The Blaine Stephenson Era has officially begun in oval racing, as the young Polaris racer from Hutchinson, Minnesota, became the World Champion in Eagle River, Wisconsin, for the second straight year after a dominating performance in an exhilarating event on a frigid weekend in the Northwoods.
After earning a surprising and admittedly somewhat fluky victory at the same race one year earlier — his first victory of any sort in the Pro Champ 440 class — Stephenson proved on Sunday that he was no flash in the pan.
Stephenson lasted through challenges from two-time champ Nick Van Strydonk, fought off multiple restarts that brought the pack back to him and survived a super-rough high-banked, high-speed oval track en route to his victory.
“It’s an honor: To be a two-time World Championship at 22 years old — it’s kind of crazy,” the likeable young racer said immediately after the event. “To win once is a dream come true, but to do it twice and back-to-back… I guess we’ll just have to chase history next year for three” and become the first and only to three-peat.
With new ownership this year, the Derby Complex facility held up extremely well to its first big stress test, with an impressive crowd braving sub-zero windchills all weekend to see arguably snowmobiling’s most exciting race event and owners promising a bright future for the sport’s most storied race.
An Incredible Run
After a long weekend of time trials and qualifying races, the field of Pro Champ sleds that would run for their place in history was whittled to 12. Based on his performances in those arenas, Van Strydonk went into the final as the clear favorite, but Stephenson wasn’t far behind on most pre-race prognostications.
After the usual Derby ceremonies and traditions of the opening ceremonies, the 12 sleds were lined on the front stretch under bright skies, with a bitter, biting wind out of the north added to the 3 degree chill. Van Strydonk got to pick his starting spot first, and he chose a center position. Nine other sleds lined up next to him on that front row, with two more about 15 yards behind them in back.
On green, all 12 sleds blasted off of their starting position cleanly and in unison, with Gunner Sterne’s No. 220 Ski-Doo gaining the slight edge and leading the way into the first set of turns. When they emerged onto the backstretch it was Sterne from Illinois, then Van Strydonk from Wisconsin and Blaine Stephenson from Minnesota at the front. When the pack poured into turn two, however, chaos ensued. It appeared that Glen Hart’s No. 51 ran into the front of the No. 53 of Colt Dellendrea – both sled careened up the hill, collected the No. 37 of Stephen Marquis in their tangle and slammed the three Canadian drivers violently into the haybale wall at the top of the track.
It look several minutes for any of the drivers to gather themselves. Ontario’s Dellandrea was the only one in clear sight – he struggled to get to his knees and looked to be in pain but got to his feet within a couple of minutes. Marquis took longer to emerge – he was deep in haybales with track workers and medical officials checking him out. The Quebec driver eventually got to his feet and appeared to be trying to stretch out his back muscles when he got back on his sled. Manitoba’s Hart was in the worst shape. Medical officials tended to him to a long time, and when he finally tried to stand he almost collapsed – helpers caught him and guided him to the seat of a waiting UTV, and he was taken back to the pits.
Surprisingly, the sleds of Marquis and Dellandrea were mostly undamaged, and each was able to continue after their Ski-Doo-powered mods being checked out by their teams. The race would be restarted with 11 sleds, with Hart now out.
On the second attempt to start the race, Sterne again launched best off of the starting line, with Brendon Grendzinski’s No. 7c chasing him into the first set of turns. Stephenson grabbed second place on the backstretch, with Grendzinski holding third, Tom Olson in fourth and Nick Van Strydonk fifth.
Another lap into the 25-lap final, Stephenson made a pass for the lead, taking a low line underneath Sterne, but it wouldn’t count because on that same lap the race was reflagged again – this time with John Henke’s sled stopped and pointed the wrong direction in turn 2, plus Jake Beres’ and Andy Nordine’s sleds coasting to a stop leaving turn two, near the paddock. With a couple of laps in the books, it would be a staggered restart in this order: Sterne, Stephenson, Grendzinski, Olson, Van Strydonk, Travis MacDonald, Dellandrea, Marquis, Nordine, Beres and Henke.
On now the third race restart, Sterne again got the best start, and continued to lead, with Van Strydonk moving past Olson to claim fourth behind Stephenson and Grendzinski. Soon, though, attrition would begin. The second man out (after Hart) was Beres, who parked his sled on the back stretch close to the infield, and Grendzinski was the next to shut down on the front stretch — he motioned to a crew member to signify that the sled had a steering problem. Both parked close enough to the infield to be out of the way and allow racing to continue.
On about lap 6 by our count, Stephenson dove to the inside of Stern in turns three and four, challenged for the lead, ran side-by-side with him down the front stretch and then claimed the top spot in turn one. He immediately opened a lead. Behind him. Van Strydonk was moving up and pressuring Sterne. Soon, though, the race was halted again when Travis MacDonald’s sled shut down at the top of turns one and two – right after the incident a crew member told us he thought the sled blew its drive belt, but later it was discovered to be a broken clutch bolt – bringing out yet another red flag.
During the halt in racing, the sleds of Beres, Grendzinski and MacDonald were all removed from the track, and just eight sleds would take the staggered restart in this order: Stephenson, Sterne, Van Strydonk, Olson, Dellandrea, Marquis, Henke and Nordine.
Restart No. 4 was a great one for Olson as he shot up the running order and was battling Stern for second, but Van Strydonk undercut them both in turn four and grabbed teh sport. Soon, the No. 220 of Sterne was accidentally bumped in the rear by Olson in turn two, causing Sterne to spin out and face the wrong direction. Sterne gamely turned his sled around rather than bringing out yet another red flag, and the race continued with him now at the back of the pack.
At the front, it was three Polaris-powered sleds – Stephenson, Van Strydonk and Olson. Stephenson opened a two-second gap on Van Strydonk by the race’s halfway point, with another three-second gap to Olson, then Dellandrea and a larger gap to Marquis while the leader started moving through lapped traffic.
The lead was 2 seconds on lap 16, and Stephenson was just about to put the early leader Sterne a lap down when yet another red flag came out – this time with Dellandrea’s sled broken down just after he was challenging Olson for fourth and parked in a bad spot at the top of turn 4. The pack would be closed together again for yet another restart, this time in this order: Stephenson, Van Strydonk, Olson, Marquis, Sterne, Henke and Nordine.
After the fifth restart, Olson’s sled started to sound sick and he faded, while the surprising Marquis moved up to third place with Sterne on his tail.
At the front, Van Strydonk was all over the leader – the two red Polaris sleds were nose to tail for a couple of laps, but then a mechanical gremlin hit Van Strydonk as his track partially derailed off of the rear suspension in turn one. The crafty veteran coasted into turn two and gave his handlebar a hard jerk, which helped the track line back up with the drivers on the shaft so he could continue, but now Stephenson had a solid four second gap.
Stephenson held that lead to the end, but after an eventful race, even the last two laps were odd: The flagman displayed the white flag for the racers, who made another lap, but when they came around again the white flag was still on display – later, the flagman said he was told on his headset a lap too early to display the white, so he just kept it out. It was a confusing moment for racers and fans alike when the white flag stayed out for two laps, but the racers stayed on the gas and ran to completion, with Stephenson thrusting a “No. 1” finger in the air as he passed the checked flag the next lap. Van Strydonk was a solid second, then Sterne third after he passed and easily pulled away from Marquis.
In the end, it was Stephenson the winner, followed by Van Strydonk, Sterne, Marquis, Henke and Nordine. After that, it was a lineup of sleds that didn’t finish — with Olson scored seventh as the last-man out, then Dellandrea, MacDonald, Grendzinski, Beres and Hart.
Words With Champs
After the race, Stephenson spent a long time on the backstretch getting hugs from team members, family members and even his fellow competitors before pulling his winning sled around to the front stretch for the post-race ceremonies.
“The initial start was not good,” he told us later. “My plan the whole time was to go below Nick [Van Strydonk in to turn one]. I knew Gunnar [Sterne] was going to have a great holeshot but I knew if I could get below Nick we could race him to the corner,” Stephenson said. “Then, wherever Gunnar was, I figured he’d be on the outside and maybe pinch Nick off a little bit and we could just race Gunnar. That’s kind of what happened on the second one – on the first one Hart went down there and I didn’t want to go all the way to the bottom.
“So, I just raced Gunnar the first couple of laps and passed him, and then – oh my gosh, all of the red flags!” Stephenson said. “It was a stressful time, but the sled took off awesome each time and I was able to race the bottom [through the turns] each time. The track was really rough – it was kind of a mine field, but I just picked out the best lines that I could.”
On the restarts, Stephenson said. “With my physical fitness, I felt in really good shape, but the track tore me apart pretty good, but I think it tore everybody apart. I knew we had a little bit of a lead and then they kept throwing red flag and red flag… I guess it’s just what you have to deal with.”
Stephenson said late in the race he could hear Van Strydonk’s snarling engine directly behind him in the corners, but soon the noise faded and he knew he had a gap. “I knew we must have built some sort of lead over him, but he’s a great racer and I knew he was back there somewhere!” He complimented Van Strydonk mightily, saying that the two-time champ served as a bit of a mentor to him.
Van Strydonk earned his fifth straight podium finish at Eagle River — with one victory (2017), now three seconds (2019, 2018 and 2016) and one third place (2015).
“We got a good holeshot on the first go, but then we had a red,” Van Strydonk said. “The second restart was horrible for us – for some reason the sled kind of bogged down, I think maybe the engine got head-soaked. But then we ran our race for a few laps and another red came out. After that red we got another great holeshot and were able to run with some of the guys for awhile, made some passes and got some track position back, and then another red!
“On the last restart we had a real good run with Blaine down in the corner and we really thought we were going to get him, but he came out of the corner real fast and I didn’t want to push too hard, too soon, and then with probably seven to go I went down into the corner and the track ended up derailing. I came out of turn two and had no power [to the track] but I was able to slip the track back onto the suspension but just lost a ton of ground. I pushed hard to try to catch back up while also trying to not beat the sled up too much because once it derails once it’s likely to do it again. Maintaining a second place was what I needed to focus on.”
Sterne said the rough track was “the worst conditions I’ve seen since I’ve been racing.”
“I was tapped by the 39 [Olson] and that spun me around,” Sterne said. After getting his sled pointed in the right direction, he said he “had to get back up to the guys that were racing – and I knew there would be some restarts.”
The red flags did bring him back to the pack but he said he spun the track on one of the restarts. “After that my goal was to get back up to third place.”
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