In one of the strangest, plot-twisting and heart-string pulling Eagle River Derby finals in the event’s 55-year history, Polaris rider Blaine Stephenson weaved through last-lap carnage to score a stunning World Championship victory in Eagle River, Wisconsin, Sunday night.
Stephenson, 21, of Hutchinson, Minnesota, spent the better part of the 30-lap final running no higher than a distant fourth on the historic banked iced oval. But after a late-race red flag scrambled the running order in many different ways, Stephenson came out on top and hoisted the Snow Goer Cup high above his head in front of a stunned crowd.
“This is surreal,” Stephenson said several times in post-race interviews with the multiple media outlets that swarmed around him.
The race itself was dramatic and fascinating, but there’s also an incredible backstory known to snowmobile racing insiders, because just over one year ago Stephenson was in a horrific accident at a race in Ironwood, Michigan, that left him with a brain injury, fractured skull and multiple other broken bones. It was questionable whether he’d ever race again, much less be the World Champion the very next year.
Amazing Plot Twists
The front row for the 55th Eagle River World Championship was a collection of the very fastest Pro Champ sleds currently in the sport of oval sprint racing – unlike some years when odd twists and turns and mechanical gremlins from top riders allow unexpected sleds into the field, this year’s front row featured the 10 best after a tough weekend of qualifying races on a rough track.
That front row featured past champions Cardell Potter (2015) and Nick Van Strydonk (2012 and 2017); the defending TLR Cup points champ and pre-event favorite of many, Gunnar Sterne; past podium finishers here, including Jordan Wahl and Travis MacDonald; veteran drivers with new, fast equipment like Glen Hart and Colt Dellandrea; and impressive young upstarts Blaine Stephenson, Stephen Marquis and rookie Jerry Bricker. In a Sunday last-chance qualifying event, Beau Van Strydronk and Jamie Bourgeois earned second-row starting positions.
The final got a late start under murky skies on a warm, 30-something-degree afternoon. After much ceremony, the sleds were fired up in front of a sizeable crowd.
On green, all 12 sleds poured down the front stretch in the 30-lap final, and Sterne led the way out of the first set of turns, with Potter, Hart, Nick Van Strydonk and Sterne on his tail. Potter was able to get past Sterne for the top spot but there were some position swaps behind him, with Dellandrea to third, Hart in fourth and Nick Van Strydonk fading to fifth.
The unique format of the World Championship final includes a mandatory, 10-minute pitstop after the first 10 laps, so as per usual most drivers kind of settled into their positions by about lap five and tried not to make any mistakes, knowing they’d be bunched up again on a restart after 10. Brickner made a couple of passes, though, and Dellandrea made a nifty last-lap pass on Sterne to claim second before the first segment ended. The sleds were then parked on the front stretch, where their crews cooled the engines, swapped out a few parts and generally checked the machines over.
For the restart, the staggered start running order sat like this: Potter, Dellandrea, Sterne, Hart, Nick Van Strydonk, Brickner, Stephenson, MacDonald, Marquis, Beau Van Strydonk and Bourgouis, with Wahl pulling off the track on about lap 8 with an engine failure.
The restart was quite even, though Brickner swept past Nick Van Strydonk into fifth for lap 11 and then Stephenson passed Nick Van Strydonk and grabbed sixth on lap 12.
Up front, Potter and Dellandrea started to pull away from the rest of the field, with about a one-second gap back to Sterne in third. Lap after lap Dellandrea – racing for a new Ski-Doo team this year – dogged Potter, seemingly waiting for the right place to make his move. Sometimes he was right on Potter’s snowflap, other times he was up to eight sled-lengths back, but he was always right there – it looked like those two would settle it, with Sterne being in a prime spot to take advantage if those two tangled. Meanwhile, Stephenson was starting to move up in traffic and run very fast laps.
It was on lap 26 by our count that Dellandrea used a strong pull coming out of turn four and passed Potter coming down the front stretch. It looked like his race to lose, as the Ontario racer opened up a gap while Potter struggled a bit in lapped traffic. Then, right after Dellandrea took the white flag, the chaos began!
Coming down the front stretch, Potter hit a bump that looked like it unloaded his suspension at high speed, and he came off of his sled right in front of Sterne. Potter’s body looked like it got caught on Sterne’s ski, and Potter was sent into a crazy body-surfing spin and tumble on the front stretch in front of the stunned crowd and speeding sleds while his driverless sled continued to turn one. The ensuing waving red flags stopped the race.
It took a moment, but Potter did get to his feet, was checked out by his crew and then walked back to his sled, which was essentially undamaged. He pulled the sled back onto the backstretch, where all of the other drivers had parked their sleds awaiting the restart. After further checking out, Potter walked over to Sterne.
“I don’t know, I hit that bump and…” we heard a dejected Potter say, before running out of words and simply saying, “I’m sorry.” The apology was quickly accepted and it was time to restart the race, with Potter at the back but Sterne still in second.
The sleds were lined back up on the front stretch for another staggered start and a green-white-checkered run for history. On green, though, the leader’s sled bogged and didn’t charge forward into the first turn – a frustrated Dellandrea literally punched the hood of his No. 53 mod hard three times as it coasted to a stop at the end of the front stretch.
That gave the lead to Sterne, who powered around the track looking for history. MacDonald got an amazing restart and charged all the way up to second place ahead of Stephenson and Nick Van Strydonk, with Hart fifth as the sleds took the white flag. Sterne led the way through the first two turns but got into some snow on the track leaving turn two, had his sled turn sideways and he lost control right in front of the hungry pack. His sled tumbled while MacDonald unloaded trying to avoid Sterne and had his sled go flying into the infield snocross course.
Out of the melee and shrapnel, the deep blue No. 102 of Stephenson emerged. While race officials called for a red flag due to the crash on the backstretch, the young racer from Minnesota smartly finished out the lap and came past the waving checkered flag. Behind him, both Nick Van Strydonk and Hart at first let off the gas with the call for a red flag came through their in-helmet radios, then re-engaged once they saw Stephenson continue.
Stephenson’s crew members on the snowbank at the start/finish line just about lost their minds when their driver came past the checkered flag – they were hugs and general pandemonium, but there was confusion elsewhere on the track. On the backstretch, several crews were angrily calling for another green-white-checkered restart, noting that track officials clearly called for a red flag in the racers’ radios when the crash occurred. One race official went to talk with other race officials and came out on the track and said loudly “Green-White-Checkered” to the folks parked on the backstretch. But on the front-stretch, Stephenson’s sled was parked next to the flagman and surrounded by fans, as they were waiting for the official call. It came through the radio of Hacker the flagman: The race is over, and Stephenson was named the World Champion. After Hart, Potter was actually next across the line — he finished fourth ahead of Marquis, with Brickner sixth. Sterne was scored in seventh and MacDonald eighth, followed by Bourgeois, Dellandrea, Beau Van Strydonk and Wahl.
Stephenson’s head seemed to be spinning after the popular victory.
“Talk about a wild race – that was crazy, crazy, crazy,” Stephenson said. He talked about how he began the first segment with a bad start and then picked his way up to fourth in the last 20-lap segment of the race, but was running out of time.
“We got to two to go and I saw that Cardell and Gunnar got tangled up – I didn’t really know what happened. Then when we were going to get restarted I heard Colt’s sled kind of bobble on the backstretch when he got back on [the gas] so that was something that I kind of figured – that he might be slow off of the get-go, and he was. I hate it for Colt and his family – they work so hard.”
And then things got crazier the next lap.
“Travis [MacDonald] kind of came out of nowhere and made a bid like he was going to go for it, but then Gunnar got up in the snow and spun around and Travis was right there. We were in the clear and set sail,” Stephenson said. “I hate it for Gunnar and Travis – they’re both good friends of mine, but they’ll be back competing for a lot of years to come.”
Stephenson’s sled is a Wahl chassis with a Larry Rugland Motorsport Polaris engine in it.
Speaking about the restart, he said, “I did not know where Travis was but he must have gotten a killer holeshot from behind us. I went right to the outside to get my line set in for the last two laps and then I saw Travis dive in underneath us. All of a sudden it was a three-way battle to the end. When Gunnar got loose I was right behind him – I burped it once, saw them tangle and then I didn’t see any other flag come out until the checkered when I crossed the finish line.”
“I thought Nick would be behind us, and I knew Nick was going to charge until the last moment possible, so I drove it hard into three and came out [of turn four] and Hacker had the checkered flag in his hand. That last straight away was long – really, really long!”
Winning the championship blew him away.
“When will it set in? Maybe it’ll take a year, maybe it’ll take five years, I don’t know!” Stephenson said. “It’s surreal. There are so many guys who have won this thing, the history behind it and the legends who have raced here – the Wahls, Villeneueves, all of those guys, it’s an honor to be here and to be a part of that group… I still have to process that.”
Speaking about his recovery, Stephenson said the decision to continue racing didn’t come until April 1 last year.
“Right out of the hospital, my parents were like, ‘Do you think you’ll want to do this again,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely!’” Stephenson said. “But then I had to take a step back from my own ego and what I wanted to do and think about what I put my family through and my girlfriend and everybody – it was just a tough situation. It was emotional and stressful. We talked about all of that, and then we made a couple of promises to ourselves: If we do it, we have to do it to the highest level that we can. It gave us a redesigned focus on it all, and it paid off.”
Nick Van Strydonk at first seemed dejected with second after expecting a restart but later offered a very heartfelt congratulatory hug to his fellow Polaris rider Stephenson.
“We saw the accident and avoided Gunnar and then Travis went low and the red came out and we heard ‘RED’ on the scanner, but then we continued the lap and there was the checkered,” Van Strydonk said. “I was hoping we’d get a green-white-checkered or a white-checkered with one lap to go but we didn’t. But, after a tough Friday night and a tough weekend overall, a second isn’t too bad.”
The personable Hart was jovial about his third-place finish.
“You never know what’s going to happen here,” Hart said. “Guys break and crashes happen, it’s kind of like my garbage goals I used to score in hockey, I got a little bit luck and we’ll take it!”
EDITORS NOTE: We’ll try to add more photos this week so check back on the story… right now we’ve got to jump in the truck and try to beat a snow storm home. As we love to say, “BRING ON THE SNOW!!”