Gabe Bunke, Aaron Christensen and Taylor Bunke made history Saturday as they took control of the 48th annual Soo I-500 race in the last 20 percent of the race and won fittingly under a yellow flag at about 8 p.m. local time – more than 10 hours after the race began in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
For Bunke, it was his sixth time driving on the winning team, putting him in position to some day challenge Corey Davidson as the all-time winningest driver in snowmobile racing’s most challenging one-day event. Davidson, the sport’s only eight-time winner, led the XLT Engineering team to a fourth-place finish on Saturday, one lap down.
For Bunke’s teammate and co-driver, Christensen, it was his fourth time as a part of a winning team. And for Bunke’s 20-year-old son, Taylor Bunke, it was his first. The team raced a 2014 Polaris 600 IQR
The day was littered with yellow flags that regularly broke up the flow of the race. In fact, there were 41 total yellow flag periods during the race, giving flagman George Britt about as much airtime on the webcast as any of the racers.
Many of the yellow flags were undoubtedly initiated by a track that quickly deteriorated. To call the one-mile oval course “flat” would be a misnomer because of all of the bumps the racers worked into the course — let’s go “unbanked.” Going into and out of turns, racers had to almost navigate snocross-style jumps, which is hard on both the men and their machines in such a long, grueling race. However, it was otherwise a pleasant day at the track, with temperatures in the 20s and low 30s and very limited snowdust.
Through much of the race, it appeared that the sled to beat might be the No. 15 Arctic Cat of defending Soo champions Brian Dick and Wes Selby of Christian Bros. Racing. They led early and often. However, after working their way up from a 20th place starting position, the Bunke Racing 74 team powered into the lead on lap 429 and never gave it back, despite having to weather many restarts.
With 22 laps left, the race went green with Christensen behind the handlebar of the No. 74, and he immediately re-built the team’s lead. That lead grew to 6.6 seconds within 9 laps. But then with 13 laps left, oddly enough it was the other Bunke Racing team – the one with a No. 537 on the side led by driver Spencer Kadlec – that erased the lead and brought the pack back together when it caused a yellow.
That brought the defending champions – with Selby driving – back up behind Christensen for another run. The only other sled on the lead lap at that point was the No. 34 Kovar Racing entry led by Danny Maki, but that sled was starting to fail and was running laps 3-5 seconds slower than the front two. It was clear the race would be decided between the Christian Bros. and Bunke Racing teams.
On green, though, the scenario was the same again – Christensen drove the Bunke sled hard through the first set of turns and pulled away to a huge lead on the backstretch. By the time Christensen came back around to see the green flag again, his lead was already 2.5 seconds. The lead grew to 4 seconds the next lap, as Christianson set a blistering pace, running a center lane down the straight and going high going into turn 1 while Selby ran low for awhile and then moved up the track in search of a line that would give him a chance.
With just a couple of laps left, however, the field was slowed again – this time when the No. 21 Caderette Collision sled with lead driver Troy DeWald was parked in the center of the main racing line in turn four, pointed the wrong direction. As the yellow waved, the Caderette sled was re-fired and the driver turned it around, and then collided with another race sled, sending both of them toward in the infield snowbank.
The yellow flag that late in the race would mean this event would fittingly end under caution. It certainly didn’t alter the finishing order, however – the sled that was the fastest at the end won the race and deserved it.
This was the fourth time in the last five years that Bunke and Christensen were a part of the winning team. They won it with then teammate Bobby Menne in 2012, and then won it without a third teammate in 2013 and 2014. After finishing third behind the Christian Bros. team lead by Selby and Dick last year, they retook the title this year. Bunke’s other victories came in 2005, when he partnered with Josh Davis and Corey Davidson, and in 2002 when co-driving with Mike Gentz Jr.
The No. 34 Kovar Racing entry was nursed home to third place as the last sled on the lead lap. Davidson’s XLT Engineering sled was fourth, one lap down and ahead of the Yovich Racing No. 414 entry. Then came the Tommy Bauer Racing No. 19, three laps down along with the No. 22 Bear Motorsports entry and a second Yovich entry, the No. 407.
The top 10 finishing order shown with this story shows a narrow margin between the racers, but that’s because they were brought together with the late caution flag.