The Sweet Sixteen Pole Position race, a Pro/Am Sno-Cross final, the unique Outlaw sleds and UTV Side-by-Side races will headline the Woody’s Friday Night Thunder program at the 57th annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby.

Nearly 10,000 spectators are expected this Friday, Jan. 17, for the popular 16-race event under the lights.

Tom Anderson, one of the new owners of the World Championship Derby Complex, said in addition to the important Sweet Sixteen Pole Position race and Outlaw final on the oval track, the Pro/Am Sno-Cross racers will compete on a challenging course inside the ice oval.

“Fans will get a little of everything Friday night, from the new Pro Champ 440 sleds on the ice to the Pro/Am Sno-Cross competitors,” said Anderson. “I’m sure it will be a really big night at the track.”

Anderson said there also will be a Pro Stock versus Pro Mod (Turbos) UTV Side-by-Side final and big bore motorcycles on the ice, all with studded tires to handle the challenging banked oval.

Anderson said fans always enjoy seeing the bikes with studded tires out on the banked ice oval.

“The bikes will be back,” he said. “There will be about 15 of them this year. They always put on a great show. The UTVs, studded up for the ice, also will be very fun for the fans.”

There will also be additional snowmobile races on the oval, including the Outlaw 600 class featuring cockpit-style snowmobiles, Formula III, Vintage and F-500 class finals.

“The Outlaw 600 class is growing in popularity for both the racers and the fans,” said Anderson, noting drivers sit in the cockpit-style machines with a steering wheel. “All in all, it should be a great night of racing. I’m expecting some really good racing as the track will be in awesome shape.”

The weather forecast is calling for high temperatures near 10 degrees Friday. Anderson said fans should plan on arriving at the track early for the Friday Night Thunder opening ceremonies which start at 6 p.m. It will include introductions, the national anthem and a fireworks display. Racing begins at 6:30 p.m.

“We want to avoid long lines at the ticket booths at 6 p.m.,” said Anderson. “If you don’t want to miss any of the pageantry and racing, get here early.”

Another highlight of the opening ceremony will be the lighting of the Badger State Winter Games (see related story) cauldron inside the Derby Track oval.

Sweet Sixteen race

The most anticipated racing event for fans and racers at Friday Night Thunder is the Sweet Sixteen Pole Position race, which features head-to-head competition between the 16 fastest ice oval racers in the world in the Pro Champ 440 class as they compete for early qualification in Sunday’s title race and the pole position.

The 16 racers will be selected based on their time trials Thursday night starting at 5 p.m.

Now in its 13th year, the Sweet Sixteen event will begin with two heats of eight racers battling for 10 laps. The best 10 competitors will move on to the 16-lap final, and the winner of that race will hold the pole position in Sunday’s World Championship event and receive $1,000 from Woody’s.

“The winner of the Sweet Sixteen final is going to decide the pole position for Sunday, so it’s an important race,” said Anderson. 

Last year’s Sweet Sixteen spectators witnessed Nick Van Strydonk of Tomahawk, the 2012 and 2015 World Champion, win the race on a Polaris sled. He ended up placing second on Sunday. Blaine Stephenson of Hutch­inson, Minn., who won the World Championship in 2019, finished second in the Pole Position race on his Polaris. Gunner Sterne of North Chicago, Ill., finished third in the Pole Position race on a Ski-Doo. He also finished third in the title race on Sunday last year.

“The pole position race is significant as the winner gets to sit out of Saturday’s grueling elimination heats,” said Anderson. “The victor also has a chance at a hole shot in Sunday’s final race.”

The rest of the front row for Sunday’s 25-lap World Championship will be determined through the traditional heats, quarterfinals and semifinals Saturday evening. For the second straight year, World Championship qualifying will start at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Big weekend

It’s all part of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby, which will run Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 16-19, at the famed ice oval track on the city’s north side.

The event that put Eagle River on the international map will start Thursday with practice laps during the day and World Championship time trials at 5 p.m. Admission is free Thursday.

After a day of viewing qualification racing Friday in both Oval and Sno-Cross, fans will pack the Derby grounds for Friday Night Thunder. On Friday, Oval racing will run from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., followed by action on the Sno-Cross course in the afternoon. Friday Night Thunder will include opening ceremonies at 6 p.m. and racing at 6:30 p.m.

Saturday will feature both Sno-Cross finals and Oval qualifying. The Sno-Cross races will run from 8 to 10 a.m., followed by Oval racing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. More Sno-Cross is planned from 2 to 5:15 p.m. The Pro/Am Sno-Cross World Championship will be run Saturday evening during the World Championship qualifying.

Qualifying for the top 10 finalists for Sunday’s World Championship event gets underway at 6 p.m. Saturday. Many say it is the best racing of the weekend, as about 24 Pro Champ 440 racers will compete for Sunday’s title race.

Anderson said Sunday is Championship Day at the Derby and will feature finals in the competitive Oval classes starting at 9 a.m. The top races will be a last-chance qualifier for the World Championship at noon, followed by more Oval finals and the 57th annual World Championship at 3 p.m.

Ticket prices are $35 for Friday (day and evening), $35 for Saturday (day and evening) and $35 for Sunday. A three-day pass costs $100, saving spectators $5.