Gunnar Sterne earned a front-row starting position in Sunday’s World Championship and Matt Goede grabbed an impressive Pro Champ victory in a thrilling Friday Night Thunder racing program at the Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby on Friday night… and Saturday morning, as racing went very late.
For Sterne, it was his second consecutive victory in the Sweet 16 Race as the super-fast and talented racer from Illinois chases his first World Championship at Eagle River, Wisconsin.
For Goede, it was the culmination of an incredible week – coming off his Vintage World Championship on the same track last Sunday, he earned his third ever victory in the Pro Champ class, and first in Champ on the Eagle River Derby Complex track.
There was also racing in more than a dozen other classes, as the well-built Derby track’s iced surface hosted a plethora of action to kick off a weekend that will culminate in a World Championship Race on Sunday afternoon.
Gunnar Sterne, Again
Gunnar Sterne of West Chicago, Illinois, has emerged as one of the most dominant snowmobile ice oval racers. He has won national points championships and earned victories in both the U.S. and Canada. The one thing that has – to this point – kept him from historic, elite status in ice oval racing is that he has never finished higher than third at the Eagle River World Championship.
He’s back in 2022 to make another run at the title, but for this new season the World Championship will be determined in a different class – switching from highly modified “Champ” chassis sleds that have been the premier class in the sport since 1998 to the new Formula III class, which features more “stock” based machines. Frankly, Sterne was one of the early detractors who spoke out publicly on social media about his desire to not see the World Championship class switch away from Champ. But in more recent times he has grown to support the switch for the long-term good of the sport.
Sterne’s main nemesis in earning the World Championship title is Blaine Stephenson of St. Cloud, Minnesota. The driver of the No. 102 Polaris sled has won an unprecedented four World Championship titles in a row, and now with the switch to Formula III he again looked like the driver to beat in time trials and heat races.
As Friday’s qualifying races continued, though, a couple of other drivers started to move to the forefront. In the last round of heats, for instance, previously retired racer Jay Mittelstaedt of Lavalle, Wisconsin, passed the four-timer Stephenson and held him off to the waving checkered flag in heat one. Then, in round two, young Calvin Cook of Dayton, Minnesota – a diminutive 19-year-old racer who has come up though oval racing’s support classes – stunned Sterne, holding off the hotshoe throughout a seven-lap race.
The sleds lined up for the final at about 11:30 p.m. Friday after a l-o-n-g day and night of racing. On green, Stephenson charged to the front, but he had Mittelstaedt directly to his right as the sleds charged toward turn one. When the got to the turn, though, there was nobody on Middelstaedt’s No. 297 Polaris – his body was actually on the ice surface between his sled and Stephenson’s and sliding up the steep banking after getting unloaded from his machine. Both Mittelstaedt and his sled hit the haybales with a heavy impact at the top of the banking – it seemed everybody at the track gasped for air after the popular dealership owner emerged from the haybales but then crawled around on his hands and knees in pain.
Eventually Mittelstaedt was able to get to his feet, with the help of on-site EMTs – count us among those hoping Mittelstaedt doesn’t have any serious injuries and can continue his racing weekend.
Due to the crash, the race was redflagged and restarted anew. Once more, Stephenson got off the line quickest and emerged with the lead, but Cook dogged him in the early going, with Sterne settling into third. A couple of laps later, Sterne slipped past Cook and ran second. Stephenson opened an impressive early lead, but the ever-game Sterne stuck to his high line around the track and eventually it started working very well for him.
Just short of the halfway point of the 16-lap final, Stephenson seemed to be backing up to his competition – Sterne was closing ground quickly, and Cook was also narrowing the gap.
As the drivers took the crossed flags signifying the halfway point, Sterne move to the lead – but keeping it didn’t look like a slam dunk as the immediately caught up to a pack of five sleds that he was lapping. However, again sticking to his high line, he blazed through the traffic of the next two laps and emerged with an insurmountable lead. He would win going away.
Cook moved past Stephenson shortly after Sterne did and ran a solid second, while Stephenson looked like his sled was knocking all of the energy out of him and faded to third.
After the race, Sterne said over the P.A. system, “Getting a Friday Night Thunder win is awesome, back-to-back – last year, and then this year being the first one on Formula III, so that’s pretty cool.”
Later, in an interview with Snow Goer, Sterne said driving the Formula III sled vs. the Champ sled “is a little bit different. In the bumps it’s actually surprisingly smoother, you know you’ve got that little bit of suspension and it’s a little bit bigger sled so it’s not really rattling like a Champ sled. But, obviously, it doesn’t have the agility [of the Champ], but for me it doesn’t tire me out as quick because it’s a little bit less aggressive and it’s looser in the rear end. Still, it’s a little bit unpredictable, too.” He said it’s more likely to pick up ski, skate the rear end or bottom out the suspension than his Champ ride.
For Cook, his second place finish is another notch in a rising career. Remember, guys like PJ Wandershield or even Stephenson made their first breakthrough wins when they were Cook’s age. Who’s to say he’s not going to follow the same path?
We caught up to Stephenson in his trailer after the event, and he looked completely spent physically. He is just getting over a sickness over the holidays, but he didn’t use that as an excuse. He said the front-end handling on the sled went away and he couldn’t get the sled to rotate in the turns. Also, he said he lost most of his brakes at about midway through the race. “But he [Sterne] had already passed me by then so I don’t think that made any difference.”
Racing continues on the Derby Track on Saturday, where the rest of the World Championship field will be set. Then Sunday at 1:30 comes the big run for the roses – and at this point only Sterne is guaranteed to be on the starting line. Some USSA oval sprint regulars are being joined in the class this year by strong racers who normally run the MIRA circuit out of Michigan, making the field particularly intriguing.
Pro Champ to Goede
Previously, the top class was Pro Champ 440, and that’s still where you can find the vast majority of ice oval sprint racing’s top dogs. They competed Friday in a series of qualifying races and then a 20-lap final on the Derby track in what is a USSA Pro Star Tour points race.
Racing happened throughout the day, as round-robin qualifying races allowed racers to gain points and starting positions in the final. In the Friday Night program, Matt Goede battled fellow Minnesotan Stephenson in one heat but eventually succumbed that time to the four-time defending champ. In heat two John Henke showed impressive speed in holding off Gunnar Sterne.
The Pro Champ final, though, belonged to Goede. A veteran racer who has actually gained most of his acclaim in vintage racing, Goede also been a very strong competitor in Pro Champ on his No. 28 mod the last few years though he had only won two previous finals.
Friday, he earned his third, pasting the field in an impressive victory on the high-banked oval. After the event, Goede said his team found better straightaway speed after a cylinder head swap and some clutching changes late in the day.
“I can’t believe I held on for 15 laps because, when I did my warm-up lap going down the back straightaway going into turn three, I was already hitting the track, I knew I was way too low. I heard it hitting the whole time and I can’t believe I was able to hold on.”
Sterne ran second.
“We struggled quite a bit through the heat races today – I’m not going to lie, we were chasing it quit a bit there” Sterne said. “In the final it kind of came together and we were handling pretty good.”
Stephenson ran third.