The conversation on this bright winter day wandered from Missoula in the 1960s and '70s, to oval track racing, to sprockets for a twin-track Skidoo.

Five Jacobsens were talking snowmobiles - specifically, the racing sleds of yesteryear, what it was like to race them, and what it takes to fix them up to look like new or better. It was a language of comfort and joy.

Their backdrop was Missoula Chain Saw Supply off West Broadway, the shop Pete Jacobsen opened for business in 1963 and in which he and Adeline, in essence, raised their five sons.

On stacked display at one end were two "old" snowmobiles that can rightly be called the pride of Missoula. Each was a product of months of meticulous refurbishment by Ken, Steve and Les Jacobsen.

The bottom one was manufactured in 1971, a glistening Polaris 439 cc, one of the company's first three-cylinder sleds. It was judged best of class and one of the top five restored snowmobiles at the Vintage Snowmobile Club of America's annual show last July in Billings - high praise in a competition where every rivet, strut canister and ball-joint spring is scrutinized for its authenticity by a panel of judges.

Secured above it was the reigning national champion. It's a 1972 Polaris TX Starfire, a sled that was in far less than mint condition when Ken Jacobsen bought it five years ago from a former racer in Helena. Ken and his younger brothers completed work on the Starfire a couple of years ago, but weren't satisfied. They tore it apart and improved on it, putting the final detailing on it just before judging began in Billings.

Back in the Nixon administration, Pete Jacobsen might have sold these sleds new for $1,200. Adorned with the awards they won in Billings, they're worth $10,000 or more today, the Jacobsens said.

The brothers got serious about their vintage restoration hobby only in the past several years. They've fixed up perhaps a dozen, concentrating on Polaris machines, "pretty much just race sleds," Ken said. "That's mainly because when you're done with them they have some value. A lot of the others that they made thousands of don't."

***

Earlier, at his home off Mullan Road, Ken pointed to a low-slung 1978 Polaris ice oval racer that he could probably sell for $20,000. More than 30 years ago it was raced by a man whose name still adorns the hood.

In fact, it could well have been the sled TJ Patrick was racing when he met his future wife Bev at a snowmobile race track in North Dakota, where she was a mechanic for a friend. Four years later, they had their first daughter. These days TJ handles day-to-day management of Danica Patrick's Indy and NASCAR racing career.

Steve and Les Jacobsen now run Missoula Chain Saw Supply, which got out of the flailing chainsaw business at the end of last year. They concentrate on selling and servicing snowplows. Ken Jacobsen was a millwright at the Champion/Stimson lumber mill in Bonner for more than 30 years before it closed down. After working for a couple of years at the Roseburg mill in Missoula, he now travels every week to the Potlatch mill in St. Maries, Idaho.

Two other brothers, Doug and Rod, live in California. But all five of them grew up around snowmobiles, snowmobile racing and their father's chainsaw shop.

Here was where the boys, now ages 53 to 60, congregated evenings after school. Pete owned Missoula's Polaris snowmobile dealership from 1966 to 1978, and can literally document the rise and fall of snowmobile racing in those years with stacks of neatly handwritten sales records.

"One thing it did back in those years, it kept them out of trouble, because every night during the week we'd spend time down here repairing stuff so we could race the next weekend," Pete Jacobsen said.

And race they did.

"There was a race every week at Seeley Lake or Drummond or Butte or Kalispell," Adeline Jacobsen recalled.

"We'd leave at 3 o'clock in the morning and drive to Nordman, Idaho, by Priest Lake and race," Pete said. "Then we'd pick up our stuff and drive all the way home that night."

"It was good then because there wasn't anything else to do, or very little," said Steve. "You had, what, two TV stations in Missoula?"

Ken, the oldest, won two oval track circuit titles in the early 1970s. That was at the peak of the sport's heyday, when as many as 140 companies built snowmobiles in the United States. From 1970 to 1973, nearly 2 million machines were sold.

***

A bad snow year and the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 took care of all that.

"The market just cratered," Steve Jacobsen said. "I believe I read that at the end of '73 there were 315,000 unsold snowmobiles. Then all these manufacturers went out of business, and they just dumped them on the market."

The Jacobsen boys went on with their lives, finishing Rattlesnake Grade School and Hellgate High School, finding jobs, marrying and raising families.

Ken figures it was about seven years ago when he got the itch to find one of his old racing machines and fix it up. Steve and Les, both mechanically inclined, were soon involved, and they discovered the Western States Vintage Snowmobile Association, of which Ken is now a board member.

"I took one to a national show four years ago and it took third place in its class," he said. "By doing that I learned, OK, what have I got to do better?"

The next trip to nationals, at Thief River Falls, Minn., he had a 1971 795-cc Polaris race sled.

"There's about 20 them left and it is the nicest in the world," Ken said.

It won its class, and was in the final five for the national championship. The three brothers work patiently together, at the chainsaw shop, in Ken's garage, at Les' house, to restore each piece.

"We've spent more time with each other the last three or four years than the previous 20," Ken noted.

Les handles the paint and body work. The youngest at 53, he's honed his restoration skills on cars. Les didn't do much racing back in the day, but when the '72 Polaris won the national championship last summer, Ken presented it to him.

"I'd have done a better job if I'd have known he was going to give it to me," he cracked.

***

The shared passion is a special tie for the Jacobsen family, even Pete, who's now in his 80s. He was the subject of a Missoulian feature in January 1967 when he led an expedition on newfangled snowmobiles over untracked mountain roads to the ghost town of Garnet.

Pete didn't get into the restoration end, and indeed cast a baffled eye when his sons did.

"Dad was always, like, ‘Why are you always messing around with this old junk?' Some of his good buddies said the same thing," Ken said.

But Ken remembers the call he got from Steve after the '71 Polaris 439 was finally assembled at the saw shop last year.

"He said, ‘You know that old junk that we've been working on? Well, Dad's been walking around it for an hour down here looking at it,' " Ken said with a chuckle.

"I'm kind of proud of them," allowed the man they still call "Polaris Pete."

Mom, too.

"We instilled in them that, if you're going to do it, do it right," Adeline said.

Pete leafed through the handwritten sales records he kept so meticulously in the '60s and '70s. They come in handy for his sons when they're tracking down the histories of sleds they want to restore.

"You don't want to look at the profit and loss on those," Steve warned.

"Well," said Adeline, "the profit was you guys all turned out well."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com. Photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at 523-5270 or at kwilson@missoulian.com.

 

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