The front row is set for the 52nd Eagle River World Championship, and it’s an impressive mix of past champions and rising stars. But the thing that most people are talking about this evening in Eagle River, Wisconsin, is the star-studded Last Chance Qualifier that will run two hours before the big race Sunday afternoon. (Click here to see photos of the front row starters and Snow Goer’s fictional odds.)
Two-time defending champion Malcolm Chartier is the definite favorite heading into Sunday’s run for the Snow Goer Cup. He’s been the fastest all weekend on the half-mile banked oval and is driven to be the first time three-peater. Many before him have tried, though – most recently Brian Bewcyk after winning in 2008 and 2009, PJ Wanderscheid after winning in 2002 and 2003, Mike Houle after victories in 1999 and 2000, Dave Wahl after winning in 1996 and 1997 and Dale Loritz after victories in 1994-95. Winning two straight takes incredible skill, great machines and a dose of luck. Chartier’s got the first two, but will good fortune stay on his side?
Joining him in the front row, and arguably providing his biggest challenge, is 2010 champ Matt Schulz – who just so happens to have Loritz and 1993 champion Al Fenhaus behind his effort, while Chartier has now-master-builder Houle backing his effort. Other top racers to watch include 2012 champ Nick Van Strydonk, rising superstars Jordan Wahl (backed by past champs Dave & Terry Wahl) and Travis MacDonald (who has Bewcyk on his crew).
But back to that Last Chance Qualifier: It will include four-time past champ Wanderscheid, two-timer Gary Moyle, the weekend’s third-fastest racer (behind Chartier and Schulz) in Cardell Potter, 2004 champ Larry Day and former Snow Week Racer of the Year Dustin Wahl, among others. Each of those racers had problems in their semi finals – three crashing out in odd incidences. But only two will advance.
The Road To The Front Row
Twenty one drivers signed up in the Pro Champ 440 class, and the field was quickly narrowed to 18 for the semi finals through a series of heats won by Jordan Wahl, Schulz, Potter, MacDonald, Matt Ritchie and Jason Lavallee. Each semi final would then place three drivers in the front row, along with Chartier, who earned his spot Friday night in the Sweet 16 Qualifier.
The first semi final looked like an all-star race, but it lost one of the past champions in the very first turn, as 2004 champ Larry Day ended up in the haybales along with Chris Broerman – his day was done. After the restart, Jordan Wahl took control and won the race to the checkers ahead of a late-emerging Van Strydonk and MacDonald. The always fast Dustin Wahl – a favorite here many times – was relegated to Sunday’s LCQ by finishing fourth.
After the race, 1998 champ Terry Wahl described his cousin Jordan’s sled as all new for 2015 – with slightly revised geometry and a belt drive where the chaincase used to be. Van Strydonk, meanwhile, said he also has a new sled with “new geometry, new materials – really, everything. It’s a lot smoother to drive, but now we’ve got to figure out how to get some speed,” he said.
The second semi final started with a big bang. Cardell Potter – who was super fast all weekend – got the holeshot, but his sled torqued to the right and he ran over Ritchie’s left ski. That tilted Potter’s sled onto its side and tossed him onto the track in front of five other hard-charging sleds. It was a scary moment, and both Moyle and Jay Middlestedt crashed trying to avoid the fallen Potter, and all three of those racers were eliminated.
That meant the three remaining drivers in the semi-final would advance. They ran their heat, in which vet Joey Fjerstad looked great winning ahead of Illinois-native Gunnar Sterne and Ritchie – who didn’t finish the race.
Fjerstad explained that he is racing out of super-tuner Rich Felegy’s shop this year. The two are related and Rich’s son Shane Felegy’s death last year brought this team together. “Both he and I are staying involved because that’s what Shane would have wanted,” Fjerstad said.
Sterne was very happy to make the World Championship final for the first time on his sixth attempt. “It feels really good after the last five years,” Sterne said.
For Ritchie, the front row spot came as a result of some carnage and some luck. He had crashed in turn 2 once each on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Then, in the semi-final, his engine actually seized on the backstretch. With only three racers in the semi-final, though, he got credit for third place and a ticket to the dance.
“It’s not the way I wanted to make it, but…” his voiced trailed off, as he smiled broadly and shrugged.
All that was left was the third semi final, and it was another doozy. The top spot was never in doubt, as Schulz was the class of the field and ran away. But behind him was carnage-ville. Early on, Pro Champ rookie Glen Hart crashed his unique No. 51 Ski-Doo-based machine into the haybales in turn one, but he was able to restart the race.
After the restart, Schulz pulled away again, but an intense battle ensued for the two remaining spots between Jason Lavallee, Wanderscheid, Colt Dellandrea, Blaine Stephenson and Hart. It was highly entertaining, but when as the sleds were coming around to take the white flag, Wanderscheid and another sled touched coming out of turn four, and Wanderscheid’s sled violently cartwheeled. The four-time ex champ jumped to his feet and waved his arms in disgust, but then checked over his sled and it wasn’t seriously damaged so he was able to take the restart.
After another restart, Wanderscheid charged ahead and moved up to third when the drivers again took the white flag, but then he lost ground in the last turn and finished fourth behind Lavallee and Hart.
Immediately after the race, Schulz said his team continues to tweak his sled. “We tried a few different things to try to get around the racetrack faster,” he said. Since winning the event in 2010, Schulz has finished in second twice and third once – don’t count him out.
Lavallee, the lone French-Canadian in the final, had a new sled built for this year, but he is actually racing his sled from last year before it is more dialed in, he said. “Every part is the same from last year.” He was charging fast and loose around the track.
Perhaps most jacked up at the post-race gathering was Hart and his crew. A former vintage-class racer, Hart is making his first run on a modern sled – it features a Wahl chassis and a Darcy Rosentreter-prepped Rotax engine. But, he was quick to point out, “it’s the only sled out here with a hood from a 1979 Ski-Doo Sno Pro!”
So those 10 drivers are in the final. Two final spots will be determined by the now-star-studded Last Chance Qualifier. The final is set to go off at 3 p.m. Sunday, and the winner will have his name engraved on the Snow Goer Cup.