The Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby turned 50 this past weekend.
As always is the case at the Derby, there was plenty of pomp, ceremony and celebration. There was even a little bit of racing.
There is a magical quality about pulling into Eagle River on Derby weekend, due in part to the fact that the town still rolls out a visible welcome mat for the fans.
Not many town newspapers put together a three-section edition for a snowmobile race. Again, this is what makes the Derby unique among snowmobile events.
This year my Derby weekend began with a long stop at the World Snowmobile Headquarters and the Derby Hall of Fame, located just behind turn-4 of the famed half-mile oval.
This was my first stop at the WHQ and it won’t be my last. It’s a great space with an excellent collection of snowmobiles, including regular models and famous race sleds.
Famous as in a 1977.5 Arctic Cat IFS Sno Pro and a ’78 Sno Pro.
There are also tons of artifacts that honor the great sport and its participants. I was really pleased to see this display honoring the late, great snowmobile journalist C.J. Ramstad.
There is definitely a feast for the eyes at the WSQ.
I’ll never forget when Dave Wahl raced this Wahl Bros. twin tracker done up in Arctic Cat livery at the 1991 late-season race in Beausejour, Manitoba. I grew up thinking of Dave as an Arctic Cat guy as much as an independent guy. That spring he traded some of the Ski-Doo decals for a full-Cat look, and it seemed perfect and right.
More than anything I was struck by the great photography throughout the WSQ. Of course most of it is Derby-related, but holy cow is there a lot to see and enjoy.
There was an area dedicated to Ed DeVault, a great man from a great family. Ed died in 2002 as a result of crash sustained at the Derby that year. Ed and his brother Dan were enormously successful oval racers, particularly in the stock classes.
This year at Eagle I was able to enjoy a nice dinner with a group that included Dan and his two sons. Lots of shared stories and laughter, and so much history with this family. It was probably my favorite time of the weekend.
Here is Ed’s 2001 Arctic Cat ZR 440 race sled.
For myself and many people I talk with, Derby weekend has become as much about seeing old friends as it is about racing. I ran into two such friends at the WSQ: Tom Anderson (r) and JoAnn Smith (middle). I’ve worked with and alongside these two off and on for nearly 25 years, and I appreciate all they’ve done for the sport. On the left is Bob Mendlesky, who I met for the first time. He was Doug Hayes’s mechanic and instrumental in the Mercury Sno Pro race program.
As I left the WSQ, I snapped this image of two youngsters checking out the displays. Kids love vintage as much as us old farts.
Venturing over to the track, I stopped by the Arctic Cat skybox above turns 3 & 4 where I ran into another great friend and colleague, Kathy Johnson of Arctic Cat. For one Kathy allowed me to shoot her photo, although I’m pretty sure I tricked her into it by asking her to show me the sweet decals given to her by Errin Kolden.
It was no surprise that I ran into some legends in the Cat skybox, including Screamin’ Scott Eilertson (L) and Jeff Goodwin, both of whom are now sales reps for Arctic Cat.
Eilertson used to jump cars on his El Tigre at the Derby, while Goodwin was one of the great oval racers for the better part of two decades.
It was great to see and talk with this legend, 1969 Champ Roger Janssen, who will see more of later in this story.
Great viewing from the skybox for a whole bunch of Arctic Cat fans.
A scan of the pits showed a decent number of race rigs. Not nearly as many as 20 years ago and prior, but definitely larger and more luxurious.
Walking through the pits and over to the track, I had a nice conversation with 2-time Team Arctic World Champion Gary Moyle (left) and race manager Mike Kloety. Moyle was explaining how the changing temperature (going from a balmy 25 degrees on Saturday to a frigid 0 on Sunday) was going to challenge the teams. It would prove prophetic.
Moyle and his crew had qualified with the fastest time for the 50th running of the Derby, a good sign for their effort to win a third World Championship.
During the first heat on Saturday, Moyle kept his momentum to move to the Semi finals, where he suffered from a less-than-perfect decision on carburetion and failed to qualify for the front row.
He would get into the final via the LCQ, which put him on the back row.
Arctic Cat’s other strong hope for another World Championship title was the sport’s only four-time winner, P.J. Wanderscheid. Unfortunately for P.J., a couple crashes in the previous weeks had given him a broken ankle and a separated shoulder, the latter of which was most impactful during Derby weekend.
Champ 440 is the World Championship class, and it’s sensational for its speed and parity. I’m no oval racing expert, but I’d say there were 6-8 racers who were definite contenders to win, with only the slightest differences in speed and handling.
After struggling through the early part of the weekend, Wanderscheid found his groove during the Saturday semi final and cruised into the final.
It was a HUGE relief and energy-boost for P.J. and his team, who went into the weekend unsure whether P.J. could actually compete.
When he pulled off his helmet after the semi final, P.J. said he never even felt his injuries. Yep, the power of adrenaline!
The change of fortunes for Wanderscheid Racing essentially reset their expectations for the weekend. Now, instead of uncertainty about even racing they were talking about winning.
Sunday morning inside of the race trailer, there was a mixture of hope and hard work. Engine builder and racing engineer John Hooper (L) was working on the clutches while talking with Mark Wanderscheid.
This is a team whose singular focus on excellence is truly impressive.
In addition to the Champ class, Arctic Cat had a handful of racers in the other handful of classes. I’d like to tell you the name of this racer who won, but for the second year in a row the Derby still hadn’t posted results as I write this one day after the event.
I’m not going to turn this report into a magnifying glass on the Derby, but oval racing and “modern” racing at the Derby are in a serious state of limbo. There are pieces of it all that are fantastic, and pieces that are in serious need of a rethink.
One of the latter is the fact that the above ZR-lookalike sled is as modern as it gets at the Derby, which means that there’s nothing that resembles a stock snowmobile of the past decade.
Even the 120-class race sleds are styled to look like vintage greats.
On a brighter note, the 120 and Kitty Cat races are a strong part of the weekend, and it’s always great to see the new generation of racers. But in all seriousness, I question what the future holds for these young racers if oval racing continues to ignore stock classes?
Again, if there were results I could give you the actual number, however, I would say that there were fewer than 75 total entries in all the World Championship oval classes. Maybe even fewer than 60. In contrast, I can remember when there were that many entries in just the Stock classes during the 1990s.
Right now oval racing is an inverted pyramid, with strength and parity in the Champ class but a huge fall-off in the support classes. That’s not sustainable.
Some people say the answer is vintage racing, which saw 900 or so entries the previous weekend at Eagle River.
Speaking of vintage (nice transition, huh?!), here are two great guys who were there when it all started. On the left, Stan Hayes, winner of the very first Eagle River Derby in 1964. With him is Scott Frandsen, son of 1967 winner Daune Frandsen and regular cross-country competitor in the 1990s. Great guys with great perspectives on the sport.
I rank Stan as one of the greatest snowmobile racers of all time. He’s the only racer to have won Eagle River, the Soo 500 and the I-500 cross-country (in addition to hundreds of other victories).
I asked Stan if he had any interested in trying a modern Champ 440 sled on an ice oval… Nope!
If you’ve been reading this site you know that 1984 World Champs Jim Dimmerman and the Nielsen Racing crew had put a lot of effort into restoring the Phantom Sno Pro for the 50th.
Team owner Ted Nielsen pulled out all the stops and got matching gear for the entire crew that harkens back to their Championship-winning season.
You might have also read here last week about the replica of Roger Janssen’s 1969 Arctic Cat Panther built by Tom Ische for the 50th. Here’s Janssen (seated) and Ische in the staging area prior to a ceremony honoring the past champions.
There were hundreds of Polaroid moments for everyone, including this one of Janssen and Nielsen.
On the infield prior to the start of the Champ 440 final, I saw another serious legend: 1973 World Champ Bob Eastman. I have HUGE respect for this Polaris great, who in many ways is that brand’s version of Roger Skime.
Many smiles shared by this crew of former World Champs. From left-to-right: Daune Frandsen (1967); Mike Trapp (1971 & ’72); Stan Hayes (1964); Bobby Donahue (1988) and Jim Bernat (1975).
Of all the sights at this year’s event, the one of Janssen on the ’69 Panther Mod brought the biggest smile to my face. You could see he loved riding it and that he kept wanting to crack open the throttle.
Like Janssen, you could just see it in Jim Dimmerman’s posture that he wanted to throw down 8 hot laps at race speed. These guys and others who restored their Championship-winning sleds for the Derby deserve a round of applause for their efforts.
Despite how old I feel when I roll out of bed in the morning, I wasn’t actually at the ’69 Derby when Janssen won or even the ’84 Derby when Dimmerman won. So to be able to watch these men and sleds go around this track was an experience for which I’m grateful.
As the sleds rolled around the track, the crowd and the past champs were all smiles. I wish that the Derby folks had done more to talk about these guys to the assembled crowd. Really, they were a huge part of the show.
Yet the biggest show of the weekend was the World Championship final which, true to Derby style, started 90 minutes later than scheduled.
All the drama and anticipation reaches a feverish pitch when these screaming sleds are lined up.
… and not even one lap was completed before the red flags came out following a first turn tussle that stopped a couple of the sleds. Huge bummer for P.J. Wanderscheid, who would have completed the first lap in the lead had there not been a red-flag.
Upon the restart, Ski-Doo racer Malcolm Chartier cruised to a commanding lead and “win” of the first 10 laps, at which point all the machines stop for a five minute pit-stop before the final 20 laps.
Last year I thought the pit stop was interesting, this year I thought it was goofy.
Not that anyone is asking my opinion, but since this is my blog I’m going to express it: stopping a race for a five minute pit stop is weird and I vote to eliminate it.
I suppose if there’s one virtue of the pit stop and three red-flag-restarts, it’s that all the racers are bunched back together to tighten up the racing.
Seriously, there were five green-flag starts to the World Championship finals. That’s weird too.
The guy who led four of the five starts was Chartier, riding a Mike Houle-prepped Champ.
P.J. never found his groove and appeared to be running slightly off the pace he’d shown in the Semi Finals.
Maybe it was the horrendously bumpy track. I hope someone posts video of this race, because these guys have to contend with a track that’s so bumpy and chewed up that their sleds literally catch air if they take the wrong line into turn one.
Anyone who thinks that oval racing is smooth should see for themselves just how rough this sport is at the Derby.
The last few laps of the final were definitely dramatic. Coming out of turn four on the last lap, Chartier and Jordan Wahl dragged-raced each other and Matt Schulz to the finish line. Wahl almost got him, but it wasn’t to be. Just 0.095 seconds separated the top three.
And with that, racing concluded at the 50th Derby.
For the record, Gary Moyle finished fifth and P.J. finished ninth.
The last person I talked with prior to leaving the track on Sunday was Arctic Cat collector Jeff Johnson of King Kat Racing.
Jeff is a fiercely loyal fan and race team owner who is always good for some stories and strong opinions.
Like thousands of others who come to the Derby, Jeff loves the history and spectacle.
I’m going to end this post with the above and below pix. Above is an image from this year that captures the competitive element of Eagle River. This is the core of Derby weekend, and it’s something that’s in short supply but for the few classes that have more than a handful of competitors.
A World Championship needs to be the biggest, to attract large fields and to be a vibrant force for future racing. Right now, the Derby seems like it’s basking in its former glory while its future looks precarious and in need of nurturing.
This last image is of Jim Dimmerman posing with someone who might be a future World Champ and his Scorpion Sno Pro 120 mod. I want this kid to have the opportunity that Dimmerman had, to race a variety of competitive “feeder” classes before eventually winning a World Championship title that reflects the amazing and awesome sport of oval competition.
Thanks for reading.