eventually we went to the Polaris-style drive system with a completely enclosed belt compartment and we were pulling in cooling air from the engine fan. Later on, we used fins on the drive clutch to pump cooling air. We had to develop a lot of different innovations to try to get the belt drive to work.

As a project went on, we would have these development crew get-togethers and Chuck would ask “Well, do you think we should quit yet? What are everyone’s thoughts on where we’re at?” We just kept moving forward but before we introduced the potential for the ATV business to upper management, the company was put up for sale by Textron in 1981.

What did you think was going to happen back then?

There were only a few people that could save their jobs.  Well, the only thing that I knew was that I didn’t get any severance pay. Evidently, that was a signal that you were going to get back on board eventually. Later that June through September, some of us did get hired back.

What were you doing once Polaris started back up?

I came back as the field test manager and did that job for a number of years. Around 2002 or so, I moved over into an engineering quality position. I was in charge of a three-person group to look at and analyze all the warranty claims and look at the failed components to understand what were the big issues and get that information moved over to the right groups to solve the problem. I was in that position until I retired in 2005. Overall, I spent 42 years working at Polaris.

That is quite a career! What are you doing now?

I get out to the lake (Lake of the Woods) for some fishing and I still have the farm but have been renting out the land. I go up there and keep the farm yard mowed. The buildings always seem to need some fixing and there’s machinery around to keep up and running. We plant some deer plots and spend the deer season up there. Being around the farmstead brings back lots of memories.

Thanks Jim, this was fun to learn more about your contributions to Polaris and our sport!

Below – Additional photos of the 1975 Polaris 650 Factory Race Sled, and other images from Jim Bernat’s racing career.

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *