GRAND FORKS — He was known as “Gentleman Bob” for his humble demeanor on the snowmobile racing circuit, and he knew his way around a snowmobile, both as a racer for the renowned Polaris racing team in the '60s and '70s and as a research and development engineer for the manufacturer whose roots are in Roseau, Minn.
Bob Eastman of Roseau, a U.S. Snowmobile Hall of Fame racer and an icon in the industry, died Tuesday, Dec. 15, after a lengthy illness. He was 79.
“He was just a terrific individual; he had the utmost integrity, both personally and professionally, and he did a magnificent job of managing Polaris’ race teams back in the '70s and early '80s,” said Archie Simonson of Grand Forks, who raced for Polaris from the early 1970s until 1982 and was inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St. Germain, Wis., earlier this year. “He was a true legend of the sport and just a wonderful ambassador for the sport of snowmobiling, and of course represented Polaris very, very well.
“I didn’t know anybody that didn’t like Bob Eastman or think the highest of him.”
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Mitchell Johnson of rural Roseau, son of Polaris founder David Johnson and a longtime Polaris engineer, said he remembers Eastman as a friend and neighbor he knew for almost 60 years.
“From an industry standpoint, he is one of the all-time heroes and greats from his racing history,” Johnson, 71, said. “He’s a legend, and he brought Polaris and the industry a lot of great credit and notoriety – good notoriety.
“He was ‘Gentleman Bob’ in the sense he was part of my everyday life and part of the everyday life of everyone in the community of Roseau. But also, he made everyone feel special in racing and as a hero, he always had time for people.”
Larry Preston, author of the “Starfire Kids Midnight Blue Express,” a book about the renowned Polaris “Midnight Blue Express” racing team Eastman directed in the heydays of snowmobile racing, this week recalled being 8 years old and meeting Eastman in December 1974 at a race in Alexandria, Minn.
By that time, Eastman was a star on the racing circuit after winning the World Championship Snowmobile Derby in Eagle River, Wis., in 1973 and finishing near the top in several Winnipeg-to-St. Paul I-500 cross-country races.
Those were the days when snowmobile races drew thousands of fans, and the racers were like today’s major sports stars to kids across the North Country, Preston recalls.
“He spent a good chunk of his day just trying to entertain me because I liked Polarises,” said Preston, who grew up in Alexandria. “He didn’t know me from Adam. It didn’t matter to him. He immediately put me in the back of the Polaris race truck, and for an 8-year-old kid, it’s like, ‘Why don’t you just put me center court at the Nicks game for the championship?’ He gave me a hat, and made sure I got autographed pictures all that day. It was pretty amazing.
“He set the example for the race team and all the race teams for how to behave.”
Welder and racer
A Cavalier, N.D., native, Eastman joined Polaris in 1960 as a welder, putting the skills he learned as a farm kid to work welding on the chassis of the old “Iron Dogs,” Johnson said, referring to the early Polaris Sno-Traveler machines.
“He was an excellent welder — one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “One of the things Bob used to always do — he was always proud of his work, and in an inconspicuous place on the drive unit, he would weld his initials, and so today, when you look at one of those old machines, you can find a hidden spot where Bob’s initials are, and you know that he was the one who welded that power unit.”
At Polaris, Eastman became more involved in engineering, research and development, Johnson said. Racing was a natural progression, both as a way to test prototype machines before they hit the market and as a way to promote snowmobiles as the sport gained popularity. He was promoted to Polaris racing director in 1969.
On a snowmobile, Eastman was “one with the machine,” Johnson recalls. That was especially apparent during a trip across Lake of the Woods, he said.
“It was rough, and snowmobile suspensions weren’t as they are today,” Johnson said. “I was doing all I could to hang on, and we were going fast, as we usually were, and I looked over at Bob, and he was riding with one hand, and I could hardly hold on and keep up with him.
“I rode a lot, and I consider myself a good driver, but when you were riding alongside Bob Eastman, it was something to behold.”
As an engineer, Eastman played a key role in the development of independent front suspension, or IFS, as it’s known in the industry, a breakthrough that led to smoother rides both in races and on the trail. He also worked on designing ATVs for Polaris in the early days of their development.
“Bob was just an unbelievable, shall we say, inventor,” Johnson said. “He thought of new things, he grew up on the farm, farmed throughout much of his career at Polaris and had great ingenuity.”
Eastman retired from Polaris in 2005 but remained an ambassador to the sport and the industry. Name a hall of fame related to snowmobiling, and Eastman is a member.
“He will not be forgotten,” Johnson said. “Why is he so well-regarded? Why is he so well-known? Because he cared about people, and he was a genius with the machines.”