The debate over the future of snowmobile ice oval racing took a couple of interesting turns on Monday, April 26, as the leading oval circuit opted for more of the same while the World Championship event is moving in a different direction.
In announcements timed right on top of one another Monday, the United States Snowmobile Association (USSA), which has traditionally been the sport’s biggest host of oval events, said it would continue to focus on the highly modified Pro Champ 440 class. Meanwhile, the undisputed highest-profile event — the Eagle River World Championship — said it was following earlier plans to switch the World Championship class to the newer, more stock-machine-based Formula III class.
And that split lit up social media! It also renewed an ongoing debate over sticking with what currently has a popular following (Pro Champ) or switching to a most stock-based chassis (Formula III) to make the sport more affordable and potentially more appealing long term to the snowmobile manufacturers and possibly more fans. Racers, race team members, industry insiders and others took turns throwing mud at each other.
USSA’s announcement said, “With numbers continuing to grow in the Pro Champ 440 class, the USSA ProStar Series will continue to shine the spotlight on the Pro Champ division through the 2022-2023 season. Being committed to the teams and talent working hard to succeed in the Pro Champ 440 class, the USSA ProStar Series premier event, the ProStar Cup Tour, will also remain a Pro Champ 440 class for the next two seasons. Details regarding sponsorship, scheduling, and purse money for the 2021-2022 USSA ProStar Series will be announced in the near future.
“USSA Director of Competition Bob Richardson stated, ‘As in the past, the USSA ProStar Series will continue to offer many diverse classes during regular race weekends including Pro Champ 440, F-III, Pro-Lite and Outlaw, among others. Should any changes be planned to the long-term future class structure of the ProStar Series format or the ProStar Cup Tour, we are committed to sharing those changes well in advance of race season. Our race partners, sponsors, and venues are 100% behind our decision to continue to maintain our current spotlight on the Pro Champ class.’
“Richardson went on to say: ‘Although we only held one sanctioned race last year due to COVID restrictions, we saw more than 15 racers entered in Sunday’s Pro Champ 440 division, The F-III race for Sunday was scratched when only two drivers entered. Our fans, sponsors, venues, and race teams deserve more than 2 or 3 entries in a ‘premier’ class. We like Pro Champ 440 and believe with the recent rule changes, the class has long-term viability. If we make any changes, our race teams will know 2-3 years in advance.’
Meanwhile, the World Championship Derby Complex (WCDC) Facebook page launched an alternative message, announcing that “The Wait Is Over” for Formula-III racers.
“Through its history, the World Championship Derby has always featured a World Championship Class,” the announcement reads. “Most recently the World Championship class was Champ and a few years ago it transitioned and became Pro Champ. Formula III was announced to be the WC class in 2021. However, the change was postponed due to COVID and also postponed since Canadian racers were not able to attend. Now the wait is over and WCDC is proud to announce that the World Championship class will become Formula III starting in 2020.”
The message was signed by WCDC Race Director Craig Marchbank.
The Champ/Formula Original Timetable
Two years ago, the oval racing hosting bodies seemed to be united after working up the rules for the new Formula III class through the International Snowmobile Racing (ISR) rules-making organization. Racers, race teams and fans were less united, but the racing bodies seemed in line.
When originally announcing the switch in 2019, USSA, ISR and Eagle River officials were in agreement that there would be a phase-in period, with race-chassis, modified Pro Champ 440 class (which allowed fewer alterations than the original Champ 440) being the premier class in 2020 but then Formula III (based on 600-class, current factory race machines) would take over in 2021. That, officials at the time said, would give top-level teams time to work up plans for lowering the Formula III sleds for oval applications and also wouldn’t immediately devalue the Champ chassis that were currently being raced.
However, Pro Champ 440 entry numbers grew in the 2019 -20 season while the Formula III stumbled out of the gate as a support class. Then, COVID restrictions hit and the time for a change seemed all wrong.
That stall, though, gave fan of the lowered Champ sleds hope that their favorite form of oval racing could remain at the pinnacle of the sport.
USSA/Eagle River Splits Again
Maybe Monday’s announcements should have been expected after a public chasm has opened between USSA officials and Eagle River organizers in the last six months.
It was on display in earnest this winter, first when the World Championship event in January ended up not being a sanctioned USSA event after the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement on the fees the Eagle River event normally pays USSA. It then happened again for the World Series of Snowmobile Racing event in late February at the Derby Complex track — it was originally on the USSA schedule but then disappeared. In both cases, ISR officials filled the gap. Meanwhile, the USSA season ended up with just one stop (Wausau, Wisconsin).
The debate over Champ vs. Formula is certainly important, and there are points and counterpoints to be made on both sides. Ultimately, though, having these two organizations that are at the very heart of the relatively fragile world of snowmobile ice oval racing not be in agreement is probably the biggest threat.
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