As we head toward the Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby weekend (Jan. 17-20), and its record-setting payday of more than $50,000 for the winner and more than $80,000 overall for this one race, it’s time to “set the field” in the Pro Champ 440 class.
Time trials for the 50th running of the sport’s most historic event begin on Thursday; a TLR Cup final for the Champ 440 sleds (with front-row qualifying position implications for Sunday’s final) occurs at the Friday Night Thunder program; 9 more front-row starters will be determined in Saturday afternoon’s big qualifying races; and then two more racers will qualify for the back row on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Then, finally, at 3 p.m. Sunday, the field will be turned loose for a run at history, and a chance to have their name inscribed on the Snow Goer Cup.
There are six past champions in the race, five drivers who have multiple trips to the podium and then another mixed group of 16 that includes both up-and-comers and longtime veterans giving it one more run. Only one will be the World Champion when the weekend is over.
So here’s the field. We’ll create fictional odds for the 10 front row qualifier on Saturday night for the Snow Goer Tip Sheet. Until then, here are the drivers expected to compete, as broken down into three categories. Within each category, they are in alphabetical order — we aren’t picking favorites yet. You can, however. Make sure to sign up for the Snowmobile Racing Challenge — picks are due by 1 p.m. central time on Saturday; that’s right, before qualifying, to make it more of a challenge.
Look for updates all weekend here on snowgosite.wpengine.com — the best source for Derby coverage.
Six Past Champions – Between them, these six drivers have tasted victory 12 times, and all will have fast sleds for 2013.
- Larry Day – This ’04 champion has been a semi-regular at best on the Champ circuit, but he’ll be driving a Chuck Villeneuve-owned sled at the Derby this year
- Gary Moyle – The winner in ’05 and ’07 should never be overlooked, but hasn’t raced on an oval yet this year
- Matt Schulz – Remember, this 2010 winner led until the last turn last year and finished a very close second; he wants redemption
- Nick Van Strydonk – Defending champion kicked butt at Beausejour in December, proving he’s still a strong force and could be considered a favorite
- Jacques Villeneuve – Everybody’s been wondering if this three-timer (’80, ’82 and ’86) will make it for the 50th; well, as of Sunday night, he said he was planning to come but was still searching for some funding
- P.J. Wanderscheid – The sport’s only four-timer (’03, ’04, ’06 and ’10) will be racing with a broken ankle, suffered at the USSA opener Jan. 5 at Amherst, Wisconsin
The Five-Member Due Crew – With super-fast sleds from well-connected teams, these guys have, between them, won a ton of races, including heats and semi-finals at the Derby, but they haven’t won the biggest race of the season. Each feels they are due.
- Malcolm Chartier – Michigan racer on Houle-built sled won at the USSA Opener in Amherst earlier this season on Saturday and only a blown belt held him back on Sunday.
- Dan Fenhaus – Has podiumed at the Derby before, including second in 2009; now part of the Schulz Racing effort.
- Brandon Johnson – Has been the fast qualifier, the late closer, the early leader… now he just has to close the deal for Wahl Bros. team
- Dustin Wahl – He has literally won everywhere in his now storied career, except on Derby Sunday. Won Sunday final at Amherst in on Jan. 6
- Jeff Ludwig – Literally moments before we posted this story, we heard that Ludwig is coming back to race this year’s Derby. This crowd favorite was a regular on the podium in the ’90s and early 00s; can he come back and finally get his World Championship?
16 Young Guns And Veterans – Several young drivers have joined the Champ class in recent years to challenge the old guard, and a handful of racers coming from the East are looking to make their mark. Don’t overlook this group: A year ago, Nick Van Strydonk would have been placed in this category, and he ended up winning the 2012 World Championship.
- Colt Dellandrea – Ontario racer has big dreams
- Joey Fjerstad – Fully recovered from shoulder injury and back on his own equipment
- Trevor Fontaine – Has won Semi-Pro Champ at the Derby, is strong and fast
- Dustin Gehrke – Second generation driver has competitive equipment; won Semi-Pro Champ here last year
- Ryan Kniskern – Finished a surprising fourth last year, back with Tommy Lipar Racing
- Jason Lavallee — Racing for Mike Weatherill this year
- Mike Lehman – It just wouldn’t be a Derby without the No. 001 Ski-Doo!
- Travis MacDonald – Young driver with championship pedigree, his father was magic behind Brian Bewcyk’s title runs
- Cardell Potter – Year-round racer has been in USSA circles since age 4, seeking W.C. before chasing car racing dreams; was fast at Amherst.
- Joe Presta – Veteran Ontario native is planning another run
- Lance Relf – Young driver from Winnipeg is another with Semi-Pro Champ winning experience
- Matt Ritchie – Local racer has won Semi-Pro Champ and Juniors classes on the Derby track
- Jay Sperry – Veteran racer was injured at Amherst, his status is unknown
- Gunnar Sterne – Young Illinois-based racer is still learning.
- Mike Van Dolder – A member of the Flying Dutchman team is back on the oval
- Jordan Wahl – Picked by many as a fast-rising star, Jordan has great equipment but also high expectations