A familiar front row qualifier, some big-air, paint-trading snocross racing and a notable comeback marked an action-packed Friday Night Thunder program at the 48th Annual Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby in Eagle River, Wisconsin, January 14. Let’s get right to the action.

Wanderscheid Seeks Fourth Title

PJ Wanderscheid, seen here driving his sled away from an interview, goes into Sunday as a favorite. He'll likely where a helmet then!

For a split second, three-time World Champion P.J. Wanderscheid jokingly held up four fingers Friday night while posing for photos after winning the Sweet 16 Qualifier that will allow him to advance directly to Sunday’s final. He was asked to do it again for a photo but grinned instead, refused and stuck to holding up a single finger while two sponsoring Amsoil representatives held up the four fingers behind him.

            Apparently the popular PJ didn’t want to jinx himself as he seeks to become the sport’s first four-time champ at Eagle River.

            Wanderscheid was close to flawless Friday, first streaking away with his qualifying heat race on his Hooper-powered Arctic Cat mod, then winning the final on a snowy night in northern Wisconsin. He was the only competitor to run a sub-18-second lap, clocking a best-lap speed of 17.914 seconds on the banked oval – a full three-tenths faster than the nearest competitor. His margin of victory was a cool 2.367 seconds – would have been more, but his brakes were fading late in the race.

            For his efforts on Friday, Wanderscheid earned a huge $1,000 check from the sponsoring World Snowmobile Headquarters – and, most importantly, is the only competitor guaranteed a spot in Sunday’s big race. Everybody else will have to roll the dice in today’s qualifying races.

            Bottom line: Wanderscheid is wearing the “favorite” crown right now.

The starting line for Friday's Sweet 16 final.

            Asked about his sled after the race, Wanderscheid told Snow Goer that it’s all-new this year.

            “It’s a little bit lighter and it has a little bit different geometry,” Wanderscheid said. “It’s made to win Eagle River…. The sled is working awesome.”

            It should be noted, however, that Wanderscheid found himself in the same position last year when he claimed the Friday night qualifier, but he came up short on Championship Sunday, finishing second to winner Matt Schulz.

            Speaking of that defending champion, it was Schulz who finished second in the qualifying race Friday night, and Schultz was also the fastest qualifier in Thursday’s time trials on the Champ sleds. He won last year on a Polaris-powered machine but has switched to Rotax/Ski-Doo power for 2011. Do not count him out.

            Gary Moyle is looking for a third World Championship, and also looks strong. He won his heat race Friday night and was second fastest in Thursday’s time trials, but he ran in the middle of the pack in the final Friday – finishing fifth, 10 seconds behind Wanderscheid. The unanswered question was whether the cagey veteran was truly giving it his all, and the flying snow created a lot of snowdust.

First-year pro Justin Broberg beat a star-studded field in the Pro Open final Friday night at Eagle River

            Malcolm Chartier finished third in Friday’s final on his Houle-built Ski-Doo mod, followed by Nick Van Strydonk on a Polaris mod.

            The Wahl Bros team of Dustin Wahl and Brandon Johnson has been really fast elsewhere this year, but they haven’t showed well so far here in Eagle River.  

            Qualifying continues this afternoon — check back tonight for a full report on today’s heat, plus read our fictional odds for Sunday’s World Championship.

A Snocross Split

Schuering Speed Sports’ Robbie Malinoski claimed the Pro Super Stock final on the snocross course early in Friday night’s program, surviving a slugfest with Ross Martin on the bumpy infield course. Martin made several charges on his Polaris, including slamming hard into Malinoski’s Ski-Doo in turn three coming to the white flag, but Malinoski fought back and held the spot to the waving checkered flag.  

            In the Pro Open final a couple hours later, Malinoski got the jump again and led early, but Martin provided the night’s biggest entertainment on the snocross course. The first lap, he was totally out of control, coming up the front stretch completely crossed up and bouncing off competitors on both sides of him. He miraculously saved it, but couldn’t do the same in turn two – he came off hard and had to re-mount while the rest of the 9-sled pack pulled far away.

            Martin remounted and raced with anger, flying farther and charging harder than anybody on the track while working his way back up to fifth.

            That was entertaining, but there was real action to watch up front, as first-year-pro Justin Broberg was keeping Malinoski honest by riding in his shadow. Then, 10 laps into the 15 lap final, Malinoski had the lap from hell – nearly dismounting three times by his own recollection after the race. Broberg streaked into the lead while Malinoski struggled to get his timing back and slipped to third when the hard-charging Brett Turcotte claimed second.

 Fontaine Returns, And Wins!

A year ago at Eagle River, the nastiest-looking crash of the weekend was experienced by Trevor Fontaine. The young racer lost the handlebars going into turn three want went hard into the haybales, severely damaging his left, including a dislocated foot and a broken femur. Eight days in the hospital and multiple surgeries followed.

            It’s been a long year, but Fontaine is back, and he completed his comeback Friday by winning the Semi Pro Champ final on his No. 3 mod late in the program. While he was being interviewed over the P.A. system, several of his competitors were loudly cheering him on – it was a very popular victory.

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