There is a fast, well-financed, Michigan-based, Pro Champ 440 snowmobile racer who is positioning himself very well for a run to be the 50th Eagle River World Champion on Sunday, but he isn’t the guy that many folks might think of when that description is laid out.
Yes, Gary Moyle is again super fast on his No. 66 Arctic Cat, and he was the fast qualifier in time trials on Thursday. But that two-time champ from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was overshadowed on Friday night by a racer from lower Michigan who is racing for another team with a World Championship pedigree – including a sled building with two titles world titles himself.
Malcolm Chartier of Marine City, Michigan, led from green to checkered in the featured event at the Eagle River, Wisconsin, Derby’s famous Friday Night Thunder program in front of a star-studded field. By doing so, the driver of the No. 33 Mike Houle-built Ski-Doo mod accomplished three things:
- He claimed round two of the TLR Cup points series;
- He became the No. 1 and (so far) only qualifier for Sunday’s $80,000 World Championship race, because the winner of the Friday Night “Sweet 16” final gets an automatic bye to the final and doesn’t have to go through Saturday’s grueling qualifying process.
- He set himself up as a potential favorite, even though he is racing in a field that has several past world champs.
The Friday Night Thunder program also had a lot of other action going on, with Pro Open and Pro Lite snocross on a bumpy, tight infield course; Semi-Pro Champ, Formula 500, Vintage
340, Outlaw 600 and a handful of other classes on the banked, iced oval track; and enough pomp and circumstance to make a circus jealous. Fireworks, t-shirt giveaways, historic videos, appearances by famous former racers, politicians gladhanding – it had it all.
Chartier Impresses, & Advances
A few years ago, when the Champ (or, previously, Formula 1) sleds would take to the track on Friday nights of Derby weekend, the results were sometimes disappointing, as some of the top teams didn’t seem to have their heart into charging hard through snowdust when they were actually far more concerned with Sunday’s final than Friday night’s showcase.
That’s not the case anymore. Now, the Friday night event counts for important TLR Cup points, has a lot more money on the line thanks to the TLR Cup and the World Snowmobile Headquarters, and it sets that one qualifying position for Sunday’s race. Now, it’s definitely a showcase of the sport’s best, all trying hard.
The field of Champ drivers was narrowed to 16 drivers through time trials and heat races held on Thursday. Friday night in front of a large crowd on a pleasant winter night, the field was first knocked down to 10 drivers through two semi finals.
Matt Schulz, the 2010 champ and last year’s runner up, led early in the first semi final but Gary Moyle stormed past him and ran away. Brandon Johnson also got past Schulz and claimed second.
In the second semi, Malcolm Chartier grabbed the early lead and was never seriously challenge. Larry Day, the 2004 champ who came out of retirement for this race, gave early chase but then had his track derail. Trevor Fontaine pulled to the infield after his knee popped out of joint. Ryan Kniskern locked into second and held that spot the rest of the way, with 2012 champ Nick Van Strydonk a strong third, Matt Ritchie fourth and Cardell Potter fifth. A banged up PJ Wanderscheid, the sport’s only four-time champ, finished sixth and was eliminated. He is racing with a broken ankle suffered two weeks ago, and other major bumps and scrapes after crashing in practice last week.
In the final, Chartier was strong right off the starting line, gaining the lead going through the first set of turns and then setting sail up front. He clicked off smooth lap after smooth lap, never opening more than a half-straight lead, but never seriously challenged either, despite the strong field of drivers behind him.
In the first couple of laps, it was Chartier, then Kniskern on the No. 616 Ski-Doo, Schulz on his No. 38 Ski-Doo, then Moyle was battling with another sled for fourth, with Van Strydonk behind them in sixth.
Within a few laps, Moyle started moving forward, while at the same time Schulz seemed to fade. Moyle locked into third right behind Kniskern, and even challenged the young racer at several points, but Kniskern held his own.
Behind them, here came Van Strydonk. A year ago in a very snowdust-filled Friday night race, Van Strydonk got a terrible start but charged through the crowd and finished second, then eventually won on Sunday. He’s undoubtedly hoping for a dose of déjà vu. Again tonight he started slowly, then charged, dicing past fast qualifier Moyle and then driving under Kniskern for second before running out of time to chase down Chartier.
In the end, it was Chartier winning by a solid 2.029 seconds over Van Strydonk’s No. 13 Polaris, with Kniskern back 2.957 seconds, Moyle 3.998 seconds behind in fourth and a late rallying Jordan Wahl fifth, 4.140 out. Wahl’s teammates Brandon Johnson and Dustin Wahl followed in sixth and seventh, with Cardell Potter eight.
After the race, Chartier flashed a big toothy grin while posing for pictures with queens and having a couple of oversized checks thrust at him. It was a good night, and he immediately thanked his team.
“I just go out here and go in circles, they get the work done,” Chartier said. Behind him, two-time world champ and master sled builder Mike Houle was his usual understated self, telling us this is in fact a new and different sled than last year, with more lightweight parts and some rear suspension changes.
Van Strydonk said he enjoyed the race, although it was a great challenge.
“The track is really grooved up, you kind of had to pick a line and try to stick with it,” the defending champ said. However, that wasn’t possible as he was coming up to attempt to pass other fast sled, who often were running the same line that he had found.
“You’d pick a lane and try to stay with it, but then it would get taken away, so you’d find a new one, then that one would get taken away,” Van Strydonk said.
Kniskern may have been a bit of a surprise to some people with his third place finish, but remember, this guy finished fourth in last year’s championship and has the strong Tommy Lipar Racing team behind him. Asked who he thought was going to be the toughest guy to beat on Sunday, he pointed toward the No. 13 sled parked next to his in front of the crowd after the race.
“That man next to me – Nick. He’s fast,” Kniskern said.
Friday Night Snocross
Ross Martin was the king of the Pro Open class at Eagle River’s Friday Night Thunder program. The driver of the Nol. 847 Polaris ended up running away with the single Pro Open heat held Friday night and then did the same in the final, though he had to work a bit harder for that one.
Swedish import Petter Narsa started strong on his No. 271 Ski-Doo and held the point for several laps before Martin could run him down and take the lead. Defending ISOC points champion Tim Tremblay was next to pester Narsa, but again the Swedish youngster held strong for several laps before Tremblay got the spot. Tremblay closed on Martin for awhile, but then when the sleds caught lapped traffic Martin put a couple sleds between he and his Ski-Doo driving rival and grabbed the checkered. Tremblay was second, Narsa third and then a big gap back to Robbie Malinoski in fourth, with Darrin Mees fifth and Colby Crapo sixth.
Martin has become a regular at the Derby in recent years, using an off-weekend from the national snocross scene to compete in a non-points race in his home state. After the race, he told us that his team semi will leave immediately after Sunday’s racing at the Derby to head to Colorado in advance of next weekend’s ESPN X Games.
In the Pro Lite class, Andy Lieders similarly had to overcome an early challenge before running away with the top spot on his Polaris.
Other Oval Highlights
Hard-charging Nick Dolezal ran his No. 66 Proline Arctic Cat to the top spot in an exciting Outlaw 600 final. The class, which features unique, cockpit-style race machines that look like oversized go-carts on ice, is in its second year, and it attracted a large group of sleds to the Derby.
Former NASCAR racer Rich Bickle led the first handful of laps on his No. 45 mod, using a smooth driving style that had him slowing down and driving through the turns while Dolezal behind him would drive in very hard, pitch the sled at a 45-degree angle and slide through the turns. However, something broke on Bickle’s sled and he ended up pulling to a stop out of the main traffic groove, and Dolezal led the rest of the way to the checkered flag.
The Semi-Pro Champ final featured two red flags. Dustin Gehrke charged through traffic and was leading when the first red flag flew after two sleds crashed in turns four. When the sleds were restarted, second place Jacob Beres grabbed a surprise holeshot and led the way into turn one, but Gehrke drove in very, very hard, dove beneath Beres and created a crash the took out Beres and third-place Lance Relf. The race was again red-flagged, but Beres was able to answer the bell when the race was re-started, albeit with a bent tunnel. He again got a good holeshot and led to the finish line.
The closest race on the night was Ryan Dethloff’s Vintage 340 victory in which he won by a ski loop. Shane Peterson won the hotly contested Formula 500 final. Shane Peterson of Lancaster, Minnesota, claimed an impressive victory in Formula 500.
Check back all weekend for more updates from the Derby – snowgoer.com will keep coming at you with stories and updates!