This past weekend, the Team Arctic/Christian Brothers Racing duo of Zach Herfindahl and Wes Selby captured a hard-fought, dramatic win in the 50th Anniversary Soo International 500 enduro. The last 100 or so laps of this race will go down as some of the best racing in the history of an already iconic event, with four sleds in the hunt to win plus an epic battle with Polaris’s Aaron Christensen during the closing laps.
It marked just the third time Arctic Cat has won the Soo, the first coming from Troy DeWald & Jeff Luenberger in 2010 and the second with Selby and Brian Dick in 2015.
Like any win at this historic 1-mile oval in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., it required a great sled (2018 Arctic Cat ZR 6000R SX modified with a Speedwerx-built C-TEC2 EFI engine and a whole bunch of enduro-focused components), great strategy (a whole crew from Cat/CBR/Speedwerx worked magic throughout the race), great skill (Zach and Wes are two of the best terrain racers in the world) and a bit of luck.
I chatted with Zach and Wes a day after the win. Here’s what they had to say.
AI: Congratulations on that win you guys, it looked pretty awesome.
Wes: Yeah, thanks. It was really cool to win it. It was cool for us and cool for the fans to watch such a great battle with four teams all gunning for the win in those final laps. And it’s so good for the whole team.
Zach: For sure, they work so incredibly hard to put us in the best position to win. When we say that we couldn’t do it without them, it’s 100 percent true.
AI: Describe what those last 25 or so laps were like, with you battling Aaron Christensen (with Corey Davidson and Troy DeWald on your heals)?
Zach: When I got on sled for the last 100 laps, I got 3 fast laps before a caution came out. I told Jeremy (Houle, of Speedwerx and one of the crew who was calling the shots) that I was having fun. It was dark, the track was rough and it was exactly the kind of conditions that I like to race fast in. I knew it was going to be awesome.
I also knew Aaron was right on our heels so I just tried to stay focused and hit my marks. Any mistake would have immediately shuffled us to fourth, or worse. Truthfully, I knew Aaron was right there because I could hear him, but I didn’t know until afterwards that Davidson and DeWald were right there. I told Jeremy to scream into the radio if anyone tried to duck under me.
Wes: For me, watching those laps, of course there’s nervousness. I have total faith in Zach as a racer, but there’s a lot that can happen in a race like this and it’s especially nervous when you’re not in control. We could see Zach was racing smooth and consistent. Whenever someone got near him he’d put his head down and stretch it out again.
Zach: I was going as hard as I could those last 50 laps or so. Had I tried to go any harder there’s a good chance I would have crashed into wall or something. The track was rough with short kicker chop and a few big holes. Coming into turn one was gnarly.
AI: What was your overall strategy with the race?
Wes: The plan was for Zach to start and then we’d alternate every 100 laps with the pre-planned plow breaks.
Zach: We qualified 18th and wanted to run up front all day. The last 100 laps are when it all seems to happen in this race, so we just wanted to be on the lead at that point for the final sprint to the end. Everyone is pretty close now, no one’s going to go out and put easy laps into anyone out there. There are too many teams that are too close to do that anymore.
AI: What went according to plan, and what went haywire?
Wes: Other than my get-off, everything went according to plan. One little mistake can bite you.
AI: Describe what happened.
Wes: It was around lap 330. I came into turns one-two and got blasted with a face full of roost. I could barely see and didn’t have time to wipe my goggles. I hit a bump that put me sideways. The sled rolled up on its side and had to bail off. Fortunately the sled didn’t roll, but I got pretty banged up on my elbows and knee.
I had a hard time getting the sled restarted, in part because my elbows hurt so bad that I could barely pull the rope. We lost a lap, which was a bummer.
I was banged up bad enough that I wanted to come in and switch with Zach, but I couldn’t because we’d lose another lap. So I stayed out with the plan of not coming in during the plow break (race officials had pre-planned track plow breaks at roughly every 100 laps) around lap 380, in order to get back the lap we’d lost.
After a while I felt better and could stay on the gas. It was a bit of a gamble by not getting fuel on the plow break, but it got us our lap back. Fortunately after that plow break there was a caution, which allowed me to come in for fuel, put Zach on the sled and stay on the lead lap (albeit at the back of the field –Ed.). Zach got on sled and ran it home.
AI: Zach, describe what it was like to have to pass through the whole field of racers, including the fastest guys at the front, then get around to the back of the field again to repeat the whole process to take the lead.
Zach: Like Wes said, he stayed on the sled through the last plow break to get back one of the laps. Fortunately officials threw a yellow caution not too long after the break, maybe around lap 410, at which point Wes came in. We fueled and then I got on the sled. At that point we knew we had enough fuel for the rest of the race.
At this point we’re down one lap from the leaders and I was at the back of the pack of all the sleds, which came together during plow breaks and caution periods. I knew I had to pass whole field twice, so I started motoring around people. I was having fun, and pretty quickly got up to third in the field. I passed #21 (the Cadarette Collision Arctic Cat team of Troy DeWald, Ryan Spencer and Bill Wilkes. –Ed.), and then the #74 Bunke team pitted, so we got our lap back but now I had to go through the whole field again to get back with the leaders and eventually into the lead. So I just kept my head down and motored as best I could. I was able to pass #21 and #74 again for lead, I think around lap 435, and we stayed there the rest of the race.
I had a good line on the inside of turn 4 that worked great. It had some big holes. That was where I passed pretty much most of the field. That inside line worked great for the last 100 laps.
AI: Put this win in context. What’s it like to win one of the monuments of snowmobile racing, especially the 50th Anniversary edition?
Zach: For me it’s right there with winning the USXC I-500 cross-country (Zach won the 2017 edition. –Ed.). It didn’t really hit me right away. The checkered flag came out and I was still racing hard because Aaron had been right on me until the last few laps where I put a few seconds on him. So it wasn’t until I came around again after the finish that I got to really realize and think about it.
Seeing the whole team waiting for me there, everyone jumping and hugging, that’s the best feeling. Hector and Berbs (Zach’s two mechanics), Jeremy, Steve Houle… those guys work so hard and are so awesome. It feels great to win for them. I got off the sled and Hector gave me a hug, and he didn’t let go! (Pause) It’s pretty special.
To do it with Wes, a guy I battle against every week all season long in the cross-country races… to race together at the Soo and win it together is a really great thing.
An effort like this takes so many people. And to win makes everyone happy. All the work paid off. And to do it with Roger Skime and (team owner) Stuart Christian there, at 50th Anniversary, it’s so special!
Wes: It’s awesome and hard to find the words that can describe it. Everyone puts in so much work and dedication for one race. To win it is emotional and gratifying.
AI: Wes, compare this to your win with Brian Dick in 2015.
Wes: Both are awesome. Anytime you can win a race like this, it’s a pretty big deal. I love both wins equally.
When Brian and won in 2015 the race ended early because of conditions. You hear a little bit of grumbling about that, so it was great to win this year by going the entire distance. We were actually worried this race would get called short too, because it was snowing pretty good and the snow dust was pretty bad for a while. But the track crew put salt down in the middle part of the race, which was great because it calmed the snow dust a lot and allowed the race to go full distance.
AI: How did you have your sled set-up and how was it working for you?
Wes: We started with a new 2018 ZR 6000R snocross sled, and then set it up with a bunch of stuff that’s specific to the Soo. We had a different Speedwerx motor package and a different suspension package compared to last year. Plus we never lowered our sled for qualifying or the Woody’s Challenge on Thursday night. We just kept it at the same set-up we were planning for the 500 miler and worked to dial it in throughout the week. Actually, we worked to have it set up and dialed in for the last 100 laps, when the course is rough and gnarly.
Zach: The new set-up felt a lot different, because we went taller with the suspension travel. It took some time to figure out and get comfortable on. The more we rode and tuned, the better it felt. We made three adjustments during the race, each time to stiffen up. A couple of those were spring adjustments, one was on the rear coupler block, and we also made one clutching change. Otherwise our pit stops were simple: just gas and skis.
AI: Does it hurt you to sacrifice your qualifying position to essentially keep tuning a sled for the actual race, rather than slamming the suspensions and going with a special qualifying set-up like so many teams do?
Wes: No, we didn’t care about qualifying so much. It would have been nice to be up front because of snow dust, but it was more important to get the sled figured out. We ended up qualifying 18th, which put us on the outside of the ninth row. We started next to Corey Davidson, who obviously knows how to do this race (Davidson has the record for most career wins at the Soo. –Ed.). We got into top five pretty quick, maybe 20 laps after the start. Then we got into lead somewhere in the middle of the race.
AI: Was there a speed or handling difference that you could see between your sled and the competition?
Zach: I think most of the top sleds were pretty similar. Maybe one or two of the Polaris sleds had a bit of speed on us, Ryan Faust did for sure, but he had trouble early on and wasn’t able to get back onto the same lap as the leaders. We were set up for the last 50-100 laps, so that’s when our sled was working its best. It couldn’t have been much better for that part of the race, which is when it matters most.
AI: You guys have another huge 500-mile race beginning this Thursday. The I-500 cross-country. Are you ready?
Zach: Our sled is ready. I’ll maybe do a little riding and some stretching, but mostly the next few days are just for recovering. I’m feeling prepared. I’m a little nervous about the snow conditions. It’s going to be rock-hard snow with finger drifts unless we get some more snow.
Wes: I haven’t touched my cross-country sled since the last race, so I gotta get that ready. And I need my arms and knee to heal up. Like Zach said, there isn’t much snow around here so it’s going to be rough. We got just enough snow to hide all the nasty frozen stuff underneath. (Laughs). It’ll be fun though, and I’m sure we’re going to be battling with the usual guys.
AI: Tell us the sponsors who made it possible to win the Soo 500.
Both: A huge thanks to Arctic Cat, Christian Brothers Racing, Speedwerx, Doc, Country Cat, AMG Peterbilt, Rox, Troy Lee Designs, Studboy, Arcticwear, 100%, Leatt, 139 Designs, TDS, FOX Shox, C&A Pro, Ericco and Lunstra Motorsports.
AI: Alright, now go kick some butt at the I-500 cross-country and we’ll do another interview with one of you guys.
Zach: Ha! That’s my plan.
Wes: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s my plan too.