Just when it seemed the Eagle River World Championship snowmobile race couldn’t get any better, Nick Van Strydonk used a dramatic pass in the last corner to win his first title on the famed Derby Track in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Nick Van Strydonk beat 2010 World Champion Matt Schulz to the waving checkered flag by a ski length. The margin of victory was 0.025 second.
The late move by the 21-year-old from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, came in a 30-lap race that featured an incredible series of twists and turns. At various points during the race, it looked like any one of five drivers could win the race – for most of the event, those five ran within a half-straight of each other.
Crashes, red flags, restarts and changing track conditions had a major influence on the race, but in the end, Van Strydonk was the deserving winner and will have his name written into immortality when it’s engraved on the Snow Goer Cup.
An Ever-Changing Race
The 49th annual World Championship was held on a rough and grooved track under murky skies, with a slight mist in the air. Thousands of people watched in anticipation after the most competitive qualifying process in years – going in, there was no pre-race favorite; instead, most longtime observers agreed that seven of the 12 drivers who qualified for the final were virtually even.
On green, Schulz of nearby Wausau, Wisconsin, launched into the lead on his No. 38 Ski-Doo, with pole sitter Brandon Johnson of Greenbush, Minnesota, snapping at his heels on his Wahl Bros. Polaris. Right behind him was Van Strydonk – the fastest qualifier in time trials, and then Travis MacDonald and defending and four-time champ P.J. Wanderscheid.
Right away, Nick Van Strydonk was coming – firing past Johnson the next lap and quickly closing on Schulz. By lap five Van Strydonk was within two sleds lengths, and he was trying different lines – clearly learning the track and searching for future spots to pass. By lap three Johnson was seriously fading and soon would not be a factor in the race. At the back, 2008 and 2009 champ Brian Bewcyk pulled off the track after five laps.
When the race was red flagged for the mandatory pit stop at Lap 10, this is how the drivers sat: Schulz, Van Strydonk, MacDonald, Wanderscheid, two-time Champ Gary Moyle, Dustin Wahl, rookie Ryan Kniskern, Malcolm Chartier, Cardell Potter, a rapidly fading Johnson and his teammate Jordan Wahl, with Bewcyk out.
During the pit stop, crew members had five minutes to wrench on the sleds. Belts were checked, carbides were changed and adjustments were made. As the five minute horn went off, most teams were set, with Schulz’s team being the last to strap down the hook after a late clutching change.
Going Green Again
The sleds were re-lined on the front straight away in the order they finished the first 10, and got ready for the final 20 laps. On green, the sleds had a fairly even launch and powered around the track. The first lap of green, Moyle looked to be on the move, powering past Wanderscheid. But then, on lap 11, third-place MacDonald had crash in turn three – he went up the bank and into the haybales at a high rate of speed, releasing the sled a few feet before the bales and going in hard face first. The crash made the previously loud and rowdy Derby scene eerily quiet, and MacDonald was soon taken off in an ambulance. No word was available on his condition as of this post.
After a long pause, the racers were brought back to the starting line and again lined up in order. On green, Schulz launched hard, and everybody else except for Nick Van Strydonk seemed to get a good launch, as he gave up his second spot to Wanderscheid. Moyle, meanwhile, was suddenly in a battle with Kniskern for fifth.
Wanderscheid suddenly was on the charge, chasing down Schulz and looking for a way to pass. With 15 laps left, he was just 0.25 second behind Schulz, with Van Strydonk back 0.495. Behind Van Strydonk, Moyle and Dustin Wahl were starting to make the high line work and were moving toward the front. After the race, both drivers said that they talked before the race and planned to work the same high line late in the race to work their way toward the front. Moyle fired past Van Strydonk and Wanderscheid in the same corner and was suddenly second and closing fast with 11 laps left.
Moyle and Dustin Wahl were clearly the fastest sleds on the track as the top five all ran within two seconds of one another, but deep in the pack, Dustin’s teammate Jordan Wahl crashed in turn one, bringing out the red flag. And that’s when everything changed again.
Sprint To The Finish
While course workers pieced back together the haybales in turn one, leader Schulz was parked alone in turn one, and waving his arms to his crew for help. Led by 1993 World Champion Al Fenhaus, they ran down the front stretch and circle the sled. It wouldn’t start. Fenhaus must have pulled the recoil 30 times before turning it over to another crew member. A UTV with a cart pulled up in the corner, ready to haul the race leader and his sled off the track. Then suddenly, it refired and Schulz was able to continue. He was fortunate that the crew in turn one took awhile to fix the wall.
Back on green, Schulz got a great restart and opened a small gap, but Moyle and Wanderscheid were right behind him. Nick Van Strydonk was somewhat forgotten in fourth, with Dustin Wahl in fifth. But Moyle then began to struggle – the high line that had worked so well for him before the red flag was now suddenly filling with ice shavings, as other drivers moved higher on the track. He faded, but Wanderscheid charged along with Dustin Wahl, who moved to second and third, respectively. Van Strydonk was fourth, Moyle fifth.
Wanderscheid’s team was cheering on its racer, but with three laps left, the suddenly resurgent Van Strydonk charged into second and took off after the leader. Schulz took the white flag inches ahead of Van Strydonk, but held the point coming out of turn two. Down the backstretch they went, with Van Strydonk holding the throttle longer into three and diving low. They came out of the final turn side by side – sprinting toward the waving checkered flag and a place in history. Van Strydonk had the power and won by a ski length, his large T&N Racing crew erupted in celebration. Schulz was second, Dustin Wahl third, a mere .612 seconds back. Then came a late-charging Kniskern (-2.1), then the fading Wanderscheid (-2.573) and Moyle, now six seconds back.
Celebration In Victory Lane
Van Strydonk was elated after the race, tossing his goggles into the crowd while his crew laughed, cried, hugged and celebrated – it was true elation.
“I figured I had to hold it as long as he would or maybe just a bit longer” going into turn three, Van Strydonk said.
He also had been studying Schulz’s lines all weekend.
“I found a line that worked with two laps to go. [Schulz] was going high all weekend and washing out, so I went way low,” Van Strydonk said. And the sprint to the finish? “I knew it was going to be close – I wasn’t thinking anything, I just had tunnel vision” to the finish line.
Van Strydonk has been racing at the Derby for 17 years, starting on Kitty Cats when he was four years old. His T&N Racing team builds its own chassis and uses Larry Rugland Motorsports-modified Polaris engines.
“It was missing so bad – the last six or seven laps I had to keep blipping the throttle – I had to jack the throttle three or four times in the corners to keep it running,” Schulz said. “When it shut down after that red flag, I thought I was done – the motor was so tired, it just wouldn’t restart. Somehow they got it running again.”
He said he could sense somebody behind him, but was just trying to make it to the checkered.
“I was just trying to hang on, but then we got to the last lap and I thought I might have it,” Schulz said. “I guess it wasn’t meant to happen.”
Third place Dustin Wahl said he faced two challenges during the race. The first was his brakes. “I must have warped the rotor during that first [segment] or something, because it took about three laps for the brakes to really come in.” And then, when things were looking good and he was making his move, the red flag came out
“I was really bummed with that last red – because of my brakes and also because it was Jordan up there,” he said. During the red flag, he assumes, other teams told their drivers about the high line that was working well for he and Moyle, and they told their drivers to move up, and that three ice chunks in the line and didn’t make it work as well.
Back in the pits, Moyle and his team were dejected.
“I think we would have had it without that last red flag,” Moyle said. “During that last yellow, I’m guessing that Schulz’s guys told him I was going to get past him high and to move up – a driver usually gets advice from his team during those red flags. Then my line got filled with [ice shavings] and after two or three laps I couldn’t run up there anymore. And that’s how I set up my sled – to run high.”