The popular Cardell Potter of Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, pulled off an amazing upset Sunday afternoon in the 52nd annual Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby – coming from a back-row starting position after going through the last-chance qualifier race, and then charging through a star-studded field.
After 2010 champion Matt Schulz led the first two-thirds of the race, Potter took the lead with about six laps left in the 30-lap final, and then held off a late charge by two-time defending champion Malcolm Chartier to earn his spot in history.
Chartier ended up second, with 2012 winner Nick Van Stydonk making a last lap pass the finish third.
Though only 22, Potter has been racing snowmobiles on ice oval tracks for 17 years, and this victory it truly benchmark.
“It means the world to me,” the tall, blond-haired racer said shortly after hoisting the Snow Goer Cup high above his head. “It’s something I dreamed of as a kid.”
The Run Up To The World Championship
The front row for the World Championship final was determined Friday and Saturday through a series of qualifying races. Chartier, the 2013 and 2014 winner, earned his spot Friday in the special Sweet 16 Qualifier, while the other nine racers had to come through a series of heat races.
Chartier would be the favorite going in, but several top challengers emerged on Saturday. Matt Schulz of nearby Wausau, Wisconsin, won pretty much every time he took the track over the weekend on his Rotax-powered mod – unless Chartier was in the same race, and Jordan Wahl (Polaris) of Greenbush, Minnesota, looked dominating in his semi-final. Other first-row qualifiers included 2012 winner Nick Van Strydonk (Polaris), Manitoba-native Travis MacDonald (Ski-Doo), Minnesotan Joey Fjerstad (Polaris), Illinois racer Gunnar Stern (Polaris), Quebecois Jason Lavallee (Ski-Doo), Wisconsite Matt Ritchie (Polaris) and Pro Champ 440 rookie Glen Hart from Manitoba.
Missing from that front row were some true all stars who had trouble in qualifying heats, and that would set up an incredible field for Sunday’s last chance qualifier race that would included four-time former champions PJ Wanderscheid of Minnesota, two-time former champion Gary Moyle of Michigan and 2004 winner Larry Day, plus veteran dominator Dustin Wahl and Potter, who qualified as the third fastest racer earlier in the weekend and had been running great. Wanderscheid (Arctic Cat) led the LCQ for awhile, but soon was overwhelmed by Potter (Ski-Doo), who ran away to an easy victory. Only those two would advance to the second row in the big dance – the other racers were done for the weekend.
After an extremely long delay and a bunch of ceremonial tradition, the racers were finally lined up on the front stretch in front of a sizable crowd on a cloudy, comfortable Sunday afternoon. The race would be 30 laps – 10 quickies, then a mandatory 10-minute break for wrenching, then 20 more laps for the run to history.
All eyes appeared to be on Chartier, but on green Schulz surged ahead and grabbed the lead, with Chartier immediately in tow. At lap three, it was Schulz by about a second over Chartier, with Wahl running a solid third and surprising Sterne fourth. Already up into fifth after starting in the second row was Potter, dicing through traffic and putting past champions and strong challengers behind him. Then came MacDonald, Fjerstad and Wanderscheid. Potter moved up to fourth on lap five and then started cutting into the gap that Wahl had in third. On the last lap before the mandatory stop, Potter had grabbed third and would restart on the leaders’ snow flaps.
During the mandatory pitstop, the race teams rapidly added fluids, adjusted suspensions, adjusted the handling and generally gave the sleds a once over. The most notable action, though, was at the sled of the leader, where Schulz’s crew was literally using zip ties and duct tape to secure the brake handle to the master cylinder.
The sleds would restart for the last 20 in this order: Schulz, Chartier, Potter, Wahl, MacDonald, Wanderscheid, Van Strydonk, Sterne, Fjerstad, Lavallee and Hart, with Ritchie out of the race. It would be a standing start, with the sleds staggered about 10 feet apart in order.
On green, Wahl got the best jump, launching into third past Potter, but by lap 12 Potter knifed back into third while Schulz and Chartier started to create a gap up front.
Potter soon closed some of that gap, and those top three sleds ran nose-to-tail, with 5-10 sled-lengths between them, for about the next 10 laps. As the laps would down, it looked like Schulz might be able to race away to a victory, but then a sled that was already a lap down perhaps changed history. Hart, racing his first year on a Champ sled, crashed into the turn one haybales and caused a red flag, followed by a restart.
After that restart, Potter was in full charge mode – making quick work of the two past champions in front of him and putting his bright yellow sled into the lead. Chartier then charged past a fading Schulz and took off after Potter. With about two laps left, Chartier made one last valiant effort, charging through the corners and briefly getting on the inside of the young racer. But Potter would not be rattled. He used a low line through turns three and four to protect his lead and re-opened a gap and ran away to the victory.
Chartier would charge home in second, with Van Strydonk using a last lap pass to grab third ahead of Wanderscheid and Fjerstad. Schulz, meanwhile, parked his sled near the infield coming out of turn four, the victory of a blown drive belt.
The Racers Wrapup
The ever-popular Potter was congratulated by his own team and by several other teams as the pandemonium began right after the race.
“I knew Malcolm was there – I knew he was coming hard, and I was slipping the belt in the middle of the corner the last couple of laps,” Potter said. “I worked the bottom good, and that allowed me to protect that line.”
While other racers were riding brand new equipment, Potter said his is actually a 2007 Wahl chassis that his family originally bought to run in the juniors classes. They’ve adapted it several times, including this year to improve the handling and to take out some weight, he said.
Chartier was a classy second.
“I was getting close and I could have made a mark on him, but I don’t race like that,” Chartier said, using a racing term to refer to bumping into somebody to make a pass. “There will be more Eagle Rivers – I’ll get my chance again,” the gentlemanly racer said.
Van Strydonk was happy with his podium position.
“I knew coming in that we were going to have to battle,” Van Strydonk said. “I let those other guys bump and bang in front of me and made clean passes when I could… by the time I got up to third I ran out of time.
“We’re really excited – we haven’t had a good finish in about a year and a half; we’re happy to put this Polaris back up on the podium,” Van Strydonk added.
Wanderscheid said his team improved his sled’s handling overnight Saturday and gave it a good run. The sport’s only four-time World Champion lost his father late in 2014 to cancer and said he wanted to win one for his dad, who put him in the sport.
“It would have been an awesome honor. We’re going to try to come back and win it for him: He deserves it,” Wanderscheid said.
Fifth place Fjerstad said he and his team are just getting started on building something special.
“This is something in the making,” Fjerstad said. “I mean [engine tuner/team owner] Rich Felegy hasn’t been in champ racing since the Mike Houle days” when he built engines when Houle was dominating Formula III racing and then won the 1999 and 2000 World Championships, Fjerstad said. “We knew we had a solid package with the Felegy engine and the Wahl chassis.”
MORE PHOTOS WILL BE POSTED TOMORROW AFTER TEAM SNOW GOER COMPLETES THE LONG DRIVE BACK HOME.