Sometimes it has been well below zero, with a sharp wind making it feel even more bitter; other times it’s been warmer and wetter, with drizzle falling before the big race. But, weather be damned, I know every January exactly where I want to be on about the third weekend of the year: Eagle River, Wisconsin, for the World Championship Snowmobile Derby. When they fire up the raspy Pro Champ 440 sleds, after much ceremony and days of qualifying races, and they then pour into the first turn, my heart races as if I was behind one of the handlebars and pulling the throttle myself.
There are so many reasons why I love Derby weekend. It’s the fast-paced racing, and the incredible history; it’s the wonderful little town, and the fabulous snowmobile trails that surround it; it’s the traditional Northwoods Wisconsin resorts and supper clubs, and the food and beverages they serve; and it’s the people – the people who live there, and the people who come to the Derby every year, whether as racers, crew members, fans, volunteers/workers or trail riders chasing snow.
We Start By Riding
Our Derby weekend always goes something like this: We arrive at our favorite local lodging establishment (the historic Chanticleer Inn just east of town, where the whole Derby thing started 54 years ago) and check in on Thursday, then unload the sleds we bring for a brief trail ride before and after a wonderful Northwoods dinner.
Friday, we’re up early and ready to ride. Sure, there are qualifying races during the daylight hours for various classes at the historic Derby Track, but for us it’s worth missing some of that action to pile on 120-140 miles on the twisting local trails. Our direction of choice varies, depending on weather and trail conditions – if we can ride right from the Chanticleer, of course, that’s preferred; there is great riding in all directions.
Some years, though, we’ve had to trailer up past Conover to the Gateway Lodge in Land O’ Lakes, right on the Wisconsin/Michigan border, to ride in the Upper Peninsula. In those years, lunch often occurs up at Lake Gogebic, usually (but not always) at the Root Cellar on the eastern shore.
Last year, however, we made it a point to go to Sayner, Wisconsin, to visit the small museum featuring Carl Eliason’s first snowmobile inventions in the front of the Eliason Lumber and Hardware Store. As fate would have it, there’s great lunch right across the road at the Sayner Pub. Then it’s back to the scenic trails.
We usually wrap up our ride by late afternoon, leaving us time to (1) stop at the World Snowmobile Headquarters museum in Eagle River, where the colorful history of the sport is on display; and (2) get in a quick change of clothes and maybe a shower before heading over to the Derby Track for the Friday Night Thunder program – the kickoff to an exciting weekend of racing.
Saturday at the track we’ll cover the action, put a story up on our website and set the field on the Snow Goer Tip Sheet that’s handed out at the track, complete with fictional odds on the front-row qualifiers. Then it’s out for a very fun night on the town in a great Northwoods destination – no chains restaurants and bars here; it’s all Ma’ and Pa’ operations with fabulous atmospheres. There seems to be a festive atmosphere, as fans, race track officials and select race team members – all with a shared passion for the sport – share stories and anticipation of Sunday’s big finale.
The Very Best Racing
I like all forms of motorsports: If somebody is mixing gas and air and turning it into noise, speed and adrenaline, I’m into it. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend everything from NHRA drags to NASCAR stock cars; Indy car and Trans Am road races to Moto GP and Supercross bike races; World of Outlaw sprint cars to powerboat races; TORC off-road truck races to GNCC cross-country ATV and UTV events; ATV motocross to mud bog events; and a whole heck of a lot of Friday/Saturday/Sunday-night local dirt and blacktop car racing. You could say it’s a sickness!
On top of all of that, I was also the editor of the dearly departed Snow Week magazine that covered all forms of snowmobile racing – which got me to countless snocross, cross-country, oval sprint, enduro, hillclimb, hillcross, watercross, speed run, ice lemans and various forms of drag (grass, ice, asphalt, etc.) races over the years. I really, truly love them all.
That said, there is nothing that gets my heart pumping more than what happens at 3 p.m. on Sunday of Derby weekend, when the World Championship is about to be decided by 12 drivers on the high-banked oval track in Eagle River. There’s speed and excitement, noise and energy, thrills and chills. When it’s done, the winning driver and team will likely be overcome by unrivaled emotion after what can truly be a life-defining accomplishment as he hoists the Snow Goer Cup into the air.
Admittedly, the Derby has gained its share of detractors over the years – there are folks that complain about the costs or the delays, or who will point out that the event doesn’t have as many racers or classes as it once did. Some criticisms are legitimate, but the Pro Champ 440 class is super competitive, and the aura of the Derby has an incredible draw for this motorsports fan. And it’s also a celebration of the great history of our sport – 55 years of competition. This is our sport, our history, our World Championship weekend.
Yes, I’m leaving in the morning for my 23rd Derby in the last 25 years (I missed it one year to cover the cross-country I-500), and I am jacked up for a great weekend.
If you can’t join us in person at the Derby, keep an eye on this website all weekend for updates, and also make your picks in the Snowmobile Racing Challenge game by clicking here. It’s easy to play, free and fun.