THE STORY BEHIND STEVE THORSEN’S 78 POLARIS 440X RXL

Rob McMillan, like a lot of people, thought it would be pretty cool to own a 1978 Polaris RXL. He didn’t have his eye on any one in particular, just one of them. But like a lot of other people who wish for them, they just don’t pop out from under a rock and beg you to take them home.

But this one found Rob.

Rob was on a trip to Montana to buy a different sled. The person he was dealing with mentioned that someone in Baker Montana had one of them “old oval tracking sleds.” Rob was intrigued, but never got the opportunity to drive over and check it out.

Steve Thorsen 1978
Steve Thorsen ripping along on his way to winning the 1978 World’s Championship on what is now Rob McMillan’s prized possession.

The following year (about 1992 Rob figures), he was on his way to watch the World’s Championship race in Eagle River. He decided to stop in Roseau Minnesota, pick up and old paper and just see if any old neat sleds might be for sale in the backyard of Polaris.

In the paper was a little, tiny ad for a some oval race sleds for sale. He asked the lady behind the counter what area code the number was for – thinking it was around Roseau. It turned out to be Montana. He called the gentleman that day.

On the other end of the line, he heard that this fellow had two sleds. One was most definitely Todd Elmer’s oval sled, the other he was pretty sure was one of Steve Thorsen’s. It was a 440 and had a magnesium bulkhead. At the time, Rob was blown away at the thought that this was Steve Thorsen’s sled. He was a huge fan of the “Midnight Blue Express” and had always had tons of pictures and posters around.

They talked about a price. At the time, it seemed like a fair price to Rob, but more than he had laying around. We won’t mention the price here, but considering what one of these is now worth, it was, in retrospect, a pretty good deal. Still, Rob was hesitant to spend a lot on an old snowmobile.

Within a few months, he realized he could not stop thinking about it and finally decided he really just had to have it. It was calling his name. So he phoned the owner back up and asked if the offer was still valid. It was, and they agreed to meet in Helena.

When Rob arrived in Helena, he was waiting. He had not seen the sled, but was stunned at what great condition it was in. The hood was just blue, no decals. But other than that, it looked barely used. Turns out, they had only drag raced it a bit. They had never modified it, and this was all the same parts it had come with.

Rob brought it home and took it for a rip on the ice that very day. This, he knew on the first ride, was no ordinary race sled. He had ridden many fast sleds in the day, and this thing was, as Rob would later describe it, a “freeking rocket!!”

In 1994, he got a chance to really try it on an oval. He packed it up and headed for the historic race track in Beausejour, Manitoba. He signed some waivers, and they would allow him to run some hot laps.

“It was intimidating when I was trying to start it. Everyone was staring at me like they knew some secret, or like I was doing something really out of the ordinary.” I’m sure anyone bringing an original RXL to the track in 1994 would get noticed.

Rob makes no bones about that fact that he is a bigger guy – around 220 lbs. But when he got the sled on the track he really was thrilled at how fast it was. It wasn’t turning very well, however. It kept pushing in the corners hard. He would later take a look at the 14” carbides under the skis and see why – they were as smooth as a babies bottom.

They had a radar gun at the track that day. Rob was really thrilled to learn that in just the 2-3 laps he ran and with the dull carbides, they had clocked him at 50 MPH in the corners and just a tick over 90 down the straights!

A couple of years later, Rob bought it back to Beausejour to try really racing it. They had one special class the old girl would fit in called the Beausejour 600. The rule was any sled under 600cc was legal. No one there really noticed the old RXL much – they were too busy with the late model classes. But undaunted, Rob was ready to try the sled on the big oval with real competition. He made his way to the “board” where they post the classes and running order to see where he was going to run.

Looking over his class, Rob got a cold chill down his back. In his “special” class, he was expecting to see a lot of name he had never heard of – guys who just wanted to take a stab at it for fun. But instead, the names read like a whose who of racing at that time: Wahl, Villeneuve, Houle and so on. He would be racing against Twin Trackers and FIII machines… not good. He decided it was best not to tangle with those boys since he had never really ran the sled hard.

So he packed up the sled and got a seat in the stands. When his class came up, the announcer was yelling is name over and over to get to the staging area. Rob just stayed tucked away in his seat, hoping no one would notice him.

After a little more investigation, Rob realized he really had something special. So he cleaned the sled up and tucked it away in his basement.

When I posted my first Bull Sessions thread about the 440X I am restoring, Rob emailed me with a very excited “I have one of those!” and his phone number. I gave him a call and we’ve been corresponding on the sleds ever since. I’ve learned a ton from knowing Rob and his machine and what I learned about mine I was more than happy to share with him. One of the things we looked at right away was the serial numbers. Rob’s 7 digit serial number ends in 853. My sled ends with 854 – they are one number apart from each other.

You can imagine how thrilled I was to see the video tape of Rob’s Thorsen sled running after all these years. The second time in the video he winds it up to a little over 9K is exactly what I remember these wicked little machines sounding like. It was like standing in the pits in Alexandria all those years ago all over again.

My thanks to Rob for sharing – and we’ll have a photo spread on this baby very soon – stay tuned!

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