After a wild and crazy Friday Night Thunder program that included everything from multiple crashes, high-profile fist fights and interesting finishes in multiple classes, two-time champ Nick Van Strydonk has set himself as the man to beat at the 56th running of the Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby.
The driver of the No. 13 Polaris was the fast qualifier on Thursday, then ran away with both his semi-final and the Sweet 16 specialty final race on Friday night under the lights at the famed Derby Complex facility in front of an impressive crowd on a frigid night in the Wisconsin Northwoods.
The track got rough by the night’s end, when the Sweet 16 final was run, but that played into Van Strydonk’s favor, as he showcased the capabilities of his renewed Champ 440 sled that was specifically designed to handle better in rough conditions.
Van Strydonk is also one of the sport’s best-conditioned athletes, so while other competitors seemed to fade during the 16-lap final, Van Strydonk just kept putting down strong lap after strong lap. His Friday night victory earns him an automatic bye into Sunday’s 25-lap World Championship final, while other drivers will have to earn their spot in Saturday qualifying races here at the Derby track.
“You know, we were so close last year, and I know second is nothing to scoff at when you come to the world championship but we left feeling pretty defeated,” Van Strydonk said, referring to his bridesmaid finish behind Blaine Stephenson in 2018. “We put in more overtime, more work, more ideas, I mean my guys worked all summer long. We took one week off after the last race last year and then we started building our sled this year, so it’s been almost a complete year job to get this sled ready.”
The aforementioned Stephenson set himself up as Van Strydonk’s biggest potential foil, as he ran a strong second in the final and has been good all season. That said, there are also many other strong drivers in the field, raising the tension and excitement for Sunday’s run at history. It should be a dazzling race.
Friday Night Thunder, And Lightning
Several different classes of snowmobiles and even motorcycles took to the Derby Track Friday night – both on the high-banked iced oval and also on the infield snocross class. The Derby, though, is mostly about the World Championship class, so while the other races provided a lot of entertainment and great racing, most attention was rightfully paid to the Pro Champ 440 class that will run for the roses Sunday.
The field of entries was narrowed to 16 total drivers during the day Friday, leaving two big semi finals under the lights and in front of the big crowd. The top five finishers from each semi would advance – or, that’s the way it was planned anyway.
The first semi-final was exciting, but rather mundane in hindsight compared to what happened later. The ever-popular Van Strydonk from down the road in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, got the early lead and checked out on his Polaris-powered mod, which features a hand-built chassis from his T&N Racing team and a Hooper Racing engine. Manitoba’s Travis MacDonald battled through some early traffic and moved up to finish second, with fellow Canadian Colt Dellandrea finishing a narrow third, Brandon Grendzinski fourth and two-time defending TLR Cup oval racing season champion Gunnar Sterne a very close fifth, as those three battled throughout the race. Tom Olson, Danick Lambert and Davis Jennings were eliminated after finishing sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively.
The second semi-final was historic, in an odd way. The first attempt to start the race – which was led by Stephenson – was foiled when a sled shut down exiting turn two. On the restart, the No. 51 of Glen Hart showed the way around the track, followed by Stephenson and New York’s Nick LaGoy. Shortly after the lone female racer in the class – Sabrina Blanchet – pulled off the track with steering problems, No. 98 Cody Knudson crashed in turn three, bringing out a red flag and a fresh start.
What happened next was mind boggling. LaGoy took an extremely tight line into turn 1 on the restart, dive-bombing on the inside of Hart and slamming into Hart’s left side mid-way through the turn. Those two sleds were hooked together and slammed hard into Stephenson, who was on the far outside, and all three sleds careened up into turn two in a hard crash, bringing out a red flag.
Hart climbed to his feet, walked up behind LaGoy and gave him an open-handed whack across the back of the helmet. LaGoy clearly didn’t approve, jumped to his feet and went after Hart, with the two helmeted drivers tumbling dramatically down the bank track in an odd-looking brawl, with fist flying both ways. Corner workers quickly moved in to separate the angry drivers. As mad as those drivers were, Stephenson was perhaps even more angry – he didn’t throw any punches, but flailed his arms, throwing his gloves and angrily decried the condition of his sled, with his tunnel completely mangled by the contact.
After more angry words, finger pointing and some colorful language, eventually the sleds of Stephenson and LaGoy were removed from the track, Hart’s sled was checked over and cleared to re-enter the race, which now would feature just four sleds (remember, five were to advance).
The race was then restarted and run to the checkered flag, with Hart earning the victory ahead of former champ and recent Ironwood Olympus winner Cardell Potter second, Pro-Lite bump up racer Jake Beres third and John Henke scored fourth – though his sled shut down on the last lap on the backstretch. Unofficially at that point, Stephenson was score fifth, LaGoy sixth, Knutson seventh and Blanchet eight.
However, when the 10 sleds were brought on the track to run the Sweet 16 final, Henke didn’t report due to mechanical issues, LaGoy was disqualified due to the fight and Stephenson and Blanchet were moved into the final.
The Big Cheese
As the 10 drivers who qualified for the Sweet 16 final were introduced on the Pro Star Cup Series stage, just 9 sleds were on the front stretch in front of the stage. Back in the pits, the Wahl Bros. and Stephenson Racing team was busy trying to make the defending champ’s sled raceable again. Standing behind the stage, Stephenson told us about the damage – his running board has been completely folded up against the tunnel, the lube bottle had been torn off and the sled was a mess, but the crew had gotten it mostly straight. Will it work, we asked him.
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll see,” Stephenson said in a dejected tone. His sled was brought on the track right before the final started.
On green in the final, Van Strydonk and Sterne launched in front together, with Hart and Stephenson leading a hungry and fast group of sleds directly behind them through the first set of turns. Van Strydonk held off Sterne’s early challenge, and by lap three of the 16-lap final he started to open a bit of a gap on the field.
Behind him, the battle was fierce, as a well-tossed blanket could have covered Sterne, Hart and Stephenson for a couple straight laps, with MacDonald running in their direct shadow, then a gap to Grendzinski and Potter, and a significantly larger gap to Beres and Blanchet.
For awhile it looked like Hart was emerge from that pack, but then he almost unloaded off of his sled after hitting a bump heading into turn one on both laps 6 and 7 (by our count), after which he started to fade back through the pack. Sterne grabbed hold of second but Stephenson ran strong in his snowdust before diving beneath Sterne entering turn three on about lap 12 and then powering away from him.
In the end, it was Van Strydonk showing himself as the clear class of the field after winning by a full straight-away, with Stephenson a strong second on his damaged sled, Sterne looking gassed at the end of the race in third and MacDonald powering up to fourth. Young Grendzinski was an impressive fifth ahead of the fading Hart. The remaining competitors all had mechanical issues, with Beres scored seventh, Potter eight, Blanchet ninth and Dellandrea 10th.
Words With Champs
Two-time World Champ Nick Van Strydonk got big hearty hugs from team members after parking his winning sled on the front stretch in front of a cheering, enthusiastic crowd. In an interview with Snow Goer, he explained how his team changed the bulkhead design on his sled, altered the front suspension geometry and made other changes in the off-season, plus the always-fit racer said he trained harder than ever to prepare for this season and his pursuit of a third title at Eagle River. He said he and the sled perform best on a rough track, “and the track is definitely headed that direction.”
Stephenson was a very happy second place finisher.
“If only you guys could have seen the sled 30 minutes ago, it was all torn apart because of our wreck,” Stephenson said. “It was a crappy situation – just dumb… we as a team stuck together.” A crew member showed us where they super-heated metal parts and pried, stretched and pounded them back into place.
Sterne earned his spot on the podium, but said he and the team had work to do to make a run for his first world title.
“It’s nice to be on the podium, it’s so hard to come by to get on the podium,” Sterne said. “We’ve got some changes to make, this track is getting a little rough here so we’ve got to get back and make this sled handle better in the bumps a little bit and in the powder. We’ll be there on Sunday.”
With the win, Van Strydonk earned the one spot available at this point in the World Championship race. Saturday evening, a series of qualifying races will advance nine other finalist to front-row starting positions, then Sunday afternoon two others will be added to a back row of the 12-sled, 25-lap final on the famed Derby Complex track. Stay tuned into SnowGoer.com all weekend for details and results, and to see who will have their name inscribed on the Snow Goer Cup as the 56th champion at Eagle River.
Also, click through to play the Fantasy Snowmobile Racing Challenge game based on the Eagle River results. It’s very easy to play, it free and it’s fun. Just pick your racers using pull-down windows.
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