Following up on a year when he won his first-ever TLR Cup championship with a series of impressive wins, Gunnar Sterne started the 2018 snowmobile racing season back on top, running away from a star-studded field on the flat iced oval at the Ironwood Olympus event in Ironwood, Michigan, on Saturday, January 6.
Sterne, 24, of West Chicago, Illinois, was fast all day in qualifying heats, showcasing the colors of his new, high-profile sponsor Red Bull at the front on his No. 220 Ski-Doo. There was one exception, however: In the second round of heat races, Sterne was passed and beat to the checkered flag by Ontario racer Colt Dellandrea, and Dellandrea would be Sterne’s main challenger early in the 15-lap final.
But with the TLR Cup money and points on the line, Sterne pulled away to a sizable victory and a jump start on potentially being the Cup’s first-ever repeat champion.
After the race, Sterne confirmed that there’s added pressure coming into the season as the returning champion.
“You kind of get that feeling from the guys, from talking to them or them seeing how well you’re doing,” Sterne said. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing; you kind of get nervous that you have to get up there and stay up front, and it kind of puts a little bit of pressure on me, which is good: I like the pressure, it kind of makes me race better, I think.”
Meanwhile, the two other racers who ended up on the podium also had very interesting stories to tell, as they notched their first-ever podium finishes on the circuit.
Racing In Ironwood
The competition on a sunny and crisp Saturday in the Michigan bordertown of Ironwood was fast and furious. Evidence of recent snow in the area hung in the trees that surrounded much of the track, creating a festive atmosphere for snowmobile racing.
There were three rounds of qualifying heats that were important for two reasons: First and foremost, they paired the field of 18 fast Pro Champ sleds town to 12 that would make the final – eight in the front row and four on the back row. The heats are also important in the season-long points battle – every time these guys are on the track, something is on the line.
Sterne, Winnipeg-native Glen Hart and Pro Champ rookie Jerry Brickner from Wisconsin each one in round one of heat races; Blaine Stephenson of Minnesota, Nick LaGoy from New York and Dellandrea earned victories in round two – Dellandrea’s win coming in a stunning chase-down of Sterne. Dellandrea, Sterne and Beau Van Strydonk were round 3 winners in the round-robin format.
So, after three rounds of qualifying, Sterne was the top qualifier on his Ski-Doo ahead of Dellandrea – racing on a Ski-Doo-powered mod this year after years on Cats. Other front row qualifier, in the order in which they qualified based on heat race points, were LaGoy (Ski-Doo), Beau Van Strydonk (Polaris), Brickner (Ski-Doo), Glen Hart (Ski-Doo), Stephenson (Polaris) and MacDonald (Ski-Doo). Starting in the second row were Matt Ritchie (Ski-Doo), Dustin Wahl (Polaris), Nick Van Strydonk (Polaris) and Jay Mittelstaedt (Ski-Doo). Notably missing from the final were top-named racers Cardell Potter and Jordan Wahl.
From his far-inside starting position, Sterne nailed the holeshot and made it through the first set of turns at the front, with Dellandrea on his snowflap and LaGoy directly behind him. At the end of the first backstretch, Sterne had opened a two sled-length lead, and it only grew from there.
After two laps, it was Sterne with a growing gap on Dellandrea, and Dellandrea with an even larger gap on LaGoy, with another gap to Hart in fourth, then MacDonald rounding out the top five.
While Sterne opened up a larger and larger gap with each passing lap up front with a clean track in front of him, Dellandrea was steady in second but never challenged the leader, or was challenged for his spot. Behind him, though, things got interesting. Stephenson made quick work of MacDonald and then was all over Hart for fourth. That battle lasted for about a lap, then Stephenson set sail to chase down LaGoy. Shortly after that, MacDonald began an assault on Hart and eventually moved past the black No. 51 for fifth.
Just past the halfway point in the final, it was obvious that Stephenson was closing on LaGoy, but the young New York racer wasn’t making many mistakes. Stephenson would get close, then LaGoy was open up again, only to be attacked by Stephenson again.
It came down to a large lap battle for that final podium spot, and Stephenson earned it at the finish line, edging LaGoy by inches – in fact, host USSA officials allegedly had to review video tape before awarding the spot to Stephenson.
But up front, Sterne was untouchable. At one point he had to deal with heavy lapped traffic but he made it look easy on his way to victory.
After Stephenson and Lagoy, MacDonald claimed fifth, then came Hart, Mittelstaedt, Brickner and Nick Van Strydonk. Pulling off or breaking during the race were Beau Van Strydonk, Ritchie and Dustin Wahl
Post Race Quotes
Interviewed over the SledKnawker.tv webcast and in front of the crowd at Ironwood, Sterne was excited to start his season out right.
“It was a good race – we were pretty fast all day, but Colt [Dellandrea] was fast, and Nick (LaGoy) and Blaine [Stephenson], everyone was really quick here this weekend,” Sterne said. “We were doing a lot of stuff in the trailer today, changing a lot of stuff going back-and-forth. It felt good in that final – I got a good start and was finding my lines and was running well. It turned out pretty well for us.”
Even though he happened to win this final by a wide margin, Sterne said he expects a very competitive season again this year in the Pro Champ class.
“Everybody is out here to compete, and every time I’m out on the track I’m out here to win, just like all of these guys,” Sterne said. “That’s what makes this sport so awesome is that everybody out here is so competitive.”
Sterne was also excited about his showing with his sponsor, Red Bull.
“It’s awesome being with them, they’ve been super supportive in everything that we’ve done, and they’re coming out to a couple of races with me, hopefully, this year,” Sterne said. “Our sport is very cool for them, it’s something new, and hopefully they take a liking to it.”
Dellandrea’s second position on the podium came in his first TLR Cup final aboard a Ski-Doo after years of racing as an independent aboard Arctic Cat equipment. In fact, in previous years Dellandrea’s entire team consisted of him, his father and his mother towing a small trailer. This year, though, he’s got new and better equipment and the tuning of two-time World Champion Dale Loritz behind him.
“We had a bit of a change in the spring for this winter; we’ve got a new team, a new brand, a new trailer, new help – a lot more help,” Dellandrea said with a laugh. “It’s been a big change, especially [racing] the Ski-Doo from Arctic Cat.
“Since I started racing we’ve been doing it with just the three of us, and our small trailer – the only bumper-pull trailer in the class,” Dellandrea said. “Now it’s a lot easier for us – we’ve got a lot more help.”
Though some might have been surprised to see him adapt so fast to the new equipment, Dellandrea came into the weekend hoping for better.
“The transition has gone pretty good, I thought it would be harder switching sleds, but the sled feels good, and the motor is fast,” Dellandrea said. “It wasn’t really the finish we were hoping for, we kind of came here to win, but this is alright for now. It feels good to be on the podium at least.”
Perhaps the biggest ovation, though, came for third place Stephenson. A year earlier at this venue, he was seriously injured in a horrible front-stretch accident that resulted in many broken bones and a long, hard recovery. Back on the champ sled this year with the support of his family, Stephenson looks like his old self – fast and tireless.
“I’m just speechless to be up here,” Stephenson said of his podium position before thanking family members, his girlfriend, fans and others for their support and help during his recovery.