Sterne on his Ski-Doo sled wins the Formula III during last year’s big Sunday race. Rivals Sterne and Stephenson will meet again in the oval this Sunday. —STAFF PHOTO
Sterne on his Ski-Doo sled wins the Formula III during last year’s big Sunday race. Rivals Sterne and Stephenson will meet again in the oval this Sunday. —STAFF PHOTO
Blaine Stephenson of Hutchinson, Minn., became the first four-time consecutive winner of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby in 2021, and if he pulls his Formula III Wahl Bros., Polaris to victory lane in Eagle River this Sunday he would become the only five-time winner of snowmobiles biggest race.

Derby officials expect up to as many as 15 other competitors in the World Championship F-III class this year. All will will do their best to keep Stephenson from widening his record as the four-day championship event in Eagle River is again expected to lure professional drivers from across the United States.

Races are set for Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 13-16, with the Formula III World Championship race set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

In what is a new twist to the World Championship event this year, USSA Prostar, a sanctioning body for the weekend race series, announced earlier that though it will still recognize Pro Champ 440 as its premier division, the Formula III race Sunday will be classified as the world championship race, a move that has been three years in the making for co-owner and competition director at the World Championship Derby Complex (WCDC) Craig Marchbank.

“The Formula III is a factory chassis where teams can manipulate the front and rear suspension, but they are running the stock engine base 600-CC motor just like it comes from the factory,” he said. “We started working on this three years ago, and this will be the first year we recognize it as the official World Championship class.”

Two years ago the World Championship class had 17 drivers battling for the title. Last year that number was 16 and Marchbank is planning on the same amount this year in the F-III class, even without racers from Canada taking part in the event due to COVID-19.

As far as the favorite to win the World Championship, headlining the list is Stephenson, who comes to Eagle River as the odds-on favorite to win his fifth-straight title.

Stephenson won his first title four years ago at the age of 21 in what is still being called one of the craziest finishes in Derby history. In 2019, he held off two-time Derby champion Nick Van Strydonk of Tomahawk to win his second consecutive title on the famous banked ice oval. Two years ago, he again topped Van Strydonk and cruised to the title on his No. 102 Polaris. Last year Stephenson led a caution-free event, pulling away from the field midway through the race to coast to his fourth consecutive crown atop his 440 Wahl Brothers Champ sled.

Stephenson won the Formula-III event at the first race of the season in Manitoba, Canada, beating out Sterne and Travis McDonald who finished second and third. In the second event of the season held last Sunday in Ironwood, Mich., Stephenson again reigned supreme in the F-III class, beating out Sterne who ended in second place followed by Calvin Cook, Thomas Olson, Tyler Beach and Jake Beres.

Sterne will likely come to Eagle River this week as one of the top challengers in the F-III division this year. He’s a veteran racer and one of the most successful drivers in Eagle River history. Other racers that will climb atop the F-III sled include Dakota Harris, Tyler Beach and Calvin Cook.

“Look out for these dark horses,” said Marchbank. “It’s going to take months and months of preparation leading into this season to win at Eagle River. Drivers should have been training, running, doing fitness programs. Their arms are going to get pumped this weekend. If these guys are thinking they can just come in off the streets, they are going to be hurting.”

Also racing is the WC class this weekend are veteran drivers Jay Mittelstaedt and Jake Elo.

“There are some other veteran guys coming in from out east who have been running some impressive times, and flat-out can fly around this race track,” said Marchbank. “You can’t count anyone out. One guy will put it all together Sunday and that’s going to be what it takes to win a World Championship.”

Race officials have announced the title race will be 25 laps without a mid-race break, just like the past three events. In several years prior to 2019, the race was 30 laps, with a break after 10 laps.

Sterne will be picked by many to break his drought at Eagle River and claim his first World Championship this year. He’s been close a number of times, including four years ago as he held the lead on the final lap of the title race before a spin-out in turn two crushed his title hopes and gave Stephenson his first WC victory. Two years ago, Sterne was eliminated from the race after a crash with Stephenson in turns one and two. Sterne was the USSA ProStar season points champ in Pro Champ 440 in 2018 and 2019, while Stephenson took that honor in 2020. Sterne reclaimed the title in 2021 and will come to Eagle River once more as one of the top Ski-Doo drivers.

Another likely top pick this season will be Stephenson’s Wahl Brothers teammate, Tom Olson of Lodi on a Polaris.

Canadian racers who will not be at the 2022 Derby due to COVID-19 travel restrictions at the border include Travis MacDonald from Gonor, Manitoba, who finished third in the Pro-Champ final on a Ski-Doo three years back and also made the podium last year.

With four straight titles, Stephenson will try to be the only racer to win five titles at Eagle River. P.J. Wanderscheid of Sauk Centre, Minn., is the only other four-time winner, capturing titles in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2011 on an Arctic Cat.

There are only a hand-full of three-time winners. Other three-time winners include Jacques Villeneuve of Quebec in 1980, 1982 and 1986 on a Ski-Doo; and Dave Wahl of Greenbush, Minn., in 1990, 1996 and 1997 on a Wahl sled.

In addition to Stephenson, other back-to-back winners have been Malcolm Chartier of Fair Haven, Minn., in 2012 and ‘13 on a Ski-Doo; Brian Bewcyk of Winnipeg, Manitoba, who won in 2008 and ‘09 on a Ski-Doo; P.J. Wanderscheid of Sauk Centre, Minn., who won in 2002 and ‘03 on an Arctic Cat; Mike Houle of Wyoming, Minn., who won in 1999 and 2000 on a Ski-Doo; Dave Wahl of Greenbush, who won in 1996 and ‘97 on a Wahl; Dale Loritz of Green Bay, who won in 1994 and ‘95 on a Ski-Doo; Steve Thorsen of Fergus Falls, Minn., who won in 1977 and ‘78 on a Polaris; and Mike Trapp of Woodruff, who won in 1971 and ‘72 on a Yamaha (see related story on Trapp’s 50th anniversary of World Championship win).

Time trials for the World Championship will start at 10 a.m. Friday, setting the tone for the rest of the weekend.

Race for the pole

For the 15th year in a row, the polesitter in the World Championship class will be determined in the Woody’s Challenge Sweet 16 pole position event during Friday Night Thunder.

The qualifying event will bring added racing excitement and a $1,500 added purse to the under-the-lights show, according to Marchbank, who explained the format for the Sweet 16 race.

The rest of the top 10 field will be determined in the usual fashion Saturday afternoon through a series of heats, quarterfinals and semifinals starting at 2 p.m. There is also a last-chance qualifying race between 11 and 11:30 a.m. Sunday, with the top two advancing to the second row of the title-race field.

Big prize money

Marchbank said the best Oval racers in the United States will converge on Eagle River this weekend because there is no bigger, richer or more important snowmobile race in the world. In addition to being crowned the World Champion, the winner of the title race will receive $10,000 in cash from the Derby Track, an “Eagle” trophy and Fly Racing jacket. All World Championship qualifiers also will receive a Top 10 ring and Fly Racing jacket.

The winner’s name also will be engraved on the SnowGoer Cup, a trophy listing all 58 winners of the most famous race in snowmobiling.

The biggest moment of the weekend is Sunday at 1:30 p.m. for the 59th running of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.

Marchbank said following that race will be the second annual World Championship Pro Enduro, a 100-lap race on ice oval, will start at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, with a mandatory 48th lap pitstop. The race has a $3,000 added purse.

“A lot of people sort’ve looked out of the corner of my eye saying why are you bringing them here when we started the Pro Enduro races,” said Marchbank. “But these are some of the nicest guys and all they want to do is race. This is their first points race of the year so they are coming in full force. They are nothing to sneeze at.”

Community event

Marchbank said for the World Championship Derby Complex, there is no more important role than recognizing the importance of the events to the Eagle River area and community in general.

“This crown jewel when it comes to snowmobile racing, not just for Eagle River but it means so much to people all across the world,” said Marchbank. “This is the grand-daddy of all snowmobile racing.”

Marchbank said lost in the shuffle sometimes can be the importance of volunteers and the Eagle River community in making the events at the Derby Complex a success.

“People sometimes down’t understand, this race this weekend we have over 100 volunteers to run this event,” he said. “Every aspect of this track has volunteers, and the camaraderie they bring with them is amazing. Without all these people this would never happen.