Gabe Bunke continued to write the script of his own potentially hall-of-fame snowmobile racing career by winning his second straight Soo I-500 snowmobile race in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, with his toughest challenge coming from his own Bunke Racing 2 teammates on a matching Polaris sled.
The son of famed Polaris Blue Express racer Jerry Bunke from Moorhead, Minnesota, led and headlined a team that won the slightly-shorted race, coming back from two laps down to win the 455-lap race on the 1-mile. Bunke spent a lot of time on the sled, but teammates Aaron Christiansen and Spencer Kadlec were also instrumental in the victory.
Certainly no old-school racing fan will forget Gabe’s famous and late father, who was killed in a snowmobile racing accident in 1978 when Gabe was just 2 years old. But there’s no long shadow cast on this second generation racer: Gabe Bunke, 36, of Moorhead, Minnesota, is his own man with his own impressive resume. He has now joined an elite list of racers to win this ultimate enduro snowmobile race in consecutive years.
Tortoise vs. The Hare?
While it would be completely unfair to refer to the two Bunke teams as anything short of lightning fast, there were many sleds that were running incredibly fast laps in the early going or that qualified better than the Bunke sleds that were out early. In fact, none of the sleds that qualified in the top 10 in days of time trials before the Soo actually finished in the top 9 at the end. Instead, the race was dominated by sleds that started deeper in the pack.
Most notably, Countryside Motorsports’ two race teams, the No. 10 led by Cam Vermeersch and the No. 12 polesitting sled led by Grant Vermeersch, showed incredible speed early but their Yamahas were two of the first sleds to be parked for the day as they finished deep in the 30s. The second fastest qualifying sled – a Polaris belonging to John Bosek/Wuppet Wacing – finished the race in the pits scored 20th. The third fastest qualifier? The Caderette Collision Arctic Cat team led by Soo all stars Troy DeWald and Todd Krikke fought their own problems, including pulling off in the very late going while running 9th. They ended up finishing in the pits in 13th.
The race started at 10 a.m. central time and was run in mainly sunny conditions. As the sun set on the almost eight-hour race, it was a Polaris show, and most notably a Bunke Racing Team show, although the 131 Racing team led by Mike Babcock and Bobby Menne were hanging tough one lap back.
The Bunke sleds, however, we just too strong for the rest of the field. At lap 400, it was the No. 537 Bunke Racing 2 sled led by Ryan Faust in the lead, with the #74 Bunke team led by Gabe Bunke one lap down in second. Then came 131 Racing, followed by the No. 5 of LMB Speedshop/Kevin & Mike Bouman in fourth three laps down; the No. 9 Mayer Racing in fifth four laps down; and the No. 407 Yovich Racing entry sixth, 8 laps down.
Positions 3 through 6 stayed in that order until the end, but Gabe Bunke’s team did a masterful job chasing down their teammate sled at the end. After some important pit strategy, the two Bunke sleds restarted at the front after a yellow on lap 410. With Bunke back in the saddle and Faust on his sled, the two lead drivers ran aggressive laps at the front, dicing in different lines but respecting the other sled’s space.
The race went yellow again just four laps later, but when the green waved again on lap 419, Bunke shot out front and started taking command of the race. Then the yellow flag waved yet again on lap 428 when a sled stopped in the race line on the front stretch with a blown belt. While that racer quickly got his belt changed and his sled running again, there were strategic moves going on up front. Faust took his second place sled into the pits for fuel and adjustments, as did the third-place 131 Racing team that was third and the fifth place Mayer Racing entry. It seemed highly unlikely that they’d be able to make it to lap 500 on this fuel stop, but without knowing how many yellow flags would fly in the remainder of the race, it seemed like a smart move.
Those sleds would start at the back of the 20-sled pack of sleds still running (38 started the race). Bunke, on the other hand, didn’t pit, so he was right behind the pace sled. When the race went green again, he had clean track in front of him and started knocking down quick laps while those other fast teams struggled with traffic and snow dust.
The tables quickly turned, however. On lap 436, the Cadarette Collision team brought out a yellow and had to be towed off the track. This time, Bunke pitted to top off the tank and make final adjustments while the other fast teams stayed out. Bunke could maybe, just possibly make it to the planned 500-lap finish end from here, but it was no sure bet. But he was now going to be mired in traffic and had to give back the lead to the Foust-led Bunke Racing team.
The race went green again on lap 440. With the sun now well below the horizon and still air, the snowdust cloud was blinding, and in the back, trying to clear traffic, was Bunke. The LMB sled was actually leading the pack, as he got past Faust and got one of his laps back, but Faust was the leader of the race. Bunke, was 8 seconds back on lap 443, but was charging hard despite the snowdust. Lap after lap he clicked off sleds and powered through the pack. Once he got toward the front, he started making up 1.5 seconds or more per lap or more on the leader.
Like calling in an oncoming storm or funnel cloud, track announcer Chad Colby yelled, “The Boss is coming!” over the P.A. system and ustream video feed, referring to Bunke’s pursuit of his second team sled led by Foust. By lap 449, Faust’s lead was down to 1.2 seconds. Two laps later, Bunke drove deep into turn 1 to take the lead and then began powering away. Two laps after that, Bunke’s lead was already 1.9 seconds, and it was growing. Clearly Bunke’s team had gotten the sled dialed in for the late run, and he was hot in pursuit of a second consecutive victory. Barring problems, victory seemed certain, because he was running the fastest laps on the track.
Then the caution waved again for another incident. Race officials closed the pits and stopped the remaining 18 competitors on the backstretch before discussing their situation. The hanging snowdust was dreadful, and in a race that has had its fair share of tragedies over the years, this year’s 45th-annual running of the Soo has been mostly problem free to this point.
That’s when race officials, in the name of driver safety, decided to call the race final at this point, and Bunke was awarded the victory in front of his teammate. Polaris sleds ended up taking 11 of the top 12 positions, with only the DL Racing Ski-Doo effort led by Justin Tate in eighth breaking up Polaris’ run.
Below are the unofficial final standings, before final tech and review. For fun, we’ve placed each team’s starting position in brackets at the end of each line – you’ll see that, of the top finishers, only 10th place Piche Racing started in the top 10, and they even lower than their starting position. Yes, the qualifying runs at the Soo are interesting, but it’s fun to see who can click off the fastest lap, but what your sled can do on race day, and if it can do it all day, is what really matters.
- #74, Bunke Racing, led by Gabe Bunke, Polaris (started 12th)
- #537, Bunke Racing 2, led by Ryan Faust, Polaris (17)
- #131, 131 Racing, led by Mike Babcock, Polaris (15)
- #5, LMB Speedshop, led by Kevin Bouman, Polaris (24)
- #9, Mayer Racing, led by Aaron Mayer, Polaris (27)
- #407, Yovich Racing, led by Brian Anderson, Polaris (28)
- #57, Felzke Farms, led by James Hellier, Polaris (32)
- #29, DL Racing, led by Justin Tate, Ski-Doo (18)
- #02 Team Blu, led by Joel Diamond, Polaris (14)
- #32, Piche Racing, led by Larry Young, Polaris (7)
FOR MORE INFORMATION and great photos of the race, make sure to visit I-500.com.