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.
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.
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.
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 was making the rounds, talking to racers and taking care of the many details of his job.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two hall-of-famers. On the right, Sno Pro oval great Doug Hayes. On the left, Canadian race director/creator Marcel Fontaine.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
I can tell you that Team Arctic’s Tyler Adams nailed a win in one of the junior classes. Nice job, Tyler!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few laps later, Wanderscheid was fending off Moyle (#66) and Nick Van Strydonk on the Polaris.
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.
And for the 49th time, a victory lap concluded one of snowmobile racing’s great events.
Thanks for reading.