Anytime somebody is crowned the World Champion at Eagle River it is historic. But Malcolm Chartier is trying to become even more historic this weekend in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
The two-time defending champion cemented his position as the favorite heading into the 52nd annual W.C. on Sunday by winning the Sweet 16/TLR Cup race on a rough track Friday night. His goal? To be the first back-to-back-to-back champion in snowmobile racing’s most historic event.
Chartier, 26, of Fair Haven, Michigan, was the fastest in time trials on Thursday, and then backed that up by winning his semi-final and every lap of the final on the high-banked, iced oval.
That’s not to say, though, that he won’t have competition. The 2010 World Champ Matt Schulz showed some strength in the final but apparently had some belt or clutching problems that relegated him to third, and the sport’s only four-time champion, PJ Wanderscheid, won the other semi-final on Friday night and started the final strong but then faded. Looking for a non-past-champion to cheer for? Look no further than Cardell Potter, who ran second in the Friday night final and was the only man to hang onto Chartier’s snowflap, if only for a couple of laps.
The Friday Night Thunder program has become a prized tradition at the Eagle River World Championship, and in recent years it has also been used to place one racer into Sunday’s World Championship final – that driver being the winner of the “Sweet Sixteen” race in the Pro Champ 440 class.
Now, that race is even more important, as it’s a point race for the $125,000 TLR Cup series. That makes it huge.
The field was narrowed to 16 racers through time trials and heat races Thursday and during the day on Friday. Friday night, when a large crowd gathered at the Derby Track on a blustery January night, the field was quickly narrowed to 10 drivers through two semi finals.
In the first, Chartier pulled out to a huge lead and looked to be on cruise control for the rest of the race. Behind him, Manitoba-based Travis MacDonald ran second for the first half of the race, but then he got aced out by Cardell Potter, who started slow but came through traffic to grab second.
In the second, it was PJ Wanderscheid, in his first race of the year after taking last year off to be with his ill father, pacing the field on his green Arctic Cat-powered mod. Behind him, Jordan Wahl and Matt Schulz looked strong.
In the final, Chartier got the holeshot and paced the field into turn one, with Wanderscheid on his heels. Coming out of turn two, through, MacDonald made an aggressive move, diving underneath the Minnesota-based racer and grabbing second, with Schulz running four.
The field stayed that way through the halfway point of the final, and then things started to change. Coming from deep in the pack, Potter started to move past other sleds and locked onto fifth.
Up front, Chartier was opening a lead close to a full straightaway, and again almost appeared to be on cruise control, not outwardly showing the effort of others trying to chase him down. Potter continued to move up, while Wanderscheid started to seriously fade.
Chartier’s huge lead disappeared with 5 laps left, though, when Colt Dellandrea crashed in turn two and Chartier almost hit his upside-down sled. The red flag was displayed to clear Dellandrea’s sled, and the field was both tightened up and altered for the restart.
The altering came via attrition. MacDonald didn’t make the restart – word around the pits was it was a blown belt. Blaine Stephenson, who had run strong, also had a mechanical problem that prevented him from making the restart.
The sleds were lined up on the front stretch for a restart. On green, Chartier again launched ahead, while Schulz’s sled seemed to start out flat. That allowed Potter to knife under him in turn two and take off after Chartier.
Potter, 22, of Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, gave it a valiant effort, chasing Chartier with aggression for a couple of laps before Chartier once again opened a gap and led the way to the waving checkered flag.
After the race, Chartier was cool, calm and collected, carefully plugging his sponsors and now showing much emotion.
“We now have first place in point [in the TLC Cup series] so I can put that behind me and focus on Sunday,” Chartier said, in a very business-like fashion.
Chartier told Snow Goer that he had a brand new sled this year – two in fact – each built by former two-time champ Mike Houle, and each with revised front and rear suspensions, including exclusive Fox shocks.
Potter, meanwhile, came home as a strong second.
“We just didn’t’ get a good start in the beginning or get great track position,” Potter said. Once he moved through traffic, he was feeling game but the front two were far ahead of him – until the restart re-set the field. Then he got by Schulz and chased Chartier.
“It’s a good way to start the weekend,” Potter said. “It was a good test session for Sunday – we got to try a lot of stuff the last couple of days.”
Schulz lamented his bad starts, in his semi-final and on both starts in the final, particularly his restart with four laps left.
“We’ve been having a good holeshot, and then today is was gone,” Schulz said. “On the second restart, it just had no engagement.” Coming out of the first set of turns, Schulz said, the engine built RPMs and revved, but the power wasn‘t getting to the track, suggesting he was slipping the drive belt. With some clutching work, the winner at Ironwood two weeks ago hoped to be ready for Sunday.
So, Chartier is locked in for the Sunday final. All other drivers will have to go through qualifying on Saturday. Check back late Saturday to see who qualifies for the 52nd annual World Championship, and also to see the odds and photos of each racer who made it to the front row.