Malcolm Chartier made sure there was never a doubt.
The defending Eagle River Derby world champ led every lap of a quick and exciting Amsoil Eagle River World Championship final, running smooth lines and using a fast and perfect-handling Ski-Doo-based Champ 440 sled to become the eighth back-to-back winner in the event’s 51 year history.
One of those back-to-backers was Chartier’s sled builder, the legendary Mike Houle. Chartier said hanging out with Houle has allowed him to understand better what it means to be a multi-time champ.
“The last couple of years, being around Mike I see the respect he gets from people for his accomplishments, and I see the way people come up to him,” Chartier said. “I’m not saying I’m on his level – he won so many classes for so long here – but it has helped me understand what this means.”
Fellow Ski-Doo drivers Matt Schulz and the surprising Travis MacDonald finished second and third, leading to a Ski-Doo podium sweep. The three drivers have notably different sleds, but all three get their engines built by Winnipeg-based Darcy Rosentreter.
The Championship Field
After qualifying under glorious sunshine on Saturday, Sunday was cool with a heavy bank of clouds covering the fabled high-banked Derby track.
The front row featured four Ski-Doo powered sleds, five Polaris and one Arctic Cat, though through qualifying it was obvious the Ski-Doo drivers were the class of the field. Chartier was undefeated going in, and Ryan Kniskern and Matt Schulz were dominant every time that Chartier wasn’t on the track. The other front row Ski-Doo was run by Cardell Potter. The front row Polaris sleds included all three members of the famed Wahl Bros. Racing team – Jordan Wahl, Dustin Wahl and Brandon Johnson – along with 2012 winner Nick Van Strydonk and Joey Fjerstad. The Polaris sleds seemed to be down on power compared to the Ski-Doos all weekend, however.
The lone Cat belonged to two-time champion Gary Moyle, and he was getting faster all weekend and appeared to be the only one who had a real shot at those front-running Ski-Doos. Sunday afternoon, two other drivers were added through last-chance qualifying: Canadians Travis MacDonald and Colt Dellandrea.
The First Segment
After the usual heavy dose of ceremony, the field was lined up on the front stretch in front of a huge crowd. The race was planned as a split affair – a 10-lap opening segment, then a 10-minute mandatory pitstop, and then the final 20 laps of the race.
On green, Chartier lurched into the lead and was chased through the first corners by Schulz and Kniskern. But behind them was carnage, as Dellandrea’s sled took a nasty tumble in turn two. That caused a red flag, and Dellandrea’s damage narrowed the field to 11 drivers.
On the second start, Chartier again hooked up hard and won the drag race to the first turn. Schulz was again in second, but Van Strydonk was a surprising third. He had been suffering from lethargic starts all weekend, but now his No. 13 sled was hitting hard, with Moyle and Potter right there with him.
Chartier opened up a small lead, and Schulz had a decent gap on third, but behind them positions were swapping. Moyle and Kniskern both started moving through traffic, while Van Strydonk started to fade. By lap 8, it was Chartier, Schulz and Moyle, then Kniskern, Potter and Fjerstad, followed by Dustin Wahl.
That would be Kniskern’s last lap. His sled blew a drive belt and he pulled in toward the infield. While the rest of the field took the checkered flag at the end of that initial 10-lap second, though, Van Strydonk’s sled coasted to a halt at the top of turn three. He stood at the top of the banked track waiting for a tow, but then waved off the UTV that came to haul his sled away.
Instead, Van Strydonk picked up the back of his sled and started pushing, and pushing. In a scene somewhat reminiscent of Will Ferrell’s character in Talledega Nights, Van Strydonk decided to run to the start-finish line, where his crew was waiting. But with heavy-biting carbides and a long track, it was a difficult task. Holding the rear bumped up near his chest, he would push the sled for about 200 yards and then drop it back to the ice to rest his arms. The crowd caught wind of the action, and enthusiastically started cheering on the popular young racer. “C’MON NICK! YOU CAN DO IT!” was a popular call. By rule, his crew couldn’t help him until the sled crossed the finish line, and when Nick got it there, he collapsed and the crew quickly pulled it over to the work area.
In that work area, drivers and crew members adjusted suspension settings, swapped out carbide runners and made other small adjustments. Van Strydonk’s crew tore off the clutches and pulled out a bunch of belt shrapnel, then patched it back together just in time.
The 20-Lap Run For The Roses
The sleds were lined up in their running order for the restart, and the run to the championship. The order was Chartier, Schulz, Moyle, Potter, Fjerstad, Dustin Wahl, Johnson, MacDonald, Jordan Wahl and then Van Strydonk. Those 10 would decide it, as Kniskern and Dellandrea were out.
When the sleds got rolling again, the top three immediately started pulling away. Lap after lap, Chartier carried a roughly 10 sled-length lead over Schulz, and Moyle soon was snapping at Schulz’s snowflap. By lap 16, Moyle was definitely looking for a way around Schulz, who had fallen 1.5 seconds behind Chartier. Clearly, the race would be settled between those three – or so it seemed. Then on about lap 18, the #66 Cat shut down on the backstretch.
“The chain tensioner blew on it, and that caused the chain to come off,” Moyle explained after the race. “I’ve never had THAT happen before.”
Meanwhile, Chartier continued to build his lead. It went to two seconds by lap 21, and then to about three seconds over Schulz by lap 23. Third place Potter was now a half-lap back, and he was being pressured by the 20-year-old wonder kid MacDonald, who had come from the back row.
Up front, Chartier continued to run perfectly – never bobbling, never having a close call or having any problems with traffic. After taking the white flag, he cut down low through turns one and two, then swept high in turn three and four to stay above the bumps. He then charged toward the finish line, pumping his left fist while passing the waving checkered flag.
Schulz finished a couple of seconds later, and then MacDonald came in almost three-quarters of a lap later. Potter locked down fourth, with Fjerstad fifth, Johnson sixth and Jordan Wahl unofficially seventh.
Words With Champions
“We did our homework,” Chartier said of his team. “We did it last year and we just tried to replicate what we did then.”
He called sled builder Mike Houle “a great mentor – he’s guided me the right way and showed me how to handle pressure.”
Schulz was very fast and ran great, but he had nothing for Chartier.
“In the beginning, I thought I did” have a chance to run down Chartier, Schulz said, “but after he got away a little bit I thought I might have to settle for locking down second.”
Schulz won this race in 2010 and has been on the podium the last two years – certainly good finishes. But he was unsatisfied with his end result.
“I want another win,” Schulz said, quipping that his primary sled builder Al Fenhaus has one championship and he desperately wants to top him.
The second happiest driver at the track Sunday evening was MacDonald. The 20-year old had to go through the LCQ to even make today’s event and then charged through a star-studded field.
“I just drove and kept passing people until the checkered flag,” a smiling MacDonald said. “When I passed Cardell with a couple laps left, I thought I was maybe fifth. Then when the race was over, they told me I got third. This is great!”
After the race, Moyle explained why Chartier was so good.
“Those Ski-Doos are so fast,” Moyle said. “I think I was on the brink of getting past Matt and I was going to try to put some pressure on Chartier – I knew there were about 10 laps left so I had a little time. Then the chain went.
“[Chartier’s] really good. Watching him from outside the track, he has his exact set of lines and he hit his marks every single time. That’s what you have to do to win a World Championship.”