On a story-filled Sunday afternoon, Jay Mittelstaedt broke through with a stunning snowmobile World Championship victory in Eagle River, Wisconsin, by persevering – both this weekend and over the course of his sled racing career.
The 35-year-old powersports dealership owner from La Valle, Wisconsin, has a deep history with the host Derby Complex facility and its half-mile, high-banked oval. In a nasty crash several years ago, he suffered severe cuts to his leg and derriere that required a trip to the local hospital. And, in his words, “I’ve had way too many dates with the haybales in turn one,” referencing other crashes that have sent him into the wall of haybales that are placed at the top of the turn. In fact, he had a nasty crash into those bales on Friday night.
But in an odd twist, Mittelstaedt also was married at this race track – he met his now-wife Paige Decker at the track, which was previously owned by her extended family, so they decided to have their ceremony at the facility.
Sunday on a chilly and cloudy day, Mittelstaedt ran fast and outlasted his main competitors, and he guided a sled that had just been completed and tested five days earlier to a World Championship victory directly in front of one of the sport’s strongest competitors. It was also the first year the World Championship title was decided on Formula III class sleds after 23 years on Champ-chassis machines.
He will now have his name engraved on the Snow Goer Cup – the traveling trophy for snowmobiling’s most historic event – along with many of his heroes.
“It’s like a dream come true, in the [opening] ceremonies before the race I was looking at all of those names on the Cup and thought, ‘That would be so cool!’ I was daydreaming about it, and I didn’t really think that it could happen, but here we are,” Mittelstaedt said.
There were other interesting stories as well. Perhaps most notable was the problems experienced by the event’s four-time defending champion, who couldn’t get his sled to start and keep running on the very first lap, plus there was a big contingent of strong and fast racers from Michigan who helped fill the field.
Getting To The Final & Early Drama
After the World Championship class switched from the mod-based Pro Champ to the newer Formula III class that is based on stock-appearing snowmobiles, just 14 drivers signed up to run the 59th running of the big dance. Twelve sleds traditionally make the final race, so qualifying was a bit anti-climatic, but it’s still interesting seeing the drivers get their sleds dialed-in over the course of three days of racing in changing conditions.
Nine drivers earned first-row starting spots. Four-time defending champion Blaine Stephenson was the fastest in time trials, but his primary rival Gunnar Sterne earned the pole position by winning the Friday Night Thunder final on the Derby track. Joining them on the front row were USSA oval racing regulars Jake Beres, Tom Olson and unretired Mittelstaedt; up-and-coming Calvin Cook; and Michigan-based racers Jake Gerow, Dakota Harris and Kevin Vermeersch. Tyler Beach was supposed to be on the front row with them but was a scratch for the final. Second row starters were Ben Langaas, Collin Henderson and Matt Town.
Before the sleds even got around to the front stretch to start the final, though, there was already drama when Stephenson’s No. 102 Wahl Bros. Polaris wouldn’t stay running. While other drivers were doing their final check, Stephenson’s sled would start, idle, run for a few seconds and then die off. He’d then pull the recoil about a dozen times to get the sled to refire, and it would die again. It happened over and over.
Finally he got it to come around, but it died again on the starting line the second the flagman waved the green flag to start the race. The other 11 sleds poured into turn one, but Stephenson was still at the starting line – pulling that recoil rope. With his sled in the middle of the track, the race was reflagged for a restart. Stephenson got the sled started, it would move about 20 feet and then die, and then it was back to recoil time. After repeated efforts, Stephenson finally gave up and let the track workers tow his sled back to the pits. His day was done.
We caught up to the four-timer from St. Cloud, Minnesota, as he walked off the track. Dejected, he shook his head and said, “We don’t know if it’s fuel or electrical.” Later, we caught up with Dave Wahl of Wahl Bros. Performance and he reiterated the confusion the team was having with the sled.
“It actually started acting up during hot laps earlier in the day,” said Wahl, himself a three-time World Champion and a master sled tuner and builder. “I changed every electrical part I could think of, and there are a lot of them on these fuel-injected sleds, but it didn’t help. Maybe Polaris will be able to help us figure out what happened.”
When the green flag waved that very first time, Mittelstaedt got the holeshot on his No. 297 Polaris and made it through the first set of turns up front, but the race was halted due to Stephenson’s problems. The sleds were lined back up on the front stretch to re-start the 25-lap final, and Mittelstaedt surged ahead again, though he had a lot of company, with Tom Olson of Lodi, Wisconsin, swapping the lead with him.
Within a couple of laps, though, the only Ski-Doo in the field – Gunnar Sterne’s – was on the prowl using his customary high line. He roared to the front and started opening a lead. Six laps into the race, though, Olson got separated from his sled in turns three and four and he went sliding on his belly across the ice. The race would be redflagged again.
During the short break, sled problems occurred for a couple of riders. First, Sterne got off of his sled and was wrenching on the side of the machine – later we’d find out he was trying to make sure his taillight connection was working. Meanwhile, Jake Beres’ No. 23 Polaris had its snowflap stuffed up under his tunnel. Racing without a working flap is a rules violation due to concern of following riders. Beres tried to get the flap out, but eventually he was disqualified and had to leave the track.
So, for the restart with 19 laps left, Sterne lined up first, and then Mittelstaedt a sledlength back, following by Jake Garow, Dakota Harris, Matt Town, Ben Langaas, Kevin Vermeersch, Olson and then Calvin Cook, who had previously pulled to the far inside of the track before the red flag.
On green, Mittelstaedt surged past the leader heading into turn one and then opened a gap when he fired down the backstretch. Two laps later, though, Olson’s sled quit again – this time in turn one. The race was reflagged and started again with the following order: Mittelstaedt, Sterne, Garow, Harris, Town, Langaas, Vermeersch and Olson. Cook pulled off again and was out.
The green was soon waved again, and Mittelsteadt again had a great start and started opening a lead up front. By lap 15, the lead grew to about 2.5 seconds, but the roughness of the track ensured that anything was possible.
Sterne seemed determined to make that “anything” happen late in the 25-lap race. He charged toward the front, and by lap 21 he was occasionally on Mittelstaedt’s rear bump. Mittelstaedt seemed to gain ground in turns one and two, but then Sterne would tighten the gap in turns three and four. In fact, Mittelstaedt seemed to almost stop entering turn three, but then would pivot the sled so he could take a low line through turn four.
The line started working for Mittelstaedt and he held off Sterne to the waving checkered to earn his first-ever World Championship. Sterne was a close second, followed by Garow. Town emerged through traffic to claim fourth in his first run at the W.C. follows by Harris, Langaas and then Olson, who was a lap down. Vermeersch was scored eighth after an off-track event into the snow bank in turn four. Jake Beres scored ninth, then Cook, Collin Henderson and Blaine Stephenson wrapped up the field.
Words With The Champ
The popular Mittelstaedt was mobbed by supporters on the backstretch near the pit entrance – it seemed he hugged everybody in the place before pulling his winning sled onto the front stretch for post race interviews and trophy presentations in front of the crowd.
“I don’t believe it yet – it’s a dream come true!” Mittelstaedt said. “Just getting a ring [for making the championship race] was a dream come true. Once we got into a long groove there [in the final] I was able to just click laps off and be smart and take deep breaths and just keep clicking them off. I can’t believe it.”
Getting the initial holeshot was exciting, he said, but the first red flag didn’t help things.
“When we took the initial green I ripped the holeshot and I got the Woody’s Holeshot award over there, and I was feeling good,” Mittelstaedt said. “Then when I sent it into [turn] three there was a red flag already, and I was like, ‘Ah, man, here we go!’ Then I came around and saw Blaine out there [with his non-running sled] and he had some tough luck. He was fast all weekend, but that’s racing.”
He followed at first, but then took the lead for good after the second restart. After that, he said, “I knew we had a long way to go. I found a couple of good lines out there and the sled was working good for me, I knew I had to save my brakes and save my own energy and just start ticking [laps] away and not worry about it,” Mittelstaedt said.
He said he could hear Sterne’s roaring engine closing on him late in the race, “Then with probably three or four laps to go he showed me his ski coming out of a corner,” Mittelstaedt said. “And then all of a sudden we got the while flag, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh here we go, I’ve just got to hang on for one more lap – don’t do anything dumb!’”
Talking about his winning ride, he said, “I bought the sled this past spring, and my plan was to run F-III, and then the summer happened and things got away from me – life got away from me – and about three or four weeks ago I asked [former racer and current tuner] Nick Dolezal if he could build the sled for me, and he said, ‘I’ll give it a shot, we’ll see what we can do.’
“We got it together Monday night, put it on the bench and got it fired, and made some slight adjustments on the bench and then went to the pond and tested the next day, and I was like, ‘God, this thing works really good!” Mittelstaedt said. “We came here and unloaded and it took me a little bit to get used to the track.”
He crashed with the sled – hard – into the turn one haybales in Friday’s final event. He said afterwards, “My left side, my wrist was all swollen up and I’ve got a goose egg on by elbow, and it rung my bell pretty good,” Mittelstaedt said. “Saturday I didn’t not feel like myself and I knew we had some work to do to get [into the World Championship race]. Then I slept pretty good last night, woke up this morning, took some Ibuprofen and then showed up ready to race. The sled wasn’t too bad – the boys did a good job of getting the sled ready for me,” he said.
Speaking of the new Formula III class, he said, “I love this class – I think this is really going to open up some more opportunities for some more people to be in here and be competitive right off the bat,” Mittelstaedt said. “I think this class has room to grow.”
We ran into Polaris Race Director Tom Rager Jr. in the pits later when chasing down details in race trailers, and he reiterated the praise for Formula III – and for Mittelstaedt’s victory.
“Nothing against the other top guys, obviously” like regular oval hotshoes Stephenson and Sterne, Rager said, “but for the good of the sport having a guy like Jay win in one of the best things that could have happened. I mean, he was out of oval racing, but because of these new rules he was able to re-enter the sport affordably and now he’s the World Champ.”
Sterne earned a personal-best finish Sunday on the Derby track, but considering how dominant he’s been at some other tracks in his storied career you could tell he was still disappointed.
“We had a fast sled all weekend – our Ski-Doo was one of the fastest sleds here actually,” Sterne added. “Second place is my best finish here so it’s not bad. We’d like to win it but it just wasn’t in the cards today. Maybe I’ll be back here to try again – we’ll see as the year goes on.”
He said that the fact that the sleds got all the way down to frozen dirt in a few spots meant he, like pretty much every racer, had to deal with dulled carbide that seriously affected the sled’s handing.
“It was about how fast you can go, but also how fast you can get off of the corner – that was most of it,” Sterne said. “The sleds weren’t turning once everybody lost their carbides. So, it’s not really who had the fastest sled but who had the better handling sled at the end of the race.”
Later he added, “It was a good run. I was in the lead there and then the restart wasn’t great for us. After that I was just trying to stay out of the dirt really. That was most of it during the race – just trying to get the carbides to last until the end of the race. They didn’t, though…. It was just fighting me – the front end wasn’t steering there at the end. I got close to him there and I could have probably gotten into him but I decided to back off. I don’t like to race that way.”
For Garow, it was his first run at the World Championship, but not his first on the track. He races the Formula III class on the Michigan-based MIRA circuit and also competes in the Pro Enduro class there. Therefore, he has brought his Formula III sled to the Derby Track the last two years to run that class before it was the championship. “Last year with two laps to go I ended up in the haybales over there,” he said with a grin, pointing toward turn one.
“A paperclip is the only way to explain this place,” Garow said of the challenge and tight Derby track. “The track was a lot rougher than anything else we’re used to on this snowmobile. That was a Pro Enduro track that we were just racing Formula III sleds on. That alone, just to make it 25 laps with this snowmobile with this suspension on this track was a feat in itself.”
He pledged he’s be back for another run for the World Championship next year.