A big Friday Night surprise kicked off an exciting run toward World Championship Sunday in Eagle River, Wisconsin, as upstart Gunnar Sterne of West Chicago, Illinois, came from mid-pack to win a fascinating Sweet 16 final that was part of the Friday Night Thunder program at the Eagle River Derby Track.
While all eyes were on former World Champions Nick Van Strydonk (who led the first 10 laps in the 16-lap final), Cardell Potter (who seemed to have the fastest sled on the track) and Matt Schulz (the defending champion who was running strong), Sterne was running in mid-pack. But then, after some interesting twists and turns and a couple of restarts, Sterne emerged from nowhere, won the night’s biggest event and earned a front-row starting position in Sunday’s prestigious World Championship final.
Sterne will get Saturday off while a fast field of competitors will vie for their own chance to qualify for Sunday’s final, and the opportunity to write their name into history on the Snow Goer Cup.
Soggy Friday Night
The Friday Night Thunder program has become the second biggest draw on World Championship weekend, even though history says it will probably be about 20 below zero and windy during the event. That wasn’t the case this year, however.
Instead, rain and unseasonably warm temperatures dominated the day. The moisture let up for a while for the beginning of the Friday night program, but then a mist returned later. That made for soft ice and soggy race conditions.
In qualifying earlier, the field of would-be World Championship qualifiers in the Pro Champ 440 class was paired to 16 fast sleds for the Friday night program. Then, in front of a surprisingly robust crowd despite the conditions, the field was further narrowed to 10 competitors through two heat races.
In the first heat Ontario racer Colt Dellandrea – the driver of the only Arctic Cat in the field – pulled off the night’s first surprise by holding off 2015 champion Cardell Potter and 2012 champ Nick Van Strydonk to take the victory. Dellandrea has had fast moments and solid individual races in the past, but he looked scary fast in this heat. Potter finished second, Van Strydonk third and Gunnar Sterne finished fourth, while Mike Hakey claimed the final advancing spot front this heat and the nights of Joey Fjerstad, Cody Knutson and Ryan Murkowski ended.
The second heat was the Matt Schulz show, as the defending and two-time champ guided his No. 38 Ski-Doo-powered mod to an easy victory. He advanced along with 2016 Friday night winner Travis MacDonald, Wahl Bros Racing Team teammates and cousins Jordan and Dustin Wahl plus Beau Van Strydonk, while Matt Ritchie, Jay Mittelstaedt and Steven Marquis were parked.
The Big Final
As the fastest qualifier in heat races, Cardell Potter got to choose his starting position first on the 10-wide starting field, and he picked the second spot from the far inside. But the early lead came from position six and the No. 13 sled of Nick Van Strydonk. He forced his bright red sled to the front and established himself as the man to beat early but Matt Schulz was on his snowflap and Colt Dellandrea was behind him. Potter, as has been his trend this year, didn’t get a very good start and was in fifth early and took a while to work past Gunnar Sterne.
Six fast laps in, however, the red flag was displayed as the No. 747 of Jordan Wahl was parked in the haybales at the top of turn three. After a short break, the sleds were lined up in their previous running order on the frontstretch for a restart, and them came the night’s first controversy as Dellandrea seemed like he may have beaten the flag by a millisecond and launched onto second ahead of Schulz. Van Strydonk broke away in the lead again, however.
Potter, meanwhile, got another less-than-great start but was on the charge, moving past Schulz into third at the race’s halfway point and closing quickly on the top two before the red flag came out again – this time due to the other Wahl team member, Dustin, ending up with his sled on its side in turn two.
And then came two stunning turning points.
First, as the sleds idled on the front stretch awaiting the signal for the restart, Dellandrea jumped the start, and when he blipped the throttle Potter went with him. The flagman immediately signaled that both racers would have to restart the race in the very back – something that Potter protested. That took the drivers who were previously running second and third and moved them into a position where it would be seemingly next-to-impossible for them to win.
The sleds were lined up again in order, but as the flagman released the field the No. 13 that had run up front all night moved briefly and then coasted to a stop on the front stretch – Van Strydonk later told us he was the victim of a blown drive belt. Now suddenly the top three were essentially eliminated!
The beneficiaries were Schulz and Sterne, but Sterne got a better launch on the restart and suddenly the young man who was previously running a somewhat distant fifth found himself in the lead!
Schulz charged after the young racer and was looking for a way to the front but then the next odd thing happened, as a sled crashed in turn two and left its hood in the middle of the race track. In the infield, Schulz team members yelled at the flagman, insisting that the race be red flagged, as their driver let off the throttle briefly to avoid the obstacle. But the race was allowed to continue. Meanwhile, an enthused Potter was charging from the rear and moved to second behind Sterne
Sterne ran flawlessly and came home as the surprising victor, with Potter right behind him and a frustrated Schulz third.
After the race, Sterne looked both elated and frankly a bit surprised to find himself as the winner. He said the race “went back and forth, back and forth and then I got a good start there at the end.” He said he barely saw the hood that was sitting in the track due to fogging goggles and falling mist.
Sterne said the Mike Houle-built mod he’s racing this year is a new machine that handles better when the track gets rough and allows him to take the high line in turns better.
Schulz and Potter both made their protests to the flagman after the race, but then each was very professional when interviewed.
“We’ll be OK, we’ve learned that we can win Sunday without winning Friday night,” Schulz said, referring to another odd restart situation that occurred one year earlier at the Derby track. “On the very last restart I lost a spot but I thought I could get [past] Gunnar there at the end but then I saw that hood in the corner and I lifted” off of the throttle.
“It was definitely a fun race,” Potter said, before mentioned the interesting weather conditions. “These are new elements for all of us.”
So Sterne is locked into Sunday’s final. Nine additional front row starting positions will be determined through racing on Saturday. Check back with snowgoer.com for that story Saturday night, plus our fictional odds and notes on each front-row starter.