On the warmest race day in the 52-year history of a storied event, Polaris riding teammates Gabe Bunke, Aaron Christensen and Taylor Bunke wrote their name deeper into Soo I-500 lore Saturday by outrunning and outlasting a fast field of racers in 9 hours of racing in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.
As a part of the 500-lap victory on a fast, one-mile oval, Gabe Bunke, 43, of Roseau, Minnesota, tied the legendary Cory Davidson by being a part of eight Soo I-500 winning teams, while his teammate Christensen from Alberta was a part of his sixth winning team and Gabe’s son Taylor wrote his name into history for a third time.
“Every one is better than the last because it seems like there’s more work that goes into it all the time,” Christensen said immediately after the race when interviewed over the P.A. system.
A Long, Adventurous Day
Thirty-one sleds made the start of the historic Soo I-500 event — truly one of the toughest one-day tests of racer and machine in the sport — on a morning that started at 35 degrees and never got colder in the Upper Peninsula city that’s right up against the border with Ontario, Canada.
There were a lot of fast sleds on the track, but the No. 74 Bunke Racing, No. 37 Faust Racing and No. 21 Cadarette Collision sleds led laps over the course of the day that included more than 20 lead changes. Often in their shadow, though, was the XLT Engineering Team that included the only previous eight-time winner Cory Davidson.
At benchmark moments, the Bunke sled was in the lead at the 100-lap plow break, with H.C. Racing second, XLT Engineering third, Cadarette Collission fourth and the Tommy Bauer Racing No. 19 fifth. At lap 200, Faust Racing was showing the way ahead of the Bauer sled, then H.C. Racing, Bunke and Cadarette. And at 300, it was Faust, Bunke and Cadarette, followed by the Hoos Racing and Countryside Motorsports entries.
As the day went on, the track increasingly fell apart, thanks to the whims of Mother Nature, turning the once-white surface brown as racers wore through the ice and snow and found dirt and snirt. That’s understandably hard on equipment and attrition started to strike the field. At the last formal plow break, it looked more like an ATV course or a summer auto racing dirt track than a February snowmobile course, despite the very best efforts of the hard-working race track officials.
At lap 400, the Bunke sled held the point, followed by their quasi-teammates on Faust Racing — they were the only two sleds left on the lead lap. Cadarette Collision’s Cat was third, a lap down, follows by XLT and Nelson Racing. But Faust regained the point and held the lead at lap 450. As the light left the sky, sparks could be seen beneath the sleds as carbide runners and studs hit small rocks that had previously been buried beneath the race surface, and the race course got quite rough — with huge moguls at the ends of the straightaways.
The Bunke team went to their closer Christensen, while Ryan Faust took over the Faust Racing entry. Hovering behind them, scored two laps down, was Cadarette Collision, and Michigan racing legend Troy DeWald was behind the handlebar.
After a restart on lap 454, DeWald dove inside of Faust heading into turn one and started to pace the field — making the Cadarette entry just one lap down, right in front of the leaders, with Christensen running lap after lap directly behind Faust, looking for a chance to pounce. Another yellow flag soon followed when the No. 18 sled shut down in turn three, allowing the Cadarette Arctic Cat to pull back around to the back of the field, now only one lap down and with fresh carbides on the skis. Could a three-sled, shootout be in the making for the last 35 laps?
It looked like it momentarily, as DeWald cruised back through traffic and was running fourth on the track and gaining again on the leaders with 30 laps to go, when suddenly his sled slowed and his left hand went up in the air, warning drivers behind him that he was rapidly slowing. He pulled the sled into the pits and soon infield track reporter John Wicht III — a four-time solo winner and legend at the Soo himself — interviewed him on pit road.
“You know as well as I do, this is when the race starts, the last 100 laps, but unfortunately the track just came apart,” DeWald said on the excellent Lake Superior State University webcast of the event. “We just got one of our two laps back there, the sled was running good – we were still a little down on RPM but there’s nothing we could do about that… It’s just kind of a sad end to a good day.”
With the Cadarette sled out and the next nearest competitor three laps down, it because obvious the Faust and Bunke sleds would settle this fight.
With 21 laps left, Christensen on the Bunke sled made his move in turns three and four, moving past Faust and immediately opening a gap. The Bunke sled lead was 2.7 seconds with 19 laps left, and that grew to 4.1 seconds two laps later and Christensen kept the hammer down. Barring a yellowflag, if the sled held together this race looked over…
Of course, there was soon a yellow flag that packed everybody back up when the No. 12 Countryside (which was running fifth at the time) shut down on the inside of turn two with about nine laps left.
Race officials quickly got the sled off the track and got the field back under green, and when that green flag waved Christensen on the Bunke sled showed the restart would have no lasting effect. He immediately opened up a lead on the Faust sled again, and stormed away to a 6-second victory, 9 hours and 500 miles after the race started.
The Faust entry finished an impressive second, with the No. 28 Nelson Racing entry moving to third in the late-going ahead of XLT Engineering, which finished fourth, with both of those sleds four laps down. The Countryside entry ended up fifth, despite the late problems, seven laps down.
The top 12 finishers were all aboard Polaris sleds. Despite the early exit, the Cadarette team broke up the Polaris string by finishing 13th, 31 laps behind the winner.
Starting with a post-race burnout, the Bunke team started its post-race celebration — and this gang definitely knows how to do that, given all of their victories.
“This one took a little bit, there was a lot of good competition this year, like everybody was fast,” Christensen said on the Lake Superior State webcast. “There are a lot of good riders out there now and everybody has stepped up their game, so every year it gets that much better.
“Taylor did a great job, he kept it right up there the whole time and then it was my time and I got on there and let the hammer go,” Christensen said. “There’s no holding back there at the end.”
Speaking of track conditions, Christian said, “There wasn’t a lot of ice, but it turned out really good, considering. I thought there would be a lot more rocks showing up but it didn’t so the ground was froze but for the most part it was a great event — you can’t ask for much better.”
Gabe Bunke started the day on the sled but but then turned the race over to his son and his long-time friend. Of tying Davidson’s record of eight Soo victories, he said, “That’s pretty awesome, looking back here on the day, I was just lucky enough to have these two guys riding with me – it was a lot of fun standing on top of the trailer watching them today, so my hats off to them both: We did it again.”
The elder Bunke said he was ready to go back in at the end of the race if they needed some fresh legs, but the way the race fell he wasn’t needed again. “He’s a heck of a closer,” he said of Christensen.
For Taylor Bunke, it was the third time he was on a winning team, but he probably played his biggest role this year, driving a ton of fast laps in the middle of the day.
“This one I had to fight for a lot to get us to where we are, but hats off to Ben Hayes [at Polaris] and everybody who puts the legwork into getting these things dialed every year, and it showed — looking at [Faust Rcing No.] 37 and [Bunke Racing No.] 74, they were rockets! Everything went good: We were a little nervous at the end but it all came together.”
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