Matt Goede and Blaine Stephenson separated themselves a bit Friday night from an amazing class of top racers assembled for the 60th running of the Eagle River World Championship here in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
Goede – a renowned oval racer who has won multiple Vintage racing titles as well as some top Pro Champ 440 races – was the man to beat in the Formula III class that will determine the 2023 World Champion. He set the fast time in Friday morning time trials and then won every time his Ski-Doo sled hit the track Friday night. That included the “Sweet 16” final under the lights – a victory that earned him a front row starting position in Sunday’s World Championship race.
Stephenson, meanwhile, was the second fastest qualifier in Formula III and won most of his heat races en route to the final, despite a crash in turn one in his semifinal. Then Stephenson crashed in turn one again in the final while dicing with Goede for the lead. Both times Stephenson remounted and charged from the back of the pack back toward the front, although in the Sweet 16 race he had to settle for third.
On top of that, Stephenson also won the highly coveted and lucrative USSA ProStar Cup Pro Champ 440 final Friday night under the lights – a key victory in the season points chase that also earned him about $6,500 in bonus prize money, aside from driver entry fee payoffs.
The Friday racing, though, was just the start of a full slate of racing that will culminate Sunday afternoon with the running of the World Championship race at 1:30 p.m., followed by a Pro Enduro race. The World Championship is the sport’s most historic prize, and this year 30 racers have packed the field, which means Saturday’s elimination races should be spectacular.
Let’s get you caught up on Friday night’s big races, in the order they occurred. And, remember to make your prediction in our Fantasy Snowmobile Racing Challenge game. It’s easy to play, free and fun.
From 1998 through 2021, the Pro Champ class that features specially designed race chassis and loud engines was the World Championship class. While the still-fast but less modified Formula III class is the new World Championship class, Pro Champ is still very highly regarded and is the premier class for the USSA ProStar Cup. A lot of the sport’s top racers, in fact, race in both Pro Champ and Formula III.
In daylight racing earlier Friday, nine top drivers earned front row starting positions in the final. Friday night under the lights, a last-chance qualifier race added three more to Friday night’s big dance. In that race, Will Garceau led early but Dayton, Minnesota’s Calvin Cook moved to the front on his bright blue No. 75 Polaris. USSA stalwart John Henke started deep in the pack but moved up to second late in the race to earn a spot in the final along with Garceau, who slid to third.
After a classy bit of pageantry that included USSA’s communications guru Brett Richter introducing each finalist, the top 12 were lined up on the frontstretch for the 15-lap final. With 10 sleds idling on the front row and two about 30 feet behind them, Matt Goede hit his fun flipper too early and the group was re-racked, with Goede now joining the second row.
On the restart, defending Pro Champ season points winner Blaine Stephenson, multi-time past national champ Gunnar Sterne and Stephenson’s teammate Tommy Olson separated themselves coming out of turn two. Stephenson was credited with leading the first lap and then started opening a gap on the competition. Sterne followed, then came Olson and Justin Peterson, followed quickly by Goede.
Stephenson was running hard and fast at the front, but his rival Sterne appeared determined not to let him get away. Three laps in, those two already had checked out on the rest of the field. In fact, Sterne closed on Stephenson and had his Ski-Doo mod snapping at the taillight of Stephenson’s Wahl Bros. Polaris.
But then, on about lap five, Sterne drifted high through turn two and Stephenson pulled away. From that moment on, the die was cast. Stephenson ran fast lap after fast lap for the rest of the race, opening a monstrous margin. In fact, he lapped most of the field in the short race.
Sterne, meanwhile, began to fade, bit time. Watching from the infield, it appeared the talented driver from Chicago wouldn’t get the front of his sled to stick in turns. Later, we’d find out what we were seeing was real: According to one of Sterne’s crew members, a big chunk of carbide became dislodged from one of his runners, and his ability to power through turns went with it.
Running a fast line a little higher on the track and above the bumps that most of his competitors were battling, Stephenson was untouchable and won going away. But all sorts of drama was unfolding behind the four-time former World Champion.
The first one to charge up and challenge Sterne was the surprising No. 15 of Hunter Sears. The racer from St. Francis, Minnesota, ran several fast laps but then suddenly his lap times dropped considerably in the last couple of laps. After the race, he told us his sled started running on one cylinder when he’d let off for turns.
There to pounce was John Henke – the same guy who made the race in the last chance qualifier. Henke moved around the stammering Sears, then he took off after Sterne. On the last lap he was staring at Sterne’s taillight through turns one and two and down the back stretch, then cut under the No. 220 and won the sprint to the waving checkered flag.
After the race, Stephenson told us he was competing on the same sled on which he won the 2021 World Championship. We caught up to Henke later in the pits – he said his race sled was actually first raced by Sterne back in 2018. It had to be completely rebuilt for this season, however.
“I really messed it up at Wausau last year” in a crash, Henke said with a chuckle. “I think about the only thing we didn’t have to replace was the ski loop!”
Sterne gamely held on to third despite his handling problems. Calvin Cook finished fourth.
On To Formula III
The podium finishers in Pro Champ didn’t spend much time with the trophy girls after the race – each driver hustled back to the pits to prepare for the Formula III qualifying rounds that were ahead.
It started with quarterfinal races – where the top five in each would advance to the semi-finals.
Goede was once more blistering fast in the final quarterfinal and won going away, with Michigander Matt Town and Cat engineer Ben Langaas in his wake. Kevin Vermeersch spent most of the race in the top three but lost his seat on the last lap. Calvin Cook led early in the second quarterfinal, but soon Blaine Stephenson grabbed the point and ran away. Andy Shoemaker moved up to second after some contact with Cook, who finished third ahead of Gunner Sterne and local hero Zach Herfindahl.
The third quarterfinal included a nasty looking first lap incident with Tommy Olson that put Tyler Beach into the haybales leaving turn four. Despite a twisting, violent looking spill, but driver and sled were OK and Beach was soon lined back up with the others for the restart.
On the restart, Olson moved to the front again and was untouched to the final. Austin Leeck has an impressive run in second after an interesting battle with Dakota Harris, who finished third ahead of second generation Michigan star Kevin DeWald and Canada’s Mike VanDolder.
Defending World Champion Jay Mittelstaedt was in the fourth and final quarterfinal, but he showed now signs of carryover magic from last year. Instead, it was another Olson – this one was Luke Olson, a Yooper who looked strong on the No. 04 Polaris. Last year’s third-place finisher Jake Gerow finished second, with Mittelstaedt barely holding onto a distant third in front of Dakota Harris.
Goede then ran away with the first semifinal, but sleds were dicing and trading point behind him. After a red flag caused by a Ben Langaas unplanned trip into the haybales, Tom Olson chased down second, with DeWald, Town and VanDolder in his wake. They would all advance to the final.
Blaine Stephenson made the second semifinal his own unique adventure. He crashed right up against the haybales entering turn one on lap four. He then remounted his sled that now featured bent ski tips, restarted at the back of the field and charged back around the field on the outside, moved to the front and won. Olson, Sterne, Herfindahl and Mittelstaedt followed.
Goede To The W.C.
There were a lot of rounds of racing to put one person onto Sunday’s front row – all other competitors gained nothing other than track time and they’ll still have to earn a spot in the final in Saturday’s qualifying races.
That said, it was great racing action and, given the limited available practice time this early winter this year due to Mother Nature’s whims, it did give racers and teams some time to sort some things out.
Those qualifying rounds saw Goede and Stephenson run the fastest laps, so it was not surprising to see those two immediately move to the front when the 16-lap Sweet 16 race went green. What was surprising, though, was yet another trip into haybales in turn one by Stephenson on lap 1. It looked like when he grabbed the brake on corner-entry, his sled turned right and tossed its cowboy. Once more, though, Stephenson’s sled wasn’t terminally damaged and he continued on a restart from the back of the pack.
Like his restart in the semifinal, Stephenson passed most of the other racers one the first lap when the race went green again, but he could only move as high as third. In fact, he had to get on the binders hard one time in turn two to avoid hitting his teammate and friend Tommy Olson while they battled for second behind a distant Goede.
Goede didn’t stay distant for long, though. When he got into lapped traffic, Olson chased him down and looked like he might have a legitimate shot at a pass for the top spot, but then the traffic started working in Goede’s favor and he grabbed the win and the sole guaranteed spot in Sunday’s World Championship.
After the race, a victorious Goede said the lapped traffic plus dulling carbide were to blame for him backing-up to the charging Olson. “I had to take it a little easier in lapped traffic, and I had to take it easy going into turn one where it was rough,” Goede said.
While the rest of the field will still have to earn a spot in Sunday’s World Championship, Goede will spend Saturday watching, and adjusting his sled. The down-shot? He doesn’t get as much track time as his competitors.
“We were really happy to win but I don’t think it’s that big of an advantage, though it’s less wear-and-tear on the sled.”
Olson finished second and seemed to gain momentum throughout the day, with Stephenson a close third. There was then a gap to Luke Olson, who ran an impressive fourth followed by Sterne. Then came Herfindahl, Town, Gerow, DeWald and VanDolder.