Somebody a lot smarter than me once said, “It wouldn’t be racing if there wasn’t a little controversy!”
Well, the Friday Night Thunder program at the famous Eagle River Derby Track lived up to that bill, wrapping up an exciting, safe, fun and snowy evening with an odd twist in the final race – the Woody’s Challenge that put Gunnar Sterne on the pole for Sunday’s World Championship Race.
Departing from the Sweet 16 format that had become a staple at the Derby for the past couple of decades, the big Pro Champ 440 event at the Friday showdown was run in a completely different format, where first the 16 top drivers who are making a run for the World Championship faced off in two heat races that narrowed the field to eight drivers. Then those drivers were pitted off in one-on-one showdowns in a bracket type format, where the winner advances and the loser is done.
The ultimate winner would claim the coveted Woody’s Challenge title and, maybe more importantly, be guaranteed a spot in Sunday final without going through Saturday qualifying.
Sterne emerged from the pack as that ultimate winner, which was not that surprising considering how fast the talented driver from West Chicago, Illinois, has been in recent years. But the final race against Wahl Bros. Racing’s Tom Olson was run after an extended trackside dispute that ended in some bitter feelings.
Establishing The Field
On a seasonally warm night in the mid-30s in Wisconsin’s Northwoods with a surprisingly robust crowd on hand and big snowflakes dancing in the air, a full program of racing was run – including everything from youth sleds to motorcycles, Formula 500 to Formula III, vintage sleds to burly Outlaw race buggies.
Much of the racing in the undercard was outstanding on the banked ice oval track, which was a bit rougher than normal thanks to unseasonably warm weather in the area that made creating additional ice very difficult. But we’re racing, goshdarnit, and that’s a heck of an accomplishment in a year like this! Plus the ambulance never moved and no sleds or drivers went through the haybales on the outside of the track all night.
Ultimately, though, most fans are here to see the Pro Champ sleds run for the first time of the weekend – giving a glimpse into who is fast for the new season while also assigning that one front row spot.
With the new Woody’s Challenge format for the Sweet 16, first there were two heat races, where the top four would advance to the eight-sled bracket. In the first heat, Gunnar Stern got out front early and easily won on his Red Bull Ski-Doo mod, with Matt Bennett immediately in his wake on the No. 233 sled. Behind him, fellow Wisconsites Jake Beres and Justin Peterson outlasted the rest of the field and advanced. Jonas Gust, Keith Wojciechowski and Brent Miller were done for the night, but they’ll be back to challenge for a spot in the W.C. on Saturday.
The second semi-final saw three-time defending World Champ Blaine Stephenson run away from the pack on his No. 102 Wahl Bros. Polaris sled – we’re guessing many onlookers thought, “here we go again” about the young Minnesota racer who has become a dominating force at the Derby track. Exactly 3.647 seconds back was his teammate, Tom Olson, who won an interesting battle to claim second, with vintage hotshoe Matt Goede edging out Dalton Fredrickson for third. Fred and Stephen Manke, John Henke and Griffin Lepak were done.
So the great eight was set. Their bracket positions would be determined by a random draw in the pits – let the three-lap showdowns begin!
From 8 To 2
The first bracket race Bennett drew some stiff competition in Sterne. The two sleds launched off the starting line evenly but Sterne won the race to the first corner and powered out of turn two with a couple of sled-length advantage. He would build on that lead throughout the race, despite Bennett’s best efforts and won by 1.8 seconds.
Next, Beres lined up his ultra-cool looking Polaris with a red XCR hood on the front stretch next to Goede’s black, yellow and white Ski-Doo. Goede launched off the starting line hard and quickly extended his lead on the backstretch. Beres, though, put up a spirited fight, driving deep into the turns in an effort to challenge Goede, but ultimately held him off by 0.61 seconds.
Stephenson and Peterson pulled to the starting line next, and Stephenson did was everybody was expecting – he got out front early and won by a whopping 3.1 seconds and running the three laps in 1 minute 17 seconds – 2 second faster than the next fastest competitor (Goede) in bracket races to that point. Next, Olson dispatched of Fredrickson, using three consistent laps to win by 2.6 seconds.
That brought us to the final four… but, by random draw, the showdown that many probably expected to be a final became a semi-final, as Sterne faced off against his rival Stephenson.
With the coveted inside starting position, Sterne won the drag race to turn one on the first lap and pulled out to an initial lead, but Stephenson was a menacing force behind him, charging through the turns and looking for an opening. Sterne held the point and appeared headed to victory but then drifted a bit high through turns three and four on the last lap. Stephenson tried to pounce, cutting down to a low line leaving turn four for an exciting sprint to the final. In the end, Sterne won by the slimmest of margins — .058 – and claimed a spot in the final in a race that thrilled the crowd.
Semi-final two saw Goede try a fresh approach on the starting line – lining up very far outside to create an arc into turn one while Olson lined up in the center of the track. It was an interesting approach by a veteran racer, but Olson got the lead early. Crafty Goede wasn’t done trying thing, though – the next two laps he tried a high line through turn three with a sharp low cut across four in an effort to beat Olson to the start-finish line. It didn’t work, but it was a hell of a race! Olson held on and advanced.
The Controversial Final
Back in the pit area, far from the fan’s eyeballs, Sterne and Olson did a random draw for starting positions, which Olson won, so when they came to the starting line Olson lined up in the middle of the track and thought he could force Sterne to line up on his outside. However, Sterne lined up inside. They re-racked the sleds, but the situation occurred again, so an exasperated Olson moved his sled in front of the flagman, pulled his own tether and went to appeal – first to the flagman and then to the Rick Tiede from sponsoring Woody’s Traction. He was quite animated in his appeal while some in the rockus crowd trackside chose sides in the argument and Sterne quietly and politely stayed out of the discussion, remaining in the saddle of his Champ sled.
Olson’s argument was this: In every other round, the driver who won the lane choice would set himself up on the starting line and then tell the flagman on which side he wanted his competitor to line up. In the final, though, for whatever reason the lane-selection process was reversed. The discussion went on for several minutes, with no apparent end in sight, when finally the flagman got the word from race officials: “The race director told me you line up first and then Sterne goes wherever he wants.” Olson was not happy with the decision, but ultimately lined up to race and then Sterne again pulled to the inside of him.
When the three-lap final started, the sleds launched together, but Sterne held his inside line through the first set of turns, came out of turn two with a lead he would never relinquish. Olson had a particularly strong line through turns three and four, but Sterne won the title by .43 seconds.
Sterne was elated when he came around for the trophy presentation on the front stretch, taking off his helmet and thrusting it into the air. Immediately after the race, he reminded us that this was his second time earning the pole at Eagle River’s Friday Night program – the first time was in 2017, when he earned what he called the biggest win in his career to that point.
For this win, Sterne said the biggest benefit is locking up a front row spot in Sunday’s World Championship without having to race on Saturday.
“This is definitely going to help me out on Sunday, because as you know anything can happen on Saturday – you can blow a belt or whatever in the semi final,” Sterne said. “Especially with the track the way it is now, anything could happen,” Sterne reiterated.
Like a lot of competitors, Sterne was noticing how thin the ice is becoming on the inside lane in the corners, despite the Derby Track crew’s best efforts to overcome nature. It very well could be down to carbide-dulling dirt on spots on Saturday and Sunday.
“You definitely try to avoid it, but if you have to do down there you have to go down there,” he said.
Olson, meanwhile, was flustered when we visited him in his trailer, questioning why all the other races would be run one way and then to have it switch in the final. But he said he was happy with his sled and looking forward to a great weekend of racing.