Pihlaja Leads Suprising Podium In Exciting Snocross Opener

Aki Pihlaja
Aki Pihlaja from Finland won the first round of snocross racing on the Amsoil Championship Snocross series.

After a false start in Duluth, the top classes finally got their start Friday night in the Amsoil Championship Snocross series and – wow! – did the season ever start off with a bang!

The podium for the Pro final included two racers competing in the sport’s top class for the very first time – surprising super-qualifier Jacob Yurk on an Arctic Cat and incoming Swede Oskar Norum on a Polaris. But they both chased a veteran to the line, as the latest Finish Phenom Aki Pihlaja fought his way past Yurk at mid-race and won by a decent margin on his Ski-Doo. Past champions, meanwhile, were trapped in the pack.  

Things were different in other top classes, however, as former champions reigned, with defending Pro-Lite points champ Hunter Patenaude, defending Snow Bike title holder Jesse Kirchmeyer and defending Pro-Women champ Megan Brodeur each started their seasons right back on top on a cool night in suburban Fargo, North Dakota.

Round 2 is all set for tomorrow – with the Pro program starting at 6 p.m. Make sure to get your picks in for the Snow Goer Snowmobile Racing Challenge fantasy game, where players make predictions on the Saturday night Pro final and could win a gift certificate from presenting sponsor More Freakin’ Power. Remember, it’s easy to play, free and fun!

Pro Surprises

With defending champion Elias Ishoel looking great in pre-season training, four-time winner last year Lincoln Lemieux back fully recovered from injury and 2017 Pro champ Kody Kamm determined to reclaim his glory, many observers were set to see a showdown between those three this season.

Somebody forgot, however, to tell the rest of the field that these guys were supposed to be up front! On top of that “uninformed” list was Michigan native Jacob Yurk – the Pro class rookie wasn’t even sure if he was going to race this year after Arctic Cat seriously shrunk its race budget in the off-season, but he caught a ride late in the summer with Zandstra Motorsport and signed up to race Pro.

Yurk was the Pro-Lite season champ two years ago. Even so, not many observers saw this coming: He was unbeatable in his heat races and went into the season’s first final as the No. 1 qualifier, followed by Ishoel, Lemieux, Kyle Pallin and Daniel Benham, Jr. Missing from that group was Kamm, who had disastrous qualifying runs and had to start in the second row after running the last-chance qualifier.

snocross racing
Jacob Yurk (left) and Aki Pihlaja battle for the lead. Photo from ISOC press release.

Yurk looked like he might get burned, however, by the so-called “Tucker Hibbert rule,” which causes the top eight qualifiers to choose their starting line position in an inverted order from how many points they gained in the heats. That meant eight drivers got to choose first, and all lined up toward the inside of the track, with Yurk lined up ninth. The only sled to his outside shoulder was LCQ winner Oskar Norum,

Once more, it appeared that Yurk wasn’t paying attention to the “experts” who thought he had a bad starting spot. He and Norum burst off the starting line from the outside, only matched by Aki Pihlaja, who started out in the middle after qualifying sixth.   

Pihlaja grabbed the lead on the backstretch, railed around an outside berm in the last turn and completed the first lap with about a 5 sled-length lead over Yurk, then came a hungry pack led by Kyle Pallin, Lincoln Lemieux, Norum, Adam Renheim, Kamm and Logan Christian, with Ishoel ninth and Benham – a pre-season sweetheart pick of many – in 10th.

On lap two, though, Yurk grabbed the lead back after picking smoother lines than Pihlaja. When those two ended the third lap, they were side-by-side in the air, their handlebar ends about a foot apart.

Yurk put down some strong laps on his Cat as he paced the field, but Pihlaja was never more than 1.5 seconds behind as the veteran searched for the right lines on the bumpy track.      

Just past the 16-lap race’s mid-way point, Pihlaja pounced, slicing into the top spot and immediately opening up a lead that he would not surrender the rest of the way. The tall Boss Racing Ski-Doo competitor eventually grew that lead to more than four seconds and took the checkered flag by a comfortable margin.

 Behind the Finlander, though, there was still a lot to be settled. Yurk held second throughout, but the third position on the podium was in doubt. Lemieux moved up and held third for awhile but then faded and was re-passed by Norum, and then Ishoel quickly also passed Lemieux and was all over Norum’s snowflap. The new Swede didn’t succumb to the defending champ from Norway, however, and held on for a podium finish.

At the checkered, it was Pihlaja’s Ski-Doo sparking the victory-line flames, followed several seconds later by Yurk’s Cat, then Norum’s Polaris, and the Ski-Doo’s of Ishoel and Lemieux. Next were the Polaris sleds of Pallin and Kamm sixth and seventh. Adam Renheim, Logan Christian and Travis Wittwer rounded out the top 10. The rest of the field in order consisted of Travis Muller, Zach Pattyn, Daniel Benham Jr., Zak Mason and Cole Cottew.

Word With Champs

snocross pro podium
Friday night’s winner Aki Pihlaja is centered between second place Jacob Yurk (left) and Oskar Norum (right).

After the race, the podium finished were interview by Josie Christian on the ISOC webcast.

Pihlaja recapped the race this way:

“Well I was leading for a couple of laps, but Jake found a better line and he passed me,” Pihlaja said. “After that I was behind him quite a long time so I had time to find and try all of the different lines on the track and I just realized what might be faster and I could do it.”


Later he credited his team and specifically his KYB shocks.

“There were plenty of lines and my suspension worked so well, I could do almost every line, so I could just charge hard,” Pihlaja said. “The whole group did really good work today, so here I am!”

Yurk, meanwhile, could have been the story of the race – he explained his difficult off-season.  

“It was tough, we didn’t even know if we were going to be racing this year at one point, and Nick Zandstra gave me a shot with the Zandstra Motorsports Team, and I’m just real thankful for the opportunity,” Yurk said. “Our goal this year was to just get real solid, consistent finishes and show everybody that Cat is still the best sled on the track… It’s a good sled that we’ve got under us and we’re here to prove it this year.”

Third-place Norum was asked to compare this race course to the tracks back in Sweden, where he was a multi-time national champion.

“There are a lot of differences from Sweden, the tracks are more extreme here – I don’t know what to say, I just had so much fun out there,” the Hentges Racing rookie said. “The whole team worked very hard in the pre-season tests and it worked out very well.”

Pro-Lite, Women And Bikes

Hunter Patenaude snocross
Hunter Patenaude started the 2019-20 season where he finished last season: On top. Photo from ISOC press release.

As noted earlier, the other top classes on Friday featured last year’s champions showcasing their talent, but there were definitely some interesting stories mixed in.

In Pro Lite, Vermont nature Hunter Patenaude led from the first flash of the green light to the waving of the checkered flag on his Scheuring Speed Sports Ski-Doo. He did, though, have to fight off an early challenge by a Pro-Lite class rookie, as second-generation snocrosser Andy Pake put in a strong showing on his Christian Bros. Arctic Cat after moving up from the Sport class.

Pake ran second for about the first half of the final but eventually succumbed to the pressure of last year’s runner-up in the class, veteran Francis Pelletier of Quebec. He used a nifty line heading into a turn to bounce in front of Pake and grab second and finished strong in that position, with Pake third.

“The whoops are a little tight, and if you hoped to get through clean on every lap, you had to have a good set-up and we did tonight,” Patenaude said after the race.” It’s a great way to start off the season.”

The Pro Women class actually got some track time at the season-opening Duluth Snocross before it was cancelled due to a blizzard. In their only round of heats there, the races were won by Megan Brodeur, Taven Woodie and Aleksa Zandstra.

                Two of those names reappeared at the top Friday at Fargo, though first they had to deal with the surprisingly strong Alissa Ashline. The Vermont racer burst off the starting line and battled early for the lead with Brodeur, but eventually the pink-suited Quebecois grabbed the lead and disappeared. Taven Woodie followed Brodeur past Ashline into second, but then she struggled to get past a lapped sled and never posed a serious challenge to Brodeur.

                Snow Bikes followed a motocross format at Fargo, with two “motos” instead of a heat and a final, so in theory anybody trackside would have had to done a little math to figure out the nights champion. Jesse “The Snowbike Cowboy” Kirchmeyer allowed everybody to keep their calculators in their pockets, however, by winning both moto and thus the overall title.

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