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The Sights, Sounds & Smells of Eagle River 2012


(1/24/2012)

Eagle River Derby weekend is uniquely iconic in the history of snowmobile racing. What started in 1964 as one of the first-ever snowmobile races grew to a magnificent spectacle in the mid-1970s with perhaps the most important title in snowmobile racing: World Champion.

My first encounter with Derby weekend occurred in 1990 as a hack writer for Snow Week magazine. That was when Formula III was in its heyday, and Formula I (twin-trackers) were still vibrant (and the featured class at Eagle). Stock class racing was monstrous, and oval racing in general was still strong.

I attended the next eight editions, then stopped. 

The last few years I've missed the ol' girl, and made it a goal to return. When my friends Pat Bourgeois and Jason MacDonald showed interest in going, the three of us hatched a plan to attend the 49th edition.

 

Eagle River Road Trip

I sometimes forget the greatness of road trips with friends. Several hours in the truck pulling a trailer loaded with sleds, having conversations about everything from sleds to kids to the merits of fruit snacks vs. chips... all sprinkled with adolescent fart jokes... is half the fun of trips like these. And it was made extra-good when we hit central Wisconsin and saw rideable snow. By the time we'd rolled into Eagle River at 9am Saturday morning we'd seen multiple groomed trails, a few sleds and that wondrous beauty that defines the Northwoods of this great state.

 

Eagle River Road Trip

Once at the track, my first stop for the day was the Arctic Cat hospitality suite between turns three-four on the famed oval, just in time to snarf some food and to see a familiar Derby site: track sweep.

 

Christian Bros. Racing trailer

A stroll to the pits brought me face-to-face with another iconic figure...Bubba Ness, who was selling wares from inside the Christian Bros. Racing vending trailer. Bubba is one of those guys who has seen nearly every big race for the past 25 years, often working for a prominent team. He's also the guy who phones in a report of Joey Hallstrom road-running at every I-500, and for that reason alone I love Bubba!

 

Team Arctic Race Manager Mike Kloety

Team Arctic Race Manager Mike Kloety was making the rounds, talking to racers and taking care of the many details of his job.

 

Steve Thorsen

Stroll through the pits at Eagle River and you're bound to meet a legend or two. One such person that I always enjoy talking with is Steve Thorsen. Thorsen won back-to-back World's Championships in 1977 and '78. Later he would form T/S Racing and build the machines for Team Arctic's Brian Sturgeon, as well as hundreds of amazing race sleds (and production ideas) for Arctic Cat. These days Thorsen is the head mechanic for the Scheuring team and pro driver Robbie Malinoski.

I asked Steve what he thought of today's top oval sleds and how they compared with the last Sno Pro oval sleds of the early 1980s. His answer: no comparison. The new sleds handle way better, are faster and easier to drive.

He did point out, however, that many of the top racers are still using 1998 440 motors for their machines, and that the front arm geometry of the rear suspensions is nearly identical to that year ZR.

 

Team Arctic Cat racer Dale Lindbeck

Once an oval racer, always an oval racer. So says Team Arctic mainstay Dale Lindbeck, who raced this track many times in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Now Dale's World Championship focus is on watercross. Here he humors me by pointing to the heat race sign which, at this moment, is the same as his race number.

 

Team Arctic Cat race legend Dave Thompson (right)

I was thrilled to bump into a legend among legends, Team Arctic Sno Pro great Dave Thompson. Dave was one of the original Factory Sno Pro racers in the 1970s before transitioning to Team Arctic Race manger. He never won the World's Championship as a driver, but it was "his" team that won via Bobby Elsner in 1979.

Dave looked great and was in top spirits this past weekend. I'm always impressed with his humble, calm demeanor.

 

Eagle River Beauty Queens

Pomp, pageantry and tradition are huge components to the Eagle River experience, and beauty queens have been part of that mix going back to the earliest editions. These beauties earned serious bonus points for displaying the ArcticInsider decal on their sash.

 

John Prusak from Snow Goer magazine

While no beauty queen, Snow Goer magazine Editor/Publisher John Prusak helps play a role in the tradition of Eagle. The trophy he's holding is the Snow Goer Cup. Formerly called the Snow Week Cup, it's been awarded to the World Champion for more than 20 years.

 

Marcel Fontaine (L) and Doug Hayes

Two hall-of-famers. On the right, Sno Pro oval great Doug Hayes. On the left, Canadian race director/creator Marcel Fontaine.

 

Wanderscheid and Moyle race crews

While chatting with friends is always great, I was keenly interested to see Team Arctic's two top oval racers for this season: P.J. Wanderscheid and Gary Moyle. Between them they've won Eagle River six times, with P.J. scoring a record fourth victory last year.

 

Moyle Racing crew

Both riders come to Eagle backed by strong crews who have worked tirelessly all season (with an extra effort the week prior to Derby weekend). For these teams, Eagle River is by far the most important race of the season.

 

Andy Moyle places the arcticinsider decal

After some tense negotiations with expensive contingency incentives, I was able to convince Andy Moyle to increase the value of ArcticInsider decals by placing one on brother Gary's Champ sled. Thanks Andy (and Gary), it's truly an honor that you did this! The check's in the mail...

 

Arctic Cat racer Trevor Fontaine

For the past few years Team Arctic's Trevor Fontaine has been gaining the speed and experience necessary to challenge for the win in the Champ class. In his early 20s, Fontaine is proof that there is interest in oval racing from today's youth.

 

Colt Dellandrea on the mend

Another example of youthful exuberance:  Colt Dellandrea from Kincardine, Ontario. Still in his late teens, Colt would have been racing at Eagle were it not for a leg injury that hasn't healed as planned. I can tell you from personal experience that it can be bitter and nasty watching a race as an injured spectator, when you would otherwise be competing as a racer.

 

Christian Bros. Racing at Eagle River

Snocross racing is part of the World Championship venue, and representing Arctic Cat were Christian Bros. Racing pros Cory Davis and Garth Kaufman. Neither had a stellar weekend. I'd love to tell you their finishing result, but as of today the only class results posted on the Derby website are for Champ. Bummer.

 

Team Arctic Cat's Tyler Adams

I can tell you that Team Arctic's Tyler Adams nailed a win in one of the junior classes. Nice job, Tyler!

 

Racing at Eagle River 2012

At the end of the day, Eagle River is an oval race. Here Team Arctic's Ryan Kniskern leads a pack of hungry Champs out of turn 2.

 

Racing at Eagle River 2012

There is electricity and magic that unfolds within this colorful, contained venue which is truly great. The amphitheater-like shape of the track draws you inside, where the crackle and scream of 10,000 rpm race engines send chills down the spine (and reverberations through the ears).

 

Outlaw 600 racers on the track

I was curious to see the Outlaw 600 racers. This new spec-class, sit-in concept definitely has some buzz. There were some moments of excitement in the final, but a series of crashes, broken machines and red flag stoppages seriously diluted the entertainment potential this time around. It is, however, a class with growth, which is something that oval racing has been short of for more than a decade.

I'm not going to turn this report into a discussion about the health of oval racing, but it was apparent to me that, aside from the Champ/World Championship class and maybe the Champ 600 class, "modern-class" oval racing is nowhere near what it was during my last visit here in 1998. Back then there were 3-4 heats in many of the alphabet Stock classes, with factory participation. Today there are no stock-based race sleds competing on ovals.

In contrast to the low entry numbers of modern oval racing, the vintage event at Eagle one week prior is garnering upwards of 1,000 entries. Lots of reasons for this, most of which have to do with the gargantuan popularity of vintage snowmobile stuff.

But I can't help but wonder what can be done to revitalize modern oval competition for its own sake.

 

Racing at Eagle River 2012

Because the fact is: oval racing is exciting, awesome and a true spectacle. When the World Championship final roared to life this past weekend, anchored by the old barn and old glory in the background, I had felt the same electric magnificence that poured through my veins when I saw Dave Wahl win here in 1990.

 

P.J. Wanderscheid at the 2012 World Championships

P.J. Wanderscheid at the 2012 World Championships

Although he didn't win his qualifying heats, defending champ P.J. Wanderscheid was a good bet for the win. With a bumpy, rutted ice surface P.J. and the other finalists contended with line choice that could send the inside ski climbing.

 

 

Racing at Eagle River 2012

This year the World Championship final was 30 laps, with a stop/break after the first 10 during which crews had 5 minutes to adjust/check/change anything they wanted. For me, the concept is weird and I would prefer that they race the full 30 laps without stopping. Others like the suspended drama.

 

P.J. Wanderscheid chasing Matt Schulz

For the first 10-lap portion, Matt Schulz got the holeshot and led. A staggered restart for the final 20 laps put Schulz back into the lead. For several of those remaining laps, Wanderscheid was within a sled-length.

 

Racing at Eagle River 2012

A few laps later, Wanderscheid was fending off Moyle (#66) and Nick  Van Strydonk on the Polaris.

 

Gary Moyle, Team Arctic Cat

After P.J. faded, Gary Moyle also had a couple laps during which it looked like he might sneak by Schulz for the lead. But he too would fade in the final laps.

On the last corner of the last lap, with all the drama and history of Eagle River on the line, Van Strydonk dove inside of Schulz, came out in the lead and snatched the victory. It was a remarkable moment that more than satisfied the crowd's desire to see something historic.

Team Arctic's Ryan Kniskern finished fourth, followed by Moyle and Wanderscheid in fifth and sixth.

 

2012 World Champion Nick Van Strydonk

And for the 49th time, a victory lap concluded one of snowmobile racing's great events.

Thanks for reading.



Comments (18):

eric nelms says:
1/24/2012 2:31:00 PM

Hey John. Must have been fun. I was there in the 70,s. Polaris won then to. Maybe see you next month.
Kevin Hooper says:
1/24/2012 5:37:00 PM

Nice write up. This year was a good race - I was disappointed that Gary didn't win but Nick earned it for sure. I agree with you assessment of running the race straight through being better. I guess both ways have advantages and disadvantages. One last thing... as you mentioned, Dave Thompson is truly a legend among legends. How cool it is that he still goes to Eagle River!
Kevin Hooper says:
1/24/2012 6:50:00 PM

I gotta add... my two favorite racers of all time in snowmobile racing are Brad Hulings and Dave Thompson. Dave didn't get the big win at Eagle River, but that didn't matter because he was so much more to the sport of racing and snowmobiling than even a win at the Derby could have given him.
jeff says:
1/24/2012 6:57:00 PM

Awesome. But yes it is sad to see the comparison from the 90's till now for the stock/production sled classes. I clearly remember the winter of 94, the ZR's were winning in packs, what an awesome experience that was, i went straight to the dealer Monday morning and bought my own version. I don't think the firecat chassis ever made it to the ovals. darn snocross.
John, are you going to Beausejour Manitoba in March? Its the 50th anniversary this year. Going to lots of vintage racing and displays.
Eric says:
1/24/2012 10:04:00 PM

Remember seeing one 04 firecat racing at Eagle River. I remember it didnt corner worth a hoot.

Andy Moyle is nothing but a class act guy and funny as all get out. Met him at Hay Days a few years ago and you coudnt ask for a nicer person. Even told me if I wanted to get into ovals Moyle Racing would assist me with a Formula 500 sled.

Tyler Adams says:
1/24/2012 10:13:00 PM

How do I come across these Arctic Insider decals? Thanks for the mention, Tyler Adams 705
81snopro says:
1/25/2012 12:46:00 AM

I miss Steve Thorsen and Dean Schwartzwalter (T/S Racing)at the tracks wearing black and green. It's too bad that the economy went south in Fergus Falls or they'd still be there. One of the best chassis, front end and clutch men in the country.Malinoski will do well with Steve wrenching for him.............Mike Farris
TXL 24 says:
1/25/2012 8:47:00 AM

Great story and photos John, I like the shot of Bubba Ness, Bubba is the only person that i know that would put over ten thousand miles a year on his new sled back in the day, although he never rode rode alot, his sled always was the cleanest with the latest accessories added on, but i always would tell him you need to unload your sled from your new pick up, those miles do not count. One more Bubba memory, The Iron Man 250, around 1995-1998, not sure what year, temps did not get above -20 degress. Afraid his truck would not start, so he left it running from friday morning until when he went home on monday, fuel was only $1.65 a gallon, times were good!!!!
Steve
Alen Teach says:
1/25/2012 12:43:00 PM

As someone who has attended many Eagle Rivers since Bob Eastman won, standing in turn four last weekend reafirmed why snowmobile ovals are still the best racing on the planet. In my opinion, nothing including NASCAR , can top it. Too bad it does not have wider appreciation.
Amy says:
1/25/2012 4:44:00 PM

John - Great Eagle River write-up. Glad that you now know if you put Andy Moyle on a job, he does it...and he does it well. My truck is sporting a new Arctic Insider decal right on the driver's side window. Snowmobilers back home have been waving and greeting me as if I might be you... I feel famous!
artdcat says:
1/26/2012 8:57:00 AM

Eagle River Derby Oval Racing is simply THE BEST EVENT IN SNOWMOBILING. See you at the 50th....
John Sandberg says:
1/26/2012 9:46:00 AM

Thanks for the nice comments everyone. I appreciate them!

Amy: Thanks for sporting the ai.com colors! I apologize in advance if anyone eggs your truck. From my interaction w/the Moyle team, I know it's an awesome group of people.

81SnoPro: I too miss having T/S Racing clad in black/green.

Tyler Adams: Nice job this past weekend! Actually, you've been killing-it all season. Click the "Contact Us" icon at the bottom of the web page and email your address.
RACE KID says:
1/26/2012 1:20:00 PM

John, excellant article ----you have my vote for next years coverage!

I've been attending the derby for years. In my opinion it seemed like Arctic Cat, for awhile, gave the cold shoulder to Eagle River and its racers.

Maybe because sno cross was so big in the lime light.

Didn't see much Arctic Cat recognition to a 2009 Junior 10-13 Sno Cross racer that won in a field of yellow.

Who was that kid anyway?
Auggie says:
1/26/2012 11:00:00 PM

We flew into Eagle River on the Arctic plane (I don't remember what year it was) for the finals only to find out that Davey Thompson was in the Hospital and near death. Man that sure was a sad and tence day.

Auggie
Bruce says:
2/4/2012 9:02:00 AM

I have been going to Eagle River for the past 27 years and yes, it has certainly changed. Still love the ovals, but not thrilled about stopping the race after 10 laps. Let them run the full race and then put a MUTE button on Colorado Rob, the announcer! Everything is about him!
Bruce
catlady says:
2/8/2012 12:51:00 PM

I agree. let them run that race! It is a sprint race, that is what it is and always has been meant to be. You can go to the Soo I-500 to see the pit stops. I hope for the 50th they bring back a no-stop WC, make it tough still - 30 laps total, but consecutive laps. That is the WC. Red flags happen on there own... but dont put them in intentinonally.
Jon Jasinski says:
2/9/2012 1:25:00 PM

We were not able to attend the race this year. Your article made us feel like we did. We'll be at the 50th hanging out in Turn 3 (look for the Michigan State Spartan flag). I agree that the Final needs to be run non-stop. If the crews don't have their sleds tuned by then too bad. I also remember the days when the stock classes provided entire days full of racing and excitement. Thank's again for the great article. Stop by in 2013 and I'll buy you a "pop".

Wayne Dellandrea says:
3/8/2012 9:20:00 PM

John..Great coverage of the sport--We'll see you there next year when Colt's leg is healed up..appreciate your passion for the sport--our trailer has your stickers all over it and hasen't been egged yet--L0L....KEEP up the great work!!!!!!!!!!

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