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Eagle River Derby History: A Look At Past Champions

By John Prusak

1964 Champion Stan Hayes

As the 50th Eagle River Derby fast approaches, here’s a look back at the 49 previous races that crowned World Champions.

  • 1964: Stan Hayes, Crandon, Wisconsin (Polaris) – Named the overall winner because organizers thought the 15-year-old class-winner’s story would most interest the assembled media.
  • 1965: George Gensler, Three Lakes, Wisconsin (Evinrude) – Crowned for his time on the cross-country section, Gensler was the first to have his name engraved on the Argosy Cup.
  • 1966: Steve Ave, Duluth, Minnesota (Ski-Doo) – Ave was the first to win the Eagle River title on an oval track, and he did so with an experimental Bombardier-provided engine. His margin of victory was less than a foot.

    Steve Ave, after winning his second title in 1968.

  • 1967: Duane Frandsen, Pembine, Wisconsin (Ski-Doo) – Credited with being one of the first drivers to “read” the track, Frandsen held the best line from green to checkered.
  • 1968: Steve Ave, Duluth, Minnesota (Ski-Doo) – The first repeat World Champion won by a full straightaway this time.
  • 1969: Roger Janssen, Crookston, Minnesota (Arctic Cat) – After being T-boned on the first lap and causing a restart, Janssen earned the first world title for Arctic Cat.
  • 1970: Yvon Duhamel, Valcourt, Quebec (Ski-Doo) – The crossover motorcycle racer was the first Canadian to win the title.
  • 1971: Mike Trapp, Woodruff, Wisconsin (Yamaha) – In what many consider the most thrilling Derby final ever, Trapp and Yvon Duhamel traded paint throughout the race.
  • 1972: Mike Trapp, Woodruff, Wisconsin (Yamaha) – Overcame early season crankshaft gremlins to become a surprise repeat champion.
  • Mike Trapp won back to back in 1971 and 1972.

    1973: Bob Eastman, Roseau, Minnesota (Polaris) – Legendary racer won after a controversial on-track, underhood adjustment before the final. It turned out to be just an exhaust spring install.

  • 1974: Gilles Villeneuve, Berthierville, Quebec (Alouette) – After parking his exotic twin-tracked cockpit sled, Villeneueve guided an underpowered single tracker to the title.
  • 1975: Jim Bernat, Roseau, Minnesota (Polaris) – Passed Don Omdahl with two laps left to win a thrilling championship for Polaris.
  • 1976: Ed Schubitzke, Duluth, Minnesota (Yamaha) – After dicing early with Bob Elsner, Schubitzke ran away with Yamaha’s third victory in six attempts.

    Steve Thorsen.

  • 1977: Steve Thorsen, Fergus Falls, Minnesota (Polaris) – After capitalizing on teammate Jerry Bunke’s near-crash on lap 13, Thorsen narrowly beat Bunke to the checkered flag.
  • 1978: Steve Thorsen, Fergus Falls, Minnesota (Polaris) – Defending champ won a battle of attrition, as only three sleds finished the race.
  • 1979: Bob Elsner, New London, Wisconsin (Arctic Cat) – Won by a half straightaway and averaged 94 mph, a new record at the time, on his Cat.
  • 1980: Jacques Villeneuve, St. Cuthbert, Quebec (Ski-Doo) – Jacques’ first win in dominating fashion was also the first utilizing the new 340cc Formula I rules.
  • 1981: Brad Hulings, Thief River Falls, Minnesota (Scorpion) – Despite parent company Arctic Enterprises grinding toward its closure back home, the undeterred Hulings won on a Scorpion.
  • 1982: Jacques Villeneuve, St. Cuthbert, Quebec (Ski-Doo) – The first victory of a twin-tracked snowmobile was Villeneueve’s second in three years.
  • 1983: Brad Hulings, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Ski-Doo) – Then on a factory-backed Ski-Doo, Hulings won by a wide margin in the first 25-lap championship race.
  • Jacques Villeneuve.

    1984: Jim Dimmerman, White Bear Lake, Minnesota (Arctic Cat) – After being last off the start, Dimmerman passed the entire field during the race for a popular victory.

  • 1985: Michel Gingras, St. Giegoire, Quebec (Ski-Doo) – Utilizing a revolutionary engine with variable exhaust, Gingras displayed amazing power to win.
  • 1986: Jacques Villeneuve, St. Cuthbert, Quebec (Ski-Doo) – Back after two-year hiatus to go car racing, Villeneuve claimed his third title.
  • 1987: Chuck Decker, Eagle River, Wisconsin (Ski-Doo) – The youngest member of the track-owning Decker clan started fifth but moved forward for the victory.
  • 1988: Bobby Donahue, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin (Ski-Doo) – The popular Donahue barely held off a challenge by Allen Decker to claim the title.

    Dave Wahl in 1990.

  • 1989: Bruce Vessair, Honey Harbour, Ontario (Ski-Doo) – After a long three-way battle with Jacques Villeneuve and Dave Wahl, Vessair pulls away at the end.
  • 1990: Dave Wahl, Greenbush, Minnesota (Ski-Doo) – After breaking the track record in qualifying and breaking his ankle in a race Friday, Wahl broke through with his first championship.
  • 1991: Greg Goodwin, Zion, Illinois (Ski-Doo) – After Dave Wahl crashed while leading, Goodwin barely held off a hard-charging Dale Loritz, despite fading brakes.
  • 1992: Gary Vessair, Honey Harbour, Ontario (Ski-Doo) – After dominant performance, Gary became the second Vessair brother to win World Champion honors.
  • 1993: Al Fenhaus, Wausau, Wisconsin (Ski-Doo) — Subbing for the injured Jeff Goodwin, Fenhaus pulled a shocking upset on zebra-striped sled.
  • 1994: Dale Loritz, Green Bay, Wisconsin (Ski-Doo) – Dramatic pass coming out of turn four allowed the popular Loritz the title in his ninth try.
  • 1995: Dale Loritz, Green Bay, Wisconsin (Ski-Doo) – Dominant green-to-checkered victory made Loritz the first back-to-back champion since Thorsen in 1977 and 1978.
  • 1996: Dave Wahl, Greenbush, Minnesota (Ski-Doo) – Dubbed the Wahl-To-Wahl Action final, nephew Terry led early but crashed on lap 18. Uncle Dave led the lap that mattered.
  • 1997: Dave Wahl, Greenbush, Minnesota (Ski-Doo) – Fittingly, master chassis builder Dave Wahl won the last World Championship to feature the Formula I twin trackers.
  • 1998: Terry Wahl, Greenbush, Minnesota (Ski-Doo) – Dave’s nephew made sure the crown stayed in the family in the first year on Champ 440 sleds.
  • 1999: Mike Houle, Wyoming, Minnesota (Ski-Doo) – Longtime dominator in Formula III class won with ease in his second try for the World Championship.
  • 92 Champion Gary Vessair

    2000: Mike Houle, Wyoming, Minnesota (Ski-Doo) – Defending champ overcame injuries and ill-running snowmobile to earn back-to-back titles.

  • 2001: Jeremy Johnston, Arcola, Saskatchewan (Ski-Doo) – Only six sleds completed the race, and only three were on the lead lap. Johnston edged teammate Chris Hortness for the win.
  • 2002: P. J. Wanderscheid, Sauk Centre, Minnesota (Arctic Cat) – 18-year-old rookie on second-hand sled earns stunning victory, and first for Cat since 1984.
  • 2003: P. J. Wanderscheid, Sauk Centre, Minnesota (Arctic Cat) – Late pass on Phillip Moulton allowed Wanderscheid to prove that 2002 was not a fluke.
  • 2004: Larry Day, Lyman, Maine (Arctic Cat) – An epic battle between the Cats of Day and P.J. Wanderscheid wasn’t settled until the last lap.
  • 2005: Gary Moyle, Houghton, Michigan (Arctic Cat) – Moyle’s first victory was fourth in a row for master engine and chassis builder John Hooper.
  • 2006: P. J. Wanderscheid, Sauk Centre, Minnesota (Arctic Cat) – Wanderscheid caught leader Terry Wahl in lapped traffic, passed with two laps left and wins by two sled-lengths.
  • 2007: Gary Moyle, Houghton, Michigan (Arctic Cat) – After running second for the first 9 laps, Moyle grabbed the lead and ran away with second championship.

    The first four-timer: PJ Wanderscheid

  • 2008: Brian Bewcyk, Winnipeg, Manitoba (Ski-Doo) – A late red flag lets 43-year-old Bewcyk thaw his freezing hands, then hold off Gary Moyle.
  • 2009: Brian Bewcyk, Winnipeg, Manitoba (Ski-Doo) – Racing against a field of racers half his age, Bewcyk goes back-to-back with dominant victory.
  • 2010: Matt Schulz, Wausau, Wisconsin (Polaris) – The first Polaris victor since 1978 was Schulz on a sled dialed in by his uncle, ’93 champion Al Fenhaus.
  • 2011: P. J. Wanderscheid, Sauk Centre, Minnesota (Arctic Cat) – Wanderscheid and Gary Moyle battled side-by-side, lap-after-lap, but P.J. wins his record fourth title by .375 seconds.
  • 2012: Nick Van Strydonk, Tomahawk, Wisconsin (Polaris) – An amazingly-close battle between six fast sleds on the last couple of laps ended with Van Strydonk winning by a ski length.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Don’t miss our related Derby History story.




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