Fulfilling what he called a “lifelong dream,” Nick Van Strydonk of Tomahawk, Wisconsin, won his second World Championship at Eagle River by using his red No. 13 Polaris mod sled to hold off the pre-race favorite and his longtime friend, Cardell Potter, in a thrilling 30-lap race in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
Held under murky skies on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, the World Championship race on the banked half-mile ice oval didn’t disappoint, even though there were just a couple of passes for the lead. The duel between Van Strydonk and Potter – both past champions looking for their second victory in the sport’s most historic and prestigious event – was fascinating until about the last five laps, when Van Strydonk started to open a sizable gap up front and pulled away to the victory.
After crossing the finish line, Van Strydonk pumped his left arm in the air in a victorious celebration while a large group of his fans on the front stretch hooted and hollered. It was a popular victory with the locals. Soon he was hoisting the Snow Goer Cup over his head, knowing he would join a short and storied list of racers whose name appears on that traveling trophy more than once.
Run For Glory
A full weekend of racing in often rainy and always warm and muggy weather narrowed a talented field of racers down to 12 who made the World Championship final. The front row qualifiers who earned their spot in racing Saturday including the Ski-Doo powered mods of 2015 champ Cardell Potter, 2010 and 2016 winner Matt Schulz, Friday night winner Gunnar Sterne, last year’s Friday winner Travis MacDonald and eastern invader Mike Hakey; the Polaris-powered mods of 2012 winner Nick Van Strydonk, his cousin Beau Van Strydonk on Nick’s 2016 sled, plus second-generation Wahl Bros. racer Jordan Wahl and local favorite Matt Ritchie; plus the super-fast Arctic Cat powered mod of Colt Dellandrea.
A last-chance qualifier Sunday at noon put two racers in the back row – both Polaris-powered Champ sleds raced by Joey Fjerstad and Jay Mittelstaedt.
That was supposed to be the starting field. But as the racers gathered for the pre-race festivities, only 11 sleds came to the line. Missing was Dellandrea’s black No. 53, and in the pits a large group of people was gathered around it trying to figure out why the sled wouldn’t idle. Try as they might, they couldn’t get the sled to the line in time and Dellandrea was out before the race even started. Sunday evening, a visibly dejected Dellandrea and his father speculated that the engine may have sucked in a reed, “but we won’t know until we pull it apart,” his father said.
So 11 sleds lined up. When the flagman released the pack, Sterne got the holeshot with Nick Van Strydonk right beside him and Hakey next, while Potter traded paint with other sleds in the first corner. When they completed the first lap, Nick Van Strydonk pulled past Sterne, while Potter settled into third, Hakey fourth and then MacDonald fifth.
It took Potter two laps to work past Sterne and then he took off after his longtime friend Nick Van Strydonk. Soon the two were performing a beautiful motorsports ballet, each trying various lines on the soft ice and often racing side-by-side down straights and through the turns but never rubbing against one another. Nick seemed to like to enter a set of turns low and let the sled drift high on exit while Potter was entering high and then cutting low, and that created some fascinating position swaps in turns.
At the mandatory 10-minute pitstop at the 10-lap mark, Van Strydonk narrowly beat Potter to the finish line, then they and all racers got a chance to wrench on their sleds. Keeping with the theme of “10,” though, the field was narrowed to 10 during the break when MacDonald’s crew couldn’t keep his sled from massively overheating. A crew member told us the engine had a heater hose come off, and that overheated the engine and cooked its head gaskets. They were done.
For the restart, the racers lined up in this order: Nick Van Strydonk, Potter, Sterne, Hakey, Schulz, Beau Van Strydonk, Ritchie, Wahl, Fjerstad and Mittelstaedt.
The sleds were released again for the final 20-lap charge toward glory, and that restart was amazingly even, as earn racer poured into the first set of turns in order. In the pack, though, the man on the move was Beau Van Strydonk – he quickly moved past Schulz and suddenly was challenging Hakey for fourth place.
Most eyes were up front, though, where Nick Van Strydonk and Potter were re-engaging in their battle. Again they raced side by side at times, and on lap 14 Potter dove under Nick and grabbed the lead at the finish line but the next lap the elder Van Strydonk undercut Potter in a turn and reclaimed the lead. On laps 17 and 18 (by our count) the two exchanged the lead back-and-forth again. It was as thrilling as high-speed oval sprint racing gets!
Starting on lap 20, though, Nick Van Strydonk started to open a bit of a gap up front. It was about three sled lengths at the finish line and then grew to about five sled lengths by lap 22, but Potter was lurking and searching for smooth lines – a re-engagement seemed imminent. It didn’t happen, however. Nick’s lead grew to about 10 sleds by lap 24 and to about 2 seconds as the sleds took the white flag on lap 29. Nick Van Strydonk continued his mastery of the track on the last lap and came home with a big victory, with Potter second, Sterne a distant third, and then Beau Van Strydonk fourth. Schulz stayed strong at the end while others faded, so he moved up to fifth ahead of Wahl and Hakey. Ritchie, Fjerstad and Mittelstaedt rounded out the field.
After celebrating with his own crew, one of the first things Nick Van Strydonk did was get hugs from some folks wearing jackets from Potter’s Miracle Racing team, and Potter himself was right in the mix. After the event, each of the two drivers immediately talked about their long history together.
“He’s a great competitor and a great friend, we’ve been friends forever,” Van Strydonk said. “I still have pictures on the nightstand back at my mom and dad’s house with him and I riding Kitty Cats, racing. It all brings back memories for me – he knows how to ride, he knows how to compete, we know how each other works and how each other rides on the track, and we respect one another, and it showed today – when you respect your competitor and you respect each other, you can put on a show for more than one lap.”
“We’ve been racing together for 18 plus years, probably,” Potter said in a separate interview, without knowing that Van Strydonk was telling similar stories. “Nick and I go way back and we had a lot of the F1 [Kitty Cats] where we were raced side by side. It was a fun battle.”
Van Strydonk said he pulled away at the end after altering his driving style to an iced track, made soft by a weekend full of rain and upper-30-degree temperatures.
“It really turned into a one-lane track,” Van Strydonk said. “After five laps of the 20-lap segment I found out my line that I had been running was not going to work anymore. The back end kept sliding out, so I figured I could run in [to a set of turns] really hard but I just had to wait a little longer before I could get back on the trigger [on exit], until the front end really set and I could come out of the corner and stay low. I think that’s a little bit of the line I ran back in 2012, but the key was really staying out front and having the clean ice and the availability to run your line.”
Van Strydonk credited his crew for building him a great chassis which he said drove similar to the 2012 winning sled, adding that it was a little less hooked-up than last year’s sled, making it easier for the 140-pound driver to manhandle. Plus the new Hooper-built Polaris engine was key as well, he said.
Despite coming oh-so-close to his second World Championship, Potter was upbeat after the race.
“It was a good race, a lot of side-by-side stuff, Nick and I had a good battle there,” Potter said. “It was kind of like in the old Kitty Cat days, a way-back-then race, so it was kind of cool. A couple times down the front stretch we were looking back and forth at each other – not too many races do you get to do that.
“He was definitely spot-on the whole race and the line I was running, I was struggling to get it back down to the bottom,” Potter continued. “Physically this is a demanding race and Nick is one of the better ones that way. I was trying to charge there at the end but when I tried to turn up the wick he turned it up, too, so there was no catching him.”
Sterne had a breakthrough weekend, but the motivated racer fell short of his big plan.
“I’d like to win one, that’s my ultimate goal,” Sterne said. “It means a lot [to finish third], but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t win in my eyes. It’s nice to be on the podium and get the trophy and be able to thank your sponsors, but I really want to win one. Every time I come here I learn more about myself and how I race and I think, compared to the first time I made the W.C. and this time, I’ve grown a lot and learned how to last these 30 laps. Next year, I think I’ll be able to go all out.”
- Nick Van Strydonk, #13 Polaris, Tomahawk, Wisconsin
- Cardell Potter, #58 Ski-Doo, Camp Douglas, Wisconsin
- Gunnar Sterne, #220 Ski-Doo, West Chicago, Illinois
- Beau Van Strydonk, #61 Polaris, Tomahawk, Wisconsin
- Matt Schulz, #38 Ski-Doo, Wausau, Wisconsin
- Jordan Wahl, #747 Polaris, Greenbush, Minnesota
- Mike Hakey, #44 Ski-Doo, Walpole, New Hampshire
- Matt Ritchie, #355 Polaris, Minocqua, Wisconsin
- Joey Fjerstad, #16 Polaris, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Jay Mittlestaedt, #297 Polaris, Wisconsin
- Travis MacDonald, #8 Ski-Doo, Gonor, Manitoba
- (DNS) Colt Dellandrea, #53 Arctic Cat, Sundridge, Ontario