EAGLE RIVER, WI — Snowmobile racing has a new four-time World Champion, and his name is P.J. Wanderschied.
In one of the most competitive and action-packed Eagle River World Championships in the 48-year history of the event, Wanderschied used a late pass to ace out rival Gary Moyle and become the first four-time champion on his Hooper-powered Arctic Cat mod.
Moyle led most of the 30-lap race, using a smoother, high line around the high-banked, half-mile iced oval while Wanderschied stuck to a lower but significantly rougher line. Back and fourth they went, with Moyle generally gaining ground in turns one and two while Wanderschied had the preferred line in turns three and four.
In the early going, it was all Moyle — he was leading by a half straight-away after 10 laps, with Wanderschied second, Brandon Johnson back another half-straight in third and then a gap to Malcolm Chartier and Nick Van Strydonk, who were engaged in a viscous battle for fifth. Defending champion Matt Schulz ran in the top three for a couple of laps, but then his snowmobile engine lost a cylinder and he faded to the rear and eventually left the race.
Then, in a change in format for the historic Eagle River Derby, the race was red flagged and all race teams were given five minutes to do minor maintenance on their sleds. Some teams switched out carbide runners, others added fluids or knocked snow off of the machines.
The racers were lined up in their running order and the race was restarted. However, the race was immediately red flagged again when two-time champion Brian Bewcyk’s Ski-Doo powered mod broke in turns one and two and was partially blocking the track. While that sled was cleared away, the rest of the pack was parked in turn four, and that’s where Johnson noticed a green puddle forming under his Wahl Bros. Polaris. His heat exchanger let go, and he joined Bewcyk and Schulz in the pits.
The race was green flagged again for lap 16, with a running order of Moyle, Wanderscheid, Van Strydonk, Chartier, Joey Fjerstad, Spencer Graf, Dan Fenhaus, Jacques Villeneuve and Travis MacDonald.
Wanderschied really started to work the low line, and officially claimed the lead for the first time on lap 19. After that, the stat sheet says that Moyle led laps 22 to 26, Wanderscheid led lap 27, Moyle led 28 and Wanderscheid led 29. Stats, though, are deceiving – these two former champions ran side by side at an incredibly fast pace on a rough track, each respecting one-another’s line. Wanderscheid grabbed the lead for good on the last lap and sped away to a .375-second victory in a truly historic finish.
Their battle wasn’t the only fascinating action on the track, however. Behind them was a brawl to the finish for the final spot on the podium. Chartier was holding the spot with VanStrydonk on his heels. Deep in the pack, the wiley old Villeneuve was slicing through traffic and working his way forward. A three-time former champion himself, Villeneuve is 58 years old racing in a young man’s sport, yet he’s as fast and some might say as reckless as ever.
Soon he was snapping at Van Strydonk’s heels. Once past that Tomahawk, Wisconsin, racer, the popular Quebecor charged after Chartier on the white-flag lap, pitching the sled extra deep into turn three and nearly hitting the back of Chartier’s sled. Coming out of turn four, however, Chartier’s Houle-built Rotax-powered mod faltered, allowing Villleneuve to speed away to the waving checkered flag and take third, with Chartier finishing fourth. Behind them, Strydonk’s sled coasted up to the wall on the outside of turn four – he had been blowing belts all weekend, and he may have succumbed to one again. That allowed Fjerstad to move up to fifth, with Fenhaus six and Graf the last running sled in seventh.
“The first thing I’ve got to do is commend Gary as he drove an awesome race,” said Wanderschied, 27. “He held his line the whole race just like I did – to race side-by-side like that is just awesome! It was a clean race, that’s what really matters.”
Wanderschied also clearly knew what it meant to be the first four-time winner of this most famous race.
“Nobody has ever won this race four times – that was my goal, that’s what I train for all year. Now I’m going to go for five,” Wanderschied said. He’ll get his name engraved on the Snow Goer cup, and he got a big $10,000 check from race sponsor Jimmy John’s in front of an adoring crowd.
Moyle was surprisingly even tempered after losing such a close and dynamic race. He seemed to appreciate what a tremendous show he and Wanderschied put on for the crowd.
“The high line was working for me pretty good but them some (debris) getting built up in my line. It slowed me up just enough for PJ to catch me, and he’s the king of the low line,” Moyle said. “It was a great race.”
Moyle strong Sunday was a surprise to some – the Houghton, Michigan-based driver timed in well in Thursday’s time trial but wasn’t terribly fast Friday or Saturday. As it turns out, he had a crank seal going bad, and he barely finished his semi-final. Saturday night, his team worked with a local machine shop to rebuild his crank, and at 4:45 a.m. engine builder John Hooper was in Moyle’s trailer installing the crank and rebuilding the engine, according to Moyle.
“Today, it was a totally different machine – it was fast,” Moyle said.
Villeneuve continues to amaze many fans, including Moyle who pointed at Villeneuve’s No. 96 mod and said, “I don’t know how he does it.” After crashing in his semi final, Villeneuve had to come through Sunday’s last-chance qualifier to even make the final, and then he had to start in the back row. No matter, he still ended up on the podium.
Villeneuve said before the race he said a prayer and “talked to my dad and my mom and my brother” in heaven. “They’re all up there,” he said, pointing at the sky.
Martin Doubles Up In Snocross
In Pro-class snocross racing, there was a pack of Ski-Doos at Eagle River this year, no Cats or Yamahas and one lonely Polaris. It just so happens that the Polaris in question was driven by Ross Martin, arguably the second-most talented racer on the national snocross scene, and he left Eagle River with both Pro titles on Sunday.
In Pro Stock, Martin’s No. 837 Polaris was chased to the line by the No. 4 Ski-Doo of Robbie Malinoski, but he was never seriously challenged. The Pro Open final, however, was thrilling.
British Columbia-native Brett Turcotte grabbed the early lead, while Justin Broberg, Martin and Malinoski staged a fierce battle behind him. Broberg and Martin shook Malinoski by mid-race, and Martin got aware from Broberg at about the two-thirds mark.
Then, on the very last lap, Martin charged hard into the last turn and squared up the snowmobile using a line nobody had tried all day. Turcotte used a wider line, got into some sugary snow and his track ratched. Martin burst into the lead and won an amazing sprint to the waving checkered flag before an amazed crowd.
More To Come
We’re packing up and getting ready for the five-hour drive home from Eagle River, but check back often this week for more news and notes from Eagle River – we took more than 800 photos at the event over the weekend and will be posting many of them to our web site.