Friday night thunder indeed!
The World Championship Snowmobile Derby weekend kicked off Friday in Eagle River, Wisconsin, with a rough-and-tumble night of racing at the event’s annual Friday Night Thunder program.
On a temperate night, a large crowd gathered to watch the very best oval sprint racers in the world compete on a high-banked oval in advance of Sunday’s actual World Championship event. There was a smattering of snocross and snow bike competitions on the moguled infield course plus other classes on the iced oval.
But in the Pro Champ 440 class that will determine this year’s World Champion, 2015 champion Cardell Potter won the featured race and earned a front-row starting position in Sunday’s main event in a final that was exciting and interesting, but most notable for its carnage. In fact, just three of the 10 sleds that started the specialty race actually made it to the end of the 16-lap race. Some of the pre-race favorites ended up getting tossed off of their damaged sleds and sent tumbling down the track – it all makes picking a pre-race favorite going into Saturday’s qualifying races extremely difficult.
Sweet 16 Carnage
Going into the Eagle River World Championship, the super-competitive field in the Pro Champ 440 class was already being narrowed by early season injuries and retirements. Within the past couple of weeks, veterans Dustin Wahl and Joey Fjerstad announced their retirements from racing after injuries in early-season races, plus young hotshoe Matt Ritchie saw his season come to an early end after a crash and resulting shoulder injury in Ironwood, Michigan, two weeks ago.
Still, there was a great field of racers that made it to Friday night’s two qualifying races for the Sweet 16 final. In the first heat, Nick LaGoy on the 7NY jumped out to a lead early but Cardell Potter won the heat with a fifth-lap pass. LaGoy finished second followed by Travis MacDonald, Nick Van Strydonk and rookie sensation Jerry Brickner. Those five would advance while guys like Jordan Wahl would be parked.
In the second heat, Gunner Sterne got the early lead but Glenn Hart quickly moved to the point. The race was halted, though, by a nasty crash involving Jay Mittelsteadt, who took a trip through part of the infield and ended up getting tossed off of his sled and tangled up with its studded track – we’re sending out our best wishes to Jay. Later Colt Dellandrea and defending TLR Cup champ Gunnar Sterne tangled in turn two and brought out another red flag, though both would return to action. In the end, Hart won the highly competitive heat followed by Blaine Stephenson, Dellandrea, Sterne and Cody Knutson.
After numerous races in other classes, many of which featured nasty crashes in their own right, the Pro Champ 440 sleds returned to the track for a run for the roses – or, in this case, a big check, a front row starting position on Sunday and points in the TLR Cup season.
On green, Sterne jumped out to the early lead on his Red Bull-sponsored Ski-Doo mod, but Dellandrea was locked onto his snowflap, with Potter right after him and then came the rest of the pack as they poured down the backstretch.
In turns three and four, however, things took a notable twist, as LaGoy divebombed through the turn on an inside line, slammed into the side of Hart, who then got pushed into Sterne. Both drivers got delivered hard to the ice while their sleds tumbled – Sterne slid in front of the field and was clipped by Potter’s sled, which sent Sterne into a dizzying, twisting spin on his belly in front of the rest of the pack. Miraculously, he wasn’t hit by other sleds.
Both drivers – both pre-race favorites – laid on the track motionless momentarily. Sterne eventually got up first, shook off the cobwebs (and perhaps dizziness) and went to look at his damaged sled. Dellandrea made it to his feet with the help of medical personnel a minute or two later.
When it appeared that both drivers would be OK, Sterne – now not wearing his damaged helmet but visually upset, walked toward a still-helmeted Dellandrea, pointed at his own head and said loudly, “COLT, you gotta use your head, man!” Dellandrea replied calmly, “Somebody hit me,” meaning he was shoved into Sterne. Both drivers were done for the night.
Eventually the remaining eight sleds came back to the front stretch for a side-by-side restart, with the exception of LaGoy, who had to start from a second-row start position because he was involved in the accident.
On green, Hart launched into the lead, followed by Potter and then Brickner. Stephenson and the defending champion Van Strydonk, though Van Strydonk would quickly fade toward the back of the pack. Up front, Hart and Potter were opening a lead on the rest of the pack when chaos struck again about three laps later. This time it was Knutson who was run into from behind and send into the outside wall entering turn 1. His sled endoed directly behind him as the driver slid up the banking – luckily it did not hit him and his crew told us their driver was banged up but generally OK.
“The sled is junk, though,” a dejected crew member said, before complaining about the rough driving being exhibited on the track. “Our guy got hit from behind on the straightaway – on the damend straightaway!” Knutson was now out, and Brickner pulled off as well with some sort of mechanical issue.
So, six sleds took the restart. Potter appeared to get the best start, but Hart held off the Cranberry Kid for a couple laps by using Potter’s preferring low line through the turns. They were followed by Stephenson, then a gap to LaGoy, Van Strydonk and MacDonald. Two laps later, though Stephenson was pulling off the track with a mechanical issue. MacDonald moved past Van Strydonk and was pressuring LaGoy when he had a mechanical issue of his own and pulled off. Suddenly the highly anticipated final was down to just four running sleds!
A could of laps later, Potter’s pestering of Hart paid off with a pass through turns one and two. Then Potter stormed away to a three-second victory, with Hart in second. LaGoy’s night would end with his own mechanical issue – he parked his sled atop turn four while the leaders were collecting the white flag. This all meant Potter earned the victory, Hart claimed second and Van Strydonk – who had been running at the back of the pack – finished third because his was the only other sled running after 16 laps.
After the race, Potter was happy with the win, and amazed by the events attrition level.
“It was definitely a wild one, I was nervous there,” Potter said of the first-lap crash involving LaGoy, Sterne and Dellandrea. “I could see them wrecking underneath me and I was trying to get up high to get out of the way there. It was very close with Colt’s sled – hopefully everyone is ok, that’s the main thing.” In fact, Potter said Dellandrea’s tumbling sled hit his own tunnel and bent it, but Potter was obviously able to continue and win.
“I am truly excited – Friday Night Thunder has always been a really tough race for me so it’s cool to get the win,” said Potter, who confirmed that he and his team returned this year with the same chassis and engine package that they ran last year.
Hart was also enthused about his finished position.
“I’ll take that any day,” Hart said. “I knew [Potter] was coming down beneath me so I tried to stay down low [in the corners} to hold him off as long as I could, it’s rough down there and he’s a bit tougher than I am I guess. We’ll work hard tomorrow throughout the heats and hopefully things go our way.”
Hart is a veteran of oval vintage racing who got into Champ racing a couple of years ago and had some strong finishes. Last year they had a Pro Champ sled but only raced it once, Hart said, because he and his crew didn’t feel they had the Houle-chassis and Rosentreter engine dialed in enough to be competitive.
“We decided we were staying home until we could get it right,” Hart said.
The two-time and defending champion Van Strydonk almost seemed apologetic for earning the third podium position, as he ran at the back of the field but outlasted all of the other sleds that broke down.
“The motor – we freshened it up from last year a little bit, we’ve got some work to do, we need to find a little more speed [to compete with] these guys,” Van Strydonk said, “but we look forward to 20-straight [laps in the World Championship final], I’m hoping it goes 20 straight. We’ll get it taken care of.”
Hometown boy Bob Richardson of Eagle River led from green the checkered in a highly entertaining and clean Outlaw final, as he ran smart up front while raging battles occurred behind him. Tim Hibbert and Dave Levra traded paint often in the battle for second, which
In Factory 600, the Faust boys ran 1-2 on matching Polaris sleds, with Ryan Faust gaining the victory on his No. 537 sled ahead of brother Travis Faust, with Billy DeVault third – all on Polaris sleds.