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The history of Polaris racing: Here comes the Midnight Blue Express

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The year was 1976. Thousands upon thousands flocked to Alexandria for the chilly December snowmobile race.

Polaris had been dominating the professional circuits for the past two years with its Starfire sleds and team of racers, appropriately dubbed the "Starfire Kids."

Now equipped with the young trio of Jerry Bunke, Brad Hulings and Steve Thorsen, as well as new dark blue machines, Polaris was set to dominate once again.

At the first corner, 10 sleds approached in a jumble, but four Polaris sleds jetted out ahead. By lap three, the Polaris sleds were in perfect formation, riding in sync. And they stayed that way.

"Here come those midnight blue machines of Polaris," the announcer shouted. "It looks like they're on rails!"

In the next lap, they were named the "midnight blue railroad." And finally, on the next go-around, the announcer proclaimed, "Here comes the Midnight Blue Express!"

It was art. And it became an event in snowmobile racing history that nearly everyone in attendance, including 10-year-old Larry Saurdiff, now known as Larry Preston, never forgot.

LOCAL BEGINNINGS

With the release of his book Starfire Kids: Midnight Blue Express, which chronicles the Alexandria race and the history of Polaris racing, Preston was able to revisit a hobby that started when he was just a kid.

"Polaris has always been a family thing," he said. "My granddad was the very first CEO of Polaris in the '50s and up until the '60s."

Preston grew up entirely in Alexandria, graduating from Jefferson High School in 1982 and living along Lake Brophy until he was about 18 years old.

"I really wanted to be on the Polaris race team when I was in junior high," he said. "I thought that was pretty much my destiny."

But after going to college, he joined a band and remained in the music business for almost a decade. He later did recording work in Los Angeles, California, and eventually started his own development software company, Digital Opera, headquartered in Elk River.

FUELING THE FIRE

While Preston was working a lot of hours to keep his company running, his brother called out of the blue to invite him to a show where he had restored two snowmobiles.

"He basically said, 'Either you show up or I'll come down there and beat you silly,'" Preston said with a laugh.

"And then my brother committed the fatal mistake of letting me drive one of the ones he restored," he added. "I couldn't get the grin off my face for two weeks."

That experience awakened a passion. Little by little, Preston started to track down the old machines that factories used to race during the big era of racing and began to put their stories together.

Eventually, with the help of Aaron Johnson, the son of the maker of the first Polaris snowmobile, he was able to talk to some of the racers who were still around.

"The more I heard their stories of what they went through, the more I thought, this is a story that other people need to hear, and then it just became a quest," Preston said.

WRITING WITH PASSION

After gathering and comparing interviews, he set out writing his book, putting it together into a story that he hoped other people would understand and enjoy.

"Writing a book is something I've always wanted to do," Preston said, then added with a laugh, "Maybe it's like my mid-life crisis 'cause I never did get to be on the Polaris race team."

He opens the book with the 1976 Alexandria race and his experience there as a 10-year-old kid, meeting the racers and team leader Bob Eastman and hanging out in the Polaris truck.

The story then travels historically through what happened from 1954 to 1978, following the life of racer Jerry Bunke.

"At the time, snowmobile racing was as big in the north as, say, NASCAR was in the south," Preston said.

The annual race in Alexandria that ran from 1974-84 had anywhere between 15,000 or 20,000 people watching. Other races sometimes had 50,000 or 60,000 people.

"The whole point of the book is that Polaris was a big part of that," Preston said. "[The racers] were known almost around the world. Anywhere there was snow, people knew these guys' names."

A group of people from Alexandria, headed by Jeff Karrow of Karrow Jewelers, is putting together that Alexandria race again, to take place in January 2014 for the first time in 30-some years, according to Preston.

To help promote the race and his book, Preston will host a book signing on Friday, September 13 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Alexandria.

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