Sabrina Blanchet Makes Eagle River Vintage History, x2

Sabrina Blanchet
Sabrina Blanchet (left) celebrates her Vintage World Championship. Images from the World Championship Derby Complex Facebook page, shot by SpeedShot Photography.

Quebec racer Sabrina Blanchet has been coming to Eagle River, Wisconsin, for World Championship weekend events for many years now, and has won several classes, both on the “regular” late-model weekend and the vintage racing weekend.

       With the backing of Quebec racing guru George Sampson and a crew of crafty wrenchers and sled builders, she has always showed up with fast sleds no matter what class she has entered. Therefore, some of the novelty of her being a female racer competing in classes completely dominated by the boys has somewhat worn off to those who watch the sport closely.

       However, that doesn’t make her victory at the 22nd Annual Vintage World Championship on the banked Derby track Sunday afternoon, January 15, any less historic. While the field of top racers in a packed field crashed around her, the diminutive Blanchet ran lightning fast laps and ran away for the World Championship title – which is settled in the 440 Super Mod class.

       Competing on a sled that in theory is a vintage Ski-Doo – but in reality features many modern parts and an engine cranking out a ton more horsepower than the original machine – Blanchet wrote her name into history on a sun soaked Sunday afternoon after a full weekend of racing.

UPDATE: Due to a technical protest related to a rule governing the width of competitors’ skis, the results of this race are still unofficial. Race circuit and International Snowmobile Racing (ISR) officials say a ruling will be made Wednesday, January 18. For now, we’ll leave this story posted as-is, with the results as they happened on the track, but check back for an update later this week.

UPDATE NO. 2 (1:30 p.m. Monday 1/16): The protest has been withdrawn — results are final and official as stated in story.

Vintage Crowds

The Vintage World Championship weekend on the famed Derby Track in Eagle River has, in recent years, drawn far more competitors than the regular World Championship weekend. This year was no exception, as about 940 entries were recorded in various classes.

       The big prize, though, comes in 440 Super Mod, and it featured dozens of entries. In fact, just making it to the quarterfinals in qualifying was a major accomplishment.

       After an intense and occasionally rough-and-tumble process, 10 racers qualified for Sunday front row starting position on Friday and Saturday, then two more were added in a last-chance qualifier (LCQ) race on Sunday.

       While there were a few notable big shots that got bounced in qualifying, the 12 sleds that lineup up for the 3 p.m. final Sunday was really stout, with a bunch of all stars from the vintage and oval racing world.

       The pole-sitter was fast qualifier and Friday-night winner Jay Mittelstaedt, who happens to be the defending World Champion in current-model racing. He was joined on the front row by defending and five-time vintage champ Matt Goede, two-time former vintage champ Curtis Pederson and one-time former vintage champ Brice Pretzel.

       From Thursday qualifying, Ross Olson and AJ Lange were the second and third fastest qualifiers, and they also made it through to front row qualifying positions, as did sixth fastest Sabrina Blanchet and ninth fastest Mason Schuette. Also in the Vintage W.C. final for a fourth straight year was Alec Nesbit, as well as Larry Nast, who made his third straight Vintage W.C. final. Yeah, it was an all-star cast alright!

       Sunday’s late additions were also accomplished racers: Matt Bennett and Kevin Flannery. In the end, it was 12 fast, veteran racers representing six states and one Canadian province.

      After much fanfare and tradition, all of those racers lined up ready to let the fur fly at 3 p.m. And that’s exactly what happened.

Crashfest 2023

The sleds were lined up 10-wide on the front row of the icy front stretch, with the two LCQ qualifier about 30 feet behind. On green, that front row poured into the first turn without much separation created on the short chute, and chaos ensured, as skis clacked, paint was traded, one sled got upended and three drivers were unloaded from their rides.

       The red flag was waved and the racers were checked. Minnesota driver Alec Nesbit appeared to be the most shaken up – he laid on the ice and was attended to by medical workers but eventually walked into a waiting UTV. His day was done. The day was also over for Wisconsin’s Mason Schuette – his No. 48X Yamaha was damaged to the point where it had to be removed from the track. The third driver involved in the incident was Lucas Nast from New Hampshire – after careful examination of his sled, it was determined that he could continue.

       On the restart, seven sleds now lined up in the front row – with Nesbit and Schutte out and Nast relegated to the now three-wide back row with Matt Bennett and Kevin Flannery. When the flag was lifted off the starter’s boot again, this time the crew made it through turn one, but not turn two. That’s where Brice Pretzel’s upside-down sled was showing off its traction package after he high-sided and was pitched. The race was red-flagged again.

       A few more minutes passed before the remaining sleds were lined up again. This time the racers made it all the way to the last set of turns before a stunning crash occurred. This one involved two historic racers battling for position up front.

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       Jay Mittelstaedt entered turn three low beneath Matt Goede as both drivers powered through the turn behind Blanchet. But then the right side of Mittelstaedt’s front suspension seemed to fold up. Now unable to steer, he shot up the track and right into Goede in turn four.

       Goede bounced to his feet right after his sled hit the haybales and he was understandably incensed. Mittelstaedt walked toward Goede and tried to explain while pointing toward his dislodged ski, which was sitting alone in the middle of the track. Goede, though, was in no mood for explanations. Mittelstaedt’s sled was towed off first while Goede tried to get his sled running. However, according to the track announcer, Goede’s sled suffered a broken spark plug and he was towed off next.

       That wasn’t all, however. North Dakotan Ross Olson was having trouble keeping his No. 5R Yamaha running, so it was also pulled off the track. Not a single lap had yet to be completed and officially recorded, and the 12-racer field was already down to seven!  And remember, this was the best-of-the-best here.

The Race Actually Starts

Finally, on the fourth try, the race got started for real with just three sleds in the front row and four in the back.

       This time, on green Curtis Pederson from North Dakota got the jump and led the way out of turn two, but Quebec’s Sabrina Blanchet powered by on the outside down the backstretch. Pederson regained the point in turns three and four but then Blanchet cut under him coming out of turn four and officially led the first lap at the start-finish line – though they were essentially side-by-side.

       Blanchet drifted high in turn two and Pederson looked to pounce, but when Blanchet got back to the throttle she opened a gap on the backstretch. Behind them, Matt Bennett moved up to third.

       For a few laps, Pederson stayed close to Blanchet with superior corner speed, but it was very clear that Blanchet had a far superior power package as she expanded her lead mightily. Meanwhile, the carnage continued as Pretzel pulled to the infield, leaving just six running sleds on the track.

       While Blanchet ran alone up front, Pederson and Bennett staged a great battle for second. Again, Pederson seemed to keep pace in corners, but lost ground in straights and lost the position to Bennett – for a while. Michigan’s Flannery, meanwhile, was the next to retire from the event.

       Then, on lap six, Bennett’s second-place sled shut down just before turn three. He threw his hand in the air to signal following riders and coasted to a stop in turn four – eliminating yet another sled and bringing out next another red flag.

       The question was whether Pederson or now third-place Lucas Nast could provide any challenge to Blanchet after the restart with four laps left. The answer was no.

Unchallenged

So now just four sleds were left to run the last four laps. They were lined up in their previous running order: Blanchet, Pederson, Nast and AJ Lange. The eight other racers who started the event had to watch from the paddock.

       On green, Blanchet again left no doubt. Coming out of turn two she again pulled far, far away. By the time they next crossed the start/finish line, she had about a 20 sled-length lead, and Pederson had nearly that big of a gap on Nast and Lange, who were in a tight battle for third.

      Blanchet’s pace never faded, and she won the 10-lap final by more than 3 seconds over Pederson, who had a big gap over Nast in third and Lange in fourth.

       The elated Blanchet picked up a crew member for a victory lap. Each pumped victorious fists into the air and they came back to the front stretch as champions.

       “I just want to thank everybody, Howard and Mike [Gifford], they gave me an awesome sled,” Blanchet said through watery eyes when interviewed post-race by the FloRacing crew. She also gave thanks to “George Sampson for letting me race the sled, and all my family who supports me.”

     Pederson summed it up like this:

      “It was a pretty chaotic race, a lot of turmoil, I think, it going to happen after that,” Pederson said. “It feels good to be the first leaf-spring sled across the line.”

      Nast was a part of that chaos, which made him particularly happy with his third-place finish and spot on the podium.

        “When we went up into the bales, the [track worker] guy said, ‘I’m going to need your help to put it up on the tow board’ and I said, ‘This thing ain’t leaving yet!” Nast said in his FloRacing interview.   

FINAL RESULTS: 1. Sabrina Blanchet (Ski-Doo); 2. Curtis Pederson (Yamaha); 3. Lucas Nast (Polaris); 4. AJ Lange (Arctic Cat); 5. Matt Bennett (Polaris); 6. Kevin Flannery (Polaris); 7. Brice Pretzel (Polaris); 8. Ross Olson (Yamaha); 9. Jay Mittelstaedt (Ski-Doo); 10. Matt Goede (Polaris); 11. Mason Schuette (Yamaha); 12. Alex Nesbit (Yamaha).

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