It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish that counts. That message was delivered loud and clear when a Minnesota-based team won the prestigious Soo I-500 event Saturday, February 5, in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
The Nelson Racing #7 team, featuring lead driver Justin Tate along with co-driver Andy Wenzlaff, qualified 17th out of the 35 sleds that started the fabled snowmobile enduro event – which features teams racing 500 laps around a one-mile iced oval near the U.S./Canadian border.
But while other, higher qualifying teams faded or experienced problems during the 8-hour race, Team Nelson charged toward the front and earned an historic victory on their No. 28 Polaris, writing their names into the history book at one of snowmobiling’s crown jewel events.
For Tate, 45 of Scandia, Minnesota, it’s the latest accomplishment in a long career that also includes victories in snocross and cross-country racing. Co-driver Wenzlaff, 28, of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, is earlier in his career but the victory is historic just the same.
The results also continued a strange trend of Minnesota-based teams coming in and winning enduro racing’s highest profile event in a facet of the sport otherwise dominated by Michigan-based drivers and teams.
The W.V. Performance Racing #44 team led by drivers Kevin VerMeersch, Keith Gainforth and Kyle Streiter finished second, 4.8 seconds behind the winning team and the only other sled on the lead lap. Third-place Team Blu featuring drivers Jay Mittelstaedt, Jake Beres and Matt Ritchie finish third, two laps down. Drivers on Polaris sleds finished in the top 5 positions, followed by two Arctic Cats.
A Move Toward The Front
The Soo is an incredible annual showpiece of the sport of snowmobiling. The actual race is “just” one day and features racers charging around the one-mile flat oval at breakneck speeds in seemingly always changing conditions. There are occasional pitstops, driver changes and “plow breaks,” but even during the breaks the sleds keep circling the track. It annually starts in the morning and ends in the dark – this year’s winning time was 8 hours, 11 minutes and 11 seconds.
Even though the actual race is annually contained on the first Saturday of February each year, qualifying and other events start earlier in the week. And, through that qualifying process, the front row was claimed by two Arctic Cat teams: K.M.W. Racing’s #7 with Luke Krentz, Dustin Schwandt and Ryan Trout as drivers and the always fast Cadarette Collision Racing #21 team with veteran racers Troy DeWald and Ryan Spencer, plus late addition Gunnar Arlaud, as drivers.
The Cadarette team was especially strong throughout the first half of the race. They led at benchmark moments, including lap 100 and the 250 lap halfway mark, until the right-side spindle broke around lap 300 when Arlaud was behind the handlebar, forcing them into the pits. The team was 16 laps down when the now-repaired sled returned to the track.
That incident came shortly after the K.M.W. team suffered catastrophic damage when their track blew apart on lap 267, which ended their day. The team that started third, the Ski-Doo team of Town Brothers Racing, also had a spindle failure, while the fourth-place starting Yovich Racing #22 reportedly had electric problems. This is on top of the fact that the dominant Bunke Racing Team that had won six Soo I-500 in the last second pulled out of the race after qualifying due to driver injuries.
The Nelson Racing #28, though, just kept piling up fast laps and moving toward the front. They moved to the lead on lap 280 and then never gave it back. Wenzlaff was driving when the race crested lap 400. He then gave way to Tate, who brought the sled home the rest of the way. The end wasn’t without some drama, though, as the Y-pipe on the sled reportedly broke late in the race and Tate had to nurse the sled home with the W.V. Performance No. 44 trying to close the gap.
In the end, Tate drove it home to victory, pumping his fist right after crossing the finish line. He was then congratulated by many other top drivers after coasting to a stop near turn 1.
“This is huge,” Tate was quoted as saying in the Soo Evening News article about the race. “We’ve been close a few years, but everything came together today. We have a good group of guys, a good team, with everybody working together. With a little luck, and planning, here we are.”
Here are the top 10.
- Nelson Racing #28 (Polaris);
- W.V. Racing #44 (Polaris) -4.855 seconds
- Team Blu #02 (Polaris) -2 laps
- Nelson Racing #18 (Polaris) -5 laps
- Tommie Bauer Racing #19 (Polaris) -6 laps
- Cadarette Collision #21 (Arctic Cat) -11 laps
- R&S Racing #17 (Arctic Cat) -12 laps
- Town Brothers Racing #2 (Ski-Doo) -21 laps
- Kolbus Racing #8 (Polaris) -23 laps
- World Class Racing #41 (Polaris) – 24 laps