The Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby is always about history, but Matt Schulz’ victory Sunday at the famed Derby track truly was one for the ages.
By winning in dominating fashion with a green-to-checkered run, Wausau, Wisconsin’s Schulz became:
- The first Wisconsin driver since Dale Loritz in 1995 to keep the Snow Goer Cup in its own state.
- The first Polaris driver to win the World Championship since Steve Thorsen claimed the title in 1978.
- The second second-generation driver to win snowmobiling’s premier race – following his uncle and lead mechanic Al Fenhaus, the 1993 champion, much like Terry Wahl followed in the footsteps of his uncle Dave Wahl.
- The comeback racer of the year. A year ago, Schulz showed up at Eagle River wearing a halo – he broke his neck the previous weekend at the USSA oval race in Plymouth, Wisconsin, and was forced to watch the World Championship race – without turning his head.
Schulz was fast all weekend, claiming the fast time in Thursday’s trials and winning his heat and semi-final in Saturday’s qualifying. The only time he was beat on the track was in the Friday Night Thunder Program, when a clutching issues relegated him to second behind three-time champion PJ Wanderscheid.
Sunday, the roles were reversed. Schulz clutching was dialed in perfectly, as his Larry Rugland Motorsports-powered mod rocketed off the starting line and into turn one ahead of a star-studded field that included four ex-champions that had claimed a combined 10 world titles (Jacques Villeneuve 3; Wanderscheid 3; Gary Moyle 2; Brian Bewcyk, 2).
Wanderscheid settled into second, with the surprising Jason Lavallee claiming third for several laps. He was followed by an angry pack in the early going, with Dan Fenhaus on his heels, Malcolm Chartier in fourth and Dustin Wahl in fifth.
Deep in the pack, the two former champs who started in the back row after qualifying through Sunday’s last chance qualifier, Villeneuve and Moyle, tried to fight through traffic. By lap six in the 25-lap final, Villeneuve was up to seventh in the 12-lap field.
Way up front, however, Schulz was screaming away from the pack. He quickly opened up a two-second lead over Wanderscheid, and Wanderscheid had a two-second gap over third place. Time after time, Schulz laid down perfect lap after perfect lap, expertly picking his lines and working his way into lapped traffic at about the midway point of the race. First and second were hardly in doubt – unless, of course, somebody crashed while pushing hard.
The battle for third, however, was intense. Dustin Wahl worked his way past Chartier and Lavallee on consecutive laps, and then Chartier and Villeneuve also moved past Lavallee. Chartier followed Wahl for most of the race, until Wahl bobbled in turn one and Chartier claimed the third spot in the late going.
Schulz was cool up front, never suffering a close call or selecting the wrong line. He stormed away to a very popular victory in front of a huge crowd in partly cloudy, warm conditions.
“I knew that PJ was going to be fast, and I knew he was in good shape, too, so I knew he’d be pushing me,” Schulz said. “If it was going to be anybody coming, it was going to be PJ…. We wanted to get the holeshot and get out front and let PJ chase us.”
Schulz’ day became early, when some race team members who had been out on the town woke him up at 3:30 a.m. and he had trouble getting back to sleep. He did eventually get some rest and didn’t get to the track until about 10:30, he said.
“A half-hour before the race I couldn’t sit still,” Schulz said. “So many things go through your mind, and there are so many things that can go wrong.”
Wanderscheid was a graceful runner up, but you don’t become a three-time champion by being happy with second.
“He had an excellent holeshot,” Wanderscheid said. “He timed the flag perfectly and got out front, and that’s the name of the game here.”
Wanderscheid was about the only driver at the event who was disappointed that the iced oval track stayed in great condition all weekend, despite warm weather.
“The temperatures were like they were in 2006” when Wanderscheid won, “or maybe a little warmer,” PJ said. “When it’s warmer, it generally gets a little rough, but we like those conditions, we set up for that and I do well. I wish it would have gotten a little bit rougher.”
Chartier was happy with third, but the young driver is itching for more.
“I was following Dustin the whole time, he was running some great lines, but he made a little mistake down in (turns) one-and-two and I was able to get by him,” Chartier said.
Wahl finished fourth, Villeneuve fifth.
After the race, the ’93 champ Al Fenhaus was tearing up when talking about the special relationship his has with his now famous nephew.
“Matt was a little boy when I won it here, he was always looking up to me and I knew it was something that he wanted to do,” Fenhaus said.
Fenhaus also shared a unique secret with us: He bought the belt used all weekend at the Derby exactly one year ago, and let it hang in his barn for the full year so it would dry out and harden. It’s a secret he learned from his father, and is now passing down to his prized nephew.
“Al’s probably like my second day – I probably talk to him more than I talk to my dad,” Schulz said. “I talk to him two-or-three times a day, and them work with him at his shop. This is what we work all year for.”
Schulz earned two checks worth a combined $20,000 for the victory: $10k from the Derby track, and $10
Check back over the course of the week on SnowGoerRacing.com for more stories from the track plus some really fun slide shows featuring some of the more than 1,000 photos we took this weekend at the Derby track.