One of the best-selling snowmobiles of all time, the Indy 500 brought many new features to the snowmobile market before settling into a comfortable position of being one of the best values in the sport. This Timeline article, written by David Wells, appeared in the April 2014 issue of Snow Goer magazine.
1989 Polaris Indy 500
Roseau’s Rock Star
It was 1986, at a Polaris dealer meeting in Buffalo, New York. Southtowns dealer Randy Barker and I had cornered the new Polaris V.P. of marketing and were pouring “Indy 500 twin – they’ll sell like crazy” into his head from both sides. He seemed to get the message, and let us know that they’d had some other requests for this very thing. It would be a couple more years in coming, but when it arrived, it quickly gained the kind of popularity usually reserved for rock stars.
Plugging The Hole
Despite having the best chassis in the industry in the mid-1980s, Polaris had a gaping hole right in the heart of its line-up. The Indy 400 was a solid sled, but a bit under-powered for its weight. The Indy 600 triple was heavy and difficult to handle at times, required a Herculean right thumb and was downright expensive. And there was absolutely nothing in between them.
That gaping hole wasn’t filled until 1989 with the introduction of the second Indy 500, this time with a two-cylinder engine instead of the underwhelming Centurion 500 triple of the early ’80s. The first of the 500 twins was actually a batch of 50 units disguised as Indy 400s that were released to dealers for beta testing early in the winter of 1987-88. The company began taking orders for production units during the spring selling season, and the new model took the sport by storm.
A Monster Hit
The new Indy 500 and other 1989 lndys incorporated a host of upgrades over the ’88 models. Better fit and finish, upgraded front bumper, improved carb venting and a torque stop borrowed from the 650s to keep the engine from twisting out of position were just the beginning. The new 488cc liquid-cooled engine was the real news. Offering the lighter weight, easier throttle pull and nicer price of a twin with enough power to keep all but the most aggressive trail riders happy, the new engine was an instant hit because it was a superb match for the Indy chassis.
Besides the base model, Polaris also offered a Snow King Special (SKS) with a 133.5-inch track for extra flotation, and a Classic edition featuring electric start and mirrors. A Sno Pro (SP) special with a wider 38-inch ski stance, more adjustable rear suspension and more aggressive “full block” track from the Indy 650 was available on a limited basis for qualified racers. Brand conquests began immediately as many riders, like my snowmobile club buddies Jack, Matt, Mark and Rick, all upgraded from their aging leafspring sleds of other brands.
“It’s no secret that the 1989 Indy 500 has been one of the hottest-selling sleds on the market this year,” reported the Snow Week magazine of December 19, 1988. “Just pay your local Polaris dealer a visit and watch him laugh when you ask if he has any left.” Then Polaris racing veteran Mike Houle (before he became Ski-Doo’s golden boy) was really impressed with the new model, too.
“The sled has a light feel to it, and running along the tight, twisting trails, it was very quick and Injection (EFI) was added to the SP and SKS nimble,” he commented in the same article. Successful in competition from the start, the new Indy 500 took 18 of the top 20 places in the Jeep 500 from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to St. Paul, Minnesota, and immediately became the machine to beat on the cross-country circuit.
For 1990, Polaris was again unable to meet demand for the wildly successful Indy 500, so dealer orders for them were slashed by 20 percent despite a $200 retail price increase. The 1990s were very similar to the ’89s with some minor tweaks like stiffer springs and upgraded materials and electrical equipment.
“This sled is hot,” said Race and Rally magazine, but the downside was that theft of them was becoming a real problem, so hot could be taken in more than one way.
Over the next decade the Indy 500 was upgraded and altered considerably. Fuel capacity was increased to 11.25 gallons for 1991, and readers of Snowmobile magazine underlined its popularity by voting it the “most significant” snowmobile of the decade. Electronic Fuel versions in 1992, with other variants getting it later. The 2-up Classic Touring appeared in 1993, and the 500s moved to the new Evolved body style in 1994. A Rocky Mountain King (RMK) deep snow version was added in 1997.
At $4,999 in 1998, the base Indy 500 was now a screaming bargain compared to the Polaris triples, and the 500 had settled into a niche as one of the absolute best values in the entire snowmobile marketplace. As a result, the Indy 500 had helped pull Polaris into first place in the brand share-of-market race.
The foundation of Polaris sales leadership for well over a decade, the Indy 500 twin was one of the most successful snowmobiles of all time. In production through 2006 for a total run of 18 years, it was one of the longest lived Polaris models ever. Selling in huge numbers through its first decade before making way for other models, it hung on as a liquid-cooled price leader even after the debut of the 500 XC in 1999. And many Indy 500s are still out on the trails today, a testament to how good this model really was and how much many riders still love it.