Culminating a weekend steeped in tradition, a friendly 23-year-old from central Minnesota rewrote the history books Sunday afternoon when he became the first man to win back-to-back-to-back World Championships on the high-banked iced oval in Eagle River, Wisconsin.
Racing in one of the most competitive fields in more than a decade, Blaine Stephenson charged to the front early in the 25-lap final, only to be spun out in an on-track incident on about lap seven. He’d have to restart at the rear of the field but blazed through traffic to grab the lead before the mid-way point and then stormed away to victory on his Polaris/Wahl Bros. Pro Champ sled at the 57th running of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.
In 2018, Stephenson was a shocking winner after many last-race twists and turns. Last year, he was a strong victor who had to hold off a late-race challenge. This year, he was unquestionably dominant, and history making, when the final was run before an impressive crowd on a 19 degree, windy and cloudy day in the Northwoods.
Retiring two-time past champion Nick Van Strydonk finished a distant second on his familiar No. 13 Polaris, with Travis MacDonald emerging from a great, three-sled battle to claim third place and a final spot on the podium on his MPH Racing Ski-Doo.
The race weekend featured other history-making news as well, most notably when Quebec racer Sabrina Blanchet became the first woman race to qualify for the World Championship. But in the end, the sport’s first three-peater was the talk of the town.
After several days of racing through snowy conditions on the well-maintained oval track as well as assorted other festivities – including UTV racing on the ice and snocross on the bumpy infield course – the weekend boiled down to the run for the Snow Goer Cup on Sunday. The field of 12 races who made it to the final was whittled from 32 who originally signed up for the class, but unlike some years when top racers have problems or somebody “sneaks” into the final, the dozen in this year’s final were truly the 12 best there.
On green, Gunnar Sterne of West Chicago, Illinois, grabbed the holeshot on his No. 220 Ski-Doo and led the pack through the first set of turn, but two-time defending champion Blaine Stephenson – the fastest driver on the track all weekend – was snapping at his snowflap followed by also super-fast Nick Van Strydonk and first-time finalist Matt Goede. The sleds were traveling at break-neck speeds but they were soon brought to a halt due to a crash in turns 3 and 4, where the race’s two No. 39 sleds were crashed. It started when Justin Peterson was tagged from behind by another sled, which tipped his No. 39 Ski-Doo onto its haircut; behind him the No. 39 Polaris of Tom Olson had nowhere to go and coasted into the haybales on the outside of the turn to avoid contact. The race was reflagged and restarted after just one completed lap, and both 39 sleds were undamaged and able to continue.
After the restart, Sterne maintained his lead for a couple of laps but Stephenson was searching for passing lines behind him and made the move to the front soon thereafter using a low line. Then, in a shocking move, the top two sleds tangled in turn two – at first it was unclear from our vantage point whether Stephenson slowed more than Sterne was expecting or if Sterne just got into the corner too hot, but Sterne’s ski struck Stephenson’s tunnel, and Stephenson was spun 180 degree and tossed off of his horse. Later, after looking at video of the incident, it appears that Stephenson squared up the corner after pitching his sled early in turn one and was cutting back down across turn two while Sterne was carving an arc. The race was again red flagged.
Immediately after the incident, Stephenson was clearly furious and his crew moved in try to lower his blood pressure and keep him focused. Ultimately, though, Sterne lost the war – the right ski hoop on his sled broke, which is an equipment/safety violation so he had to pull into the pits. His day was done – he would be scored 11th, ahead of only Peterson who had pulled into the infield a couple of laps earlier with sled problems.
So, when the race was restarted again after six laps, Sterne was out and Stephenson had to start in 10th position, since he was the cause of the red flag. Up front, it was Van Strydonk, Goede, Nick LaGoy, Filipe Roy-Lalonde and Travis MacDonald, followed by Colt Dellandrea, Tom Olson, Sabrina Blanchet, Matt Bennett and then Stephenson.
Then, the really incredible stuff happened – Stephenson was driving like a man possessed! On the first lap after the staggered-start restart, he passed his way all the way up to fourth place, but then another red flag came out when Olson spun again, this time at the bottom of turn two.
After the next restart, Stephenson made quick work of MacDonald and then Goede – passing one in each corner, and worked past Van Strydonk soon thereafter with a nifty move on the inside of turn four where Van Strydonk had pushed high. He then absolutely ran away from the pack – leading the rest of the way, working through lapped traffic and winning the final by 4 seconds over Van Strydonk.
Other than watching the amazing laps by Stephenson, the next most thrilling thing to watch was the battle for third between MacDonald, Dellandrea and Olson after Goede spun in exiting turn two. On restarts, Dellandrea’s sled would often bog, but then he’d come charging through the crowd; Olson had to come from the back twice, but both caught up to MacDonald and they raced tightly until the end – with the crafty MacDonald holding his inside line and holding off the competition.
In the end, Stephenson won by 4.169 seconds over Van Strydonk, with MacDonald a full 17 seconds behind the leader – almost a full lap! Dellandrea finished fourth, followed by Olson, Roy-Lalonde and LaGoy. Goede was fast early but faded to eighth, with Blanchet ninth, the last running sled. Bennett scored tenth after pulling off after 10 laps, then came Sterne and Peterson.
Words With Champs
Asked to describe what it was like to be the sport’s first three-peating champion, Stephenson was flummoxed.
“I have no idea, no words, it’s unreal,” he said, before understating, “It’s definitely a team effort, I just drive the thing, I don’t do much.”
Recapping the race, he said he got a good holeshot overall, “Then I just started to chase Gunnar and just followed him for the lap and a half or whatever it was that we did [before the red flag]. Then on the restart, two laps in I figured out where I was a little bit stronger. The third lap I made sure I got up to his snowflap and then the fourth lap I made the effort to go for the pass.
“Then when I made the pass and went down the straight away – I don’t know if he drove it in deep, I’m sure he’ll say I slowed down, he must have caught his ski up into the tunnel and it just spun me out. It was pretty abrupt. I’m glad there wasn’t a bunch of guys right behind me,” Stephenson said.
He said he was “pretty hot” after being spun, but his crew tried to calm him down.
“On the restart, I made it up to fourth within a lap,” he recalled. “Then, with the next restart after that, I was able to get by Travis [MacDonald] really quick and then made the pass on Goede right away too, and then I got to work on Nick real fast too, so it only took a few laps for me to get to the front. The sled was just wicked” fast, he said through a laugh.
After that, he had one sketchy moment in the braking bumps in turn one, but otherwise just had to deal with lapped traffic while putting down good laps.
Three-peating was on his mind all year, Stephenson admitted.
“I think guys will tell you ‘I never think about it.’ Well I thought about this all summer long so my conditioning program was pretty good,” he said.
Van Strydonk, meanwhile, was more emotional than we’ve ever seen him after a race – including when he won his two championships. He announced earlier this year that he was retiring after this season, and he was met by family members and crew members with hugs after the event. He choked up over the P.A. when thanking his parent and wife for their support. Later, speaking of his retirement, he told us through a cracking voice, “Its surreal man… I don’t know what I’m going to have to do on the weekends in the wintertime anymore. We’re going to end up going home and try to relax a little bit.
“I wanted to win the last one but I’ll come home with a second – six consecutive years of a podium, you know what I can’t be too ashamed,” the always classy Van Strydonk said. “We battled some speed issues all year long – we battled some handling this weekend, something we haven’t had to face before this chassis, so, you know what, hats off to Blaine’s crew they did their homework again this year.”
Later he added, “”We just came up here to do one thing, and that was to win – we did the best we could but we came up one shy.”
Speaking of the crash between Stephenson and Sterne early in the race, he said, “I saw the spin out and I kind of figured Blaine was going to come off the outside of the sled so I just wanted to try to get up the corner and make sure I could get out of the way and not hit him while also trying not to hit Gunnar too because I knew he was kind of unstable.”
With one of them out and the other at the back, he said, “I knew I had to click off laps – going into that first corner I ran it real hard, coming into three and four I ran it real hard again but I noticed the outside didn’t want to stick – the carbide didn’t want to cut, so I don’t know if I hit that dirt over there or what happened. I ended up coming down into one again right before the red flag and had to run through the rough and it held, so I knew I had a long race ahead of me and I could run through the rough and the bumps, I just hoped the sled held together and it did. Very rarely has my sled ever failed me – I just had to push it and do the best I could.”
MacDonald and his crew were ecstatic with his third place finish – his second podium of his career – after the big battle for third.
“I was starting to get a little tired at the end because the track’s pretty rough but I just knew if I stuck around the bottom they’d have to go around high on me and it was pretty snowy up there,” MacDonald said. “I knew if I could just hang on I would be able to get there – we had the sled to make it, and we’re up here.
“It feels great. We knew we had a fast sled and it showed today,” he added. He said the sled was the same as last years, but “we had to pretty much fully rebuild it after the crash in Beausejour that ended our season [last March]. To come back from that and get third at Eagle River is pretty amazing.”
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