This sort of domination is not supposed to happen at the Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby – especially on a high-banked ice oval track as rugged as the one this year!
Blaine Stephenson of St. Cloud, Minnesota, got the holeshot in the 25-lap final, won the sprint through the first set of turns, held off an early challenge from his main rival Gunner Sterne and then stormed away to an incredible fourth straight World Championship title in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
Last year Stephenson became the first driver to win three consecutive World Championships; he now has topped that fete by winning four straight while also matching the legendary P.J. Wandersheid – one of his childhood racing heroes – as the only four-timer overall in snowmobile racing’s biggest prize.
“It’s just insane – you look at this place and the history, I don’t know what to say about it. It’s just crazy – four years and four championships. I looked up to Wanderscheid as a kid – a lot – and now, gosh, it’s just him and I,” Stephenson said.
A warm lead-up to the event made building the usual amount of ice for the track an impossibility, so all of the racing on the track burned up the ice surface in many areas, making for extra rough conditions, despite the Derby Complex crew’s best efforts. But the racers did a great job and it ended up being a very safe weekend overall, with very few crashes.
Building The Field
The 58th running of the historic race was run on a cloudy and temperate day in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. A hearty crowd was on hand, lining the hill and partially filling the indoor seating that had to be limited this year due to COVID-19 related restrictions.
Due to the closed US/Canadian border, the field of racers who came to compete for the W.C. title in the high profile Pro Champ 440 class was notably smaller this year – with just 19 racers originally signed up. That said, it was a fast field which was pared to 10 front row starters in Friday and Saturday racing, then two additional finalists earned second-row starting positions in a last-chance qualifier Sunday afternoon.
Run For History
Going into the race, most prognosticators and trackside experts looked at the field as having a “big four” group of veteran, super fast racers – Stephenson, Sterne, Tom Olson and Matt Goede – and then eight guys who were all on good equipment but who were maybe a half-step back. And that’s how the race played out. Most of those same prognosticators predicted a final riddled with red flags due to the incredible roughness of the track – the track was down to carbide dulling frozen dirt in many spots due to the warm weather that preceded the event. They missed on that guess – this sucker was run 25 laps from green to checkered.
When the starting flag was lifted off of the starter’s boot to open the race, Stephenson’s Wahl Bros. Racing Polaris jutted out ahead of the field and won the sprint to turn one, and he then powered out of turn two with rival Sterne on his snowflap on the No. 220 Houle Chassis Ski-Doo.
At the end of the first lap, it was Stephenson by two sled lengths ahead of Sterne, then Goede, Jake Beres, Fred Make, Matt Bennett and Olson in the top seven and then a hungry pack behind then. On lap two Olson moved past Bennett on the backstretch and on the next lap moved ahead of Manke – who shortly thereafter lost control in turn two and drifted all the way up to the haybales in the top of the turn before saving it.
Up front Stephenson and Sterne were pulling away – Goede was a strong third but was a good 25 sled lengths back and then there was another gap to Olson who had moved up to fourth. Sterne seemed to be stalking the three-time defending champ, running about two to four sled-lengths behind him in the exact same line. Then, on lap four, Sterne peeked beneath Stephenson coming out of turn four, then did it again coming out of turn two on the next lap but didn’t make the move.
The challenge soon became short-lived, though. Once they got into lapped traffic Sterne got caught in a couple of bad spots and, when fighting past those sleds was forced into the frozen dirt on the inside of the track – and that frozen dirt dulls race sled’s otherwise super-sharp carbide runners and takes away from front end handling.
With that, Stephenson started to open a gap on his rival – it grew to about 15 sled lengths at the race’s midway point and ballooned from there. If there wasn’t a red flag or a problem, the race’s fate seemed sealed.
The run for the other podium spots certainly wasn’t over, however. While other racers seemed to be struggling with conditions, Olson was still charging hard and started picking off his competitors. He dove under Goede on about lap 15 in turn one and won a race down the backstretch to claim third, then tracked down Sterne a couple of laps later in the same turn to grab second. He was the only racer on the track who seemed to be able to run laps as fast and Stephenson, but Stephenson was five seconds in front and the laps were winding down.
As the white and then checkered flags waved, it was Stephenson with the win, then a 4.7 second gap to his teammate Olson. Sterne was 7.8 seconds behind in third, with Goede – the last sled on the lead lap – 10.6 seconds back in fourth.
Beres ran a strong and consistent race to finish an impressive fifth behind the “big four,” with Henke rallying to sixth – the only other sled a lap down. Then came Justin Peterson two laps down, Dalton Fredrickson four laps down and Fred Manke six laps down. The final three in order were Matt Bennett, Griffin Lepak and Brent Miller – each driver suffered mechanical problems and pulled off the track earlier in the final.
Words With Champs
Stephenson wasn’t as emotional about his fourth consecutive victory as he had been with previous wins – more than anything, he admitted to being physically spent from controlling his high-powered mod on such a rugged ice course this year.
Asked about his pre-race strategy, he said, “I was trying to mentally prepare for what line I was going to run and the best way to make the carbides last,” Stephenson said. “I figured it would be about 10 laps before everybody would be pretty much out of carbides.
“I got a great holeshot – I was kind of worried about it with Sterne not racing yesterday because his holeshot is always good,” Stephenson continued. “I got a good launch and when I beat everybody to the first corner I drifted wide just so I didn’t run through all the dirt on the bottom and then my plan the whole time was to just crush that top line into [turn] three and that’s what happened, but it definitely took the carbide right away.”
He said he knew Sterne was right behind him at first.
“I could hear him in the corners – when we were off the throttles and he would burb it and I would burb it I could hear it, and I did check back there one time and he was right there,” Stephenson said. “I just hoped that his carbides were as gone as mine were. They must have been or I was just holding the right line,” Stephenson said. “I looked back again with about four laps left and didn’t see anybody there.”
Olson showed great strength and endurance with his late charge.
“We got a pretty good start and decided to just kind of play it safe and run the line that we wanted to run,” Olson said. “We did that for as long as we could, but then half-way point came and it was ‘go time’ after that. Then I tried running different lines but people kept getting in my way. I did the best I could the safest I could just to be there at the end.
“I wasn’t really getting tired at all – you just have to be sure you keep breathing and just run the sled as hard as it can run and you get the sled through the corners as smooth as you can,” Olson said.
“You get used to the bumps after a little while – it’s just part of it,” Olson said. “You have to preserve the sled as best as you can early and then toward the end just run the fastest line that you found throughout the race and finish it.”
Sterne was clearly bummed out that a potential Derby victory evaded him again.
“It pretty much went the way I thought it would, except for the not winning part of it,” Sterne said. “It was rough out there, and the dirt definitely took a toll, and the lapped traffic definitely took a toll also.
“It went pretty well the first 10 or 12 laps, then there was one lap where I was forced to go low down in turn three and four and that just killed the carbides more than I thought would there,” Sterne said. “Then the handling just got too tight.”
Asked about his early stalking of his rival, he said, “He was running the same line that I was running – you know, running right behind somebody you have your challenges with snow dust, too,” Sterne said. “You can call it pressuring him or whatever but it’s really just fighting for that same line – there weren’t a lot of good lines out there this year.
“I thought I’d take a shot at the end but it didn’t work out – the sled didn’t hold out for me at the end,” Sterne said.
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