Matt Schulz, the 2010 World Champion, led the most laps and won his semi-final race. Cardell Potter, the defending champ, won the other heat but was a non-factor in the final. Upstart Blaine Stephenson had the fastest sled and seemed like he was going to be the big story.
For one night, though, forget all about that. The winner at the Friday Night Thunder Sweet 16/TLR Cup race at the Eagle River World Championship Friday night was Manitoba racer Travis MacDonald. He darted into the lead on a late-race restart and claimed a controversial victory and a pole-position starting spot in Sunday’s World Championship race.
Among many racing insiders, Schulz is still considered the man to beat in Sunday’s 53rd World Championship here in Eagle River, Wisconsin. And both Stephenson and second-year Pro Champ racer Glen Hart are worth watching because of their incredible and surprising power. But this night belonged to the driver of the No. 8 Ski-Doo.
The Run To The Final
The Friday Night Thunder program at the famed Derby Track traditionally includes a mish-mash of various classes run on both the high-banked iced oval track and the infield snocross course. This year’s Thunder program included very few finals and instead a bunch more qualifying races. Clearly the star attraction was the Sweet 16/TLR Cup race that featured the same Pro Champ 440 competitors that will run for the World Championship on Sunday.
The field was paired to 16 drivers through heat races earlier on Thursday and Friday. It was further narrowed to 10 racers through two semi-final races.
In the first semi, Schulz led throughout although he received some heat late in the event from Stephenson – a racer who is relatively new to the Pro Champ 440 class but who has paid his dues running (and winning) various oval racing classes in the undercard over the years. Colt Dellandrea ran third – a notably strong showing considering his team had to rebuild his sled after a crash Thursday that also involved Jordan Wahl. Gunnar Stern and Matt Ritchie earned the other two spots in the final by finishing fourth and fifth, while Dustin Wahl, Joey Fjerstad and Steven Marquis were sent to their trailers for the night.
Hart led the second semi-final early but eventually succumbed to the pressure of Potter and MacDonald. Potter ran away with the race and advanced along with Hart, MacDonald, Nick Van Strydonk and Jordan Wahl. The sport’s only four-time champion – PJ Wanderscheid – finished sixth and was done for the night on his new purpose-built Cat sled. Also done were Mike Hakey and Jay Middlesteadt.
The Exciting Final
The 16-lap Sweet 16/TLR Cup final was a herky-jerky affair, with multiple crashes that created multiple restarts, including one that created all sorts of controversy at the end of the race.
Schulz got the original holeshot on his Houle-built Ski-Doo mod and led the first lap with Hart snapping at his snowflap MacDonald right after him. But soon, Stephenson was knifing through traffic and moving toward the front on his LRM-powered , Wahl-chassis Polaris. Stephenson moved to second and then chased down Schulz – a surprise move to many, as Schulz was the fastest qualifier.
Right after the flagman gave the racers the crossed flags, marking the halfway point of the race, Stephenson shot under Schulz coming out of turn two and grabbed a brief lead as the two drag raced down the backstretch. In turns three and four, Stephenson stayed low and scrubbed some speed while Schulz powered high and retook the lead just as the infield flagman in turn four started waiving the red flag. Jordan Wahl’s sled was in the haybales in turn 1, causing the red flag and making the just-occurred highly competitive lap disappear.
The sleds were lined up for a restart and Schulz grabbed the lead again, while Hart burped into second in front of Stephenson. Before they could complete the lap, however, Matt Ritchie threw his sled into those same turn 1 haybales and caused another restart of lap 8. Ritchie was able to refire his undamaged sled and stay in the race, however.
On the following restart, Schulz again got the holeshot but Stephenson dove beneath him again and this time claimed a solid lead while Schulz’ sled seemed to be losing steam for a couple of laps. By lap 11, though, Schulz started to reapply pressure, with MacDonald third and a suddenly strong Nick Van Strydonk running fourth with Potter fifth and Ritchie sixth.
But then everything changed again. Stephenson’s sled coasted to a stop in turn 2. A frustrated Stephenson took off his goggles and slammed them against his seat in frustration. When asked the reason for the stall, he just muttered “drive belt” as he left the track. The popular racer received a few handshakes from other race teams and a hug from Terry Wahl, the 1998 World Champ.
The race would restart with four laps left. As is customary in oval sprint racing, the sleds were lined up staggered in the order they finished the previous lap. But when the sleds reacted to the flagman’s starting motion, MacDonald shot into the lead with Schulz behind him and Van Strydonk third.
Schulz applied pressure to MacDonald, but the 22-year-old from Gonor , Manitoba held strong and crossed in front of the waving checkered flag with his arm pumping in the air. The victory was his.
MacDonald’s family and crew rushed the track and exploded in celebration. There were tears, hugs, screams and much adulation. Van Strydonk also pulled onto the front straight by finishing in a podium position (third). Schulz, however, took a long time to finally pull up front for the post-race ceremony, and when he did he was clearly hot under the collar about MacDonald’s pass of him on a restart.
“They’re all laughing about it back there,” he snapped at the flagman, referring to the restart.
“Matt, I’m sorry,” the flagman said sincerely. But, in real time, no red flag was thrown for MacDonald’s possible jumping of the green flag, so the race was allowed to be run to the end.
To his credit, MacDonald was honest about the situation, both when interviewed over the P.A. system after the race and in a side conversation with Snow Goer.
“It was close on the restart, I must have hit it exactly, because I thought they were going to red flag it,” MacDonald said. Later he added, “I know that restart is going to cause some havoc but the flagman said it was OK and the race director said it was OK, and we ran it to the end.” Plus, it was noted, Schulz did have four laps to potentially get back past MacDonald, it’s not like it was a call made in the last turn of a race.
MacDonald now is automatically in the prized World Championship race on Sunday. He said, “We really did get lucky tonight,” due to the crashes or problems with multiple competitors and the number of restarts. He called it one of the biggest wins of his young career. “It feels good now, but we still could be better,” he said of his sled, and he said they would have to find more speed to run with Schulz, Stephenson and others in the World Championship final.
For his part, Schulz was still hot after the ceremony, yet he was polite. “We just don’t have any luck here,” Schulz said. “He passed me before the start, but we’ll be alright.” He later explained that he sensed a vibration in his sled during a race earlier in the night, so the team swapped out torque converters. The new clutching package “obviously wasn’t the hot ticket,” Schulz said. “Actually, Blaine probably had the faster sled tonight.”
Van Strydonk, meanwhile, was very pleased with his third-place run, considering the massive changes his team made in the last two weeks since the oval racers last competed at Ironwood, Michigan.
“We had an off weekend, so we just built a brand new sled,” Van Strydonk quipped with a grin, but then admitted that he was being serious. “We couldn’t get the new one to work for the last two seasons, so we went back to what worked before” when Van Strydonk won the World Championship in 2012.
Racing continues Saturday at the Derby Track, where racers will compete to fill out the rest of the field for Sunday’s World Championship, which is expected to be contested in sub-zero temperatures. Stay tuned into snowgosite.wpengine.com all weekend for stories and updates, include the famous Snow Goer Tip Sheet fictional odds and notes on each qualifying race Saturday evening.