The top drivers in the snowmobile oval racing wrapped up another high-speed weekend of racing recently in Ironwood, Michigan, but thanks to the whims of Mother Nature they head into their upcoming World Championship in Eagle River, Wisconsin, with limited track time.
It’s been an interesting early winter in much of the Snowbelt, with wildly varying conditions and, oddly, too much snow too early in some regions. In the host city of Ironwood, snow in plentiful, but rain a week before the USSA Pro race was the concern – as fans, teams and racers all worried whether the ice oval track would hold up to the stressful conditions that were doubled by a vintage race the previous weekend.
Well, temperatures got below freezing again, and soon thereafter the snows came – first the week before the annual Ironwood Olympus and then the Saturday night between the two days of racing. The end result: A full schedule of racing was completed on Saturday, but Sunday’s big USSA Pro Star Cup event – the big North American series that in effect determines the sport’s annual points champion – was cut short on Sunday due to the conditions in the wake of the snowstorm.
Saturday’s racing was good, though, and it set up two-time defending World Champion Blaine Stephenson of Hutchinson, Minnesota, as the man to beat heading into Eagle River for their January 17-19 weekend. However, there’s never been a threepeat at Eagle — it might be a tall hill to climb, especially in what looks like it could be a crowded field.
Twelve drivers signed up to run Pro Champ on Saturday. An additional five Pro Lite drivers that were planning to run the class on Sunday, but those plans were scuttled by the weather.
Saturday’s heat race action started with a surprise, as vintage sled racing regular Michael Bennett on the No. 233 Polaris grabbed the first Pro Champ heat of the season ahead of Champ regulars Travis MacDonald and Nick LaGoy, followed by Jake Beres, Tom Olson and Chris Huther. Blaine Stephenson won the other, highly competitive heat, holding off Nick Van Strydonk and Gunner Sterne, followed by John Henke, Matt Goede and Davis Jennings.
Rounds two and three of heat races were remarkable similar to one another, and Stephenson and Goede each grabbed two victories. Sterne, Van Strydonk and MacDonald (twice) earned runner up positions.
The sleds lined up for the 10-lap final under mostly cloudy skies on a seasonable warm afternoon. Lined up fourth from the inside, Stephenson got a strong launch and was able to make a nice arc through the first set of terms, but rival Sterne was quickly to his outside as the 12 angry sleds poured out of turn two and down the back stretch. When they came back to the front stretch to complete lap one, Stephenson had about a five sled-length lead over Sterne, with Sterne an equal distance ahead of third-place Goede, with Van Strydonk on his heels and then a slight gap to Bennett. At the very back of the pack was Olson – who pulled his sled into the infield just short of the start-finish line.
In the following laps, Stephenson opened a bit of a lead on Illinois-based Sterne, who then had a bigger gap on the interesting battle for third, as Goede – who is returning to snowmobile racing’s top class after a scary crash a couple of years ago – had his hands full holding of the two-time World Champ Van Strydonk. Behind them, Henke had moved up to fifth, but he had Bennett pressuring for the spot back, for awhile. Bennett, though, would soon succumb to handling issues and pull into the infield near Olson.
The top five would run that order until the end, with Stephenson about 2.5 seconds ahead of Sterne at the waving checkered flag. Van Strydonk was never more than three sled-lengths behind Goede, but Goede cleverly held him off to get the last podium spot, with Henke a strong fifth after a slow start. He was followed by Travis MacDonald, Nick LaGoy and Jake Beres, with Chris Huther finishing a lap down in ninth. Davis Jennings was scored 10th after ending his afternoon in the haybales in turn three. Early exiters Bennett and Olson rounded out the field.
The Pro-Lite regulars who signed up to race Pro Champ on Sunday includes Dylan Anagnoustolous, Stephen Manke, Griffin Lepak, Andy Nordine and Justin Peterson. Look for them to try to make a run at the World Championship field in Eagle River.
The new Formula III class has turned into a bit of a delight, as it offers several interesting twists. First, the drivers are surprisingly fast on the 600cc sleds that began life as snocross-focused race sleds before being lowered to the ice. Second, it gives fans a chance to see the sport’s top racers compete on different sleds with different driving styles. Also, it seems to have attracted attention from not just USSA regulars, as Michigan-based MIRA racers are building Formula III race sleds.
The “who to watch” stage was set early, as Gunnar Sterne guided his No. 220 Ski-Doo to a victory directly ahead of Tom Olson in the first heat, then Olson ran away with the second head with Sterne second.
In the seven-lap final, the group of eight sleds launched as one and ran as a pack for the first lap, with Olson and Sterne leading the way around the flat, long oval. Olson start to pull away after that, gaining several sled lengths per lap while Sterne fought off a charge early in the race by enduro and vintage racing superstar Troy DeWald.
Eventually, Sterne was able to put a gap on DeWald, but DeWald wasn’t alone, as he had fellow Michigan racer Jake Gerow sniping at his snowflap. Those two staged a highly interesting battle throughout the race, and came past the checkered flag nearly side-by-side, with DeWald narrowly hanging onto the last podium spot. Directly behind them, USSA regulars MacDonald and Van Strydonk had a similar battle going, with TMac barely holding onto fifth at the finish line. Stephen Town finished a distant seventh, while Joe Schwartz pulled off the track at mid race and was scored eighth.
Up front, it was all Olson on his No. 39 Wahl Bros. Polaris. The Formula III class should be very interesting to follow all season before it become the World Championship class in 2021.
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