The list of favorites to win the World Championship Snowmobile Derby isn’t long. Oddsmakers each year list three, maybe four drivers in total as someone who could find themselves holding the SnoGoer cup following the Sunday race which is a 25-lap dash at Eagle River.

One name that is always included in that group, and near the top over the course of the last five years, is Gunnar Sterne.

Sterne has won many big races at Eagle River before, but never the World Championship (WC). His run of success at the famed ice oval began in 2017 when the then up-and-coming driver took his Mike Houle-built Ski-Doo to victory lane during Friday Night Thunder, beating out the likes of former World Champions Nick Van Strydonk, Cardell Potter and Matt Schulz.

“That still comes to mind as one of my favorite memories at Eagle River,” Sterne said Monday, as he regrouped at his Chicagoland-based race shop in Illinois. “When I look back at some of the best moments, Eagle River holds a lot of them.”

Sterne’s reputation as one of the top ice-oval drivers in the world took shape following his early-season win at Eagle River in 2017.

In 2018, he was positioned to win his first-ever WC event Sunday, but a collision with Canadian-racer Travis McDonald on the final lap kept him off the top of the podium that year and in search of snowmobile racing’s biggest accomplishment.

One year later is when Sterne’s career really catapulted. After finishing third at Eagle River in January, he went on to win the 2019 Pro-Star Championship, filling his plate with event wins across the nine-race tour that season. The following year is prominent in the memory of Sterne’s mind, and there might not have been a more disappointing WC than what the pro racer endured in 2020.

Though Blaine Stephenson came in that season riding back-to-back championship race wins, Sterne was the favorite according to many. A collision though early in the race with Stephenson, who eventually went on to win his third straight title race, broke Sterne’s ski on the front of his machine, sending him to the pits and tossing another Eagle River heartbreak onto the pile.

“We have had our share of events at Eagle River,” said Sterne. “Some might call a few of them bad luck or whatever, but the fact is we know we can run here. It just comes down to putting it all together for that one race.”

Last year’s event, though it didn’t end with a championship, was possibly a turning point for Sterne who placed third in the 440-Pro Champ Class on Sunday.

Earlier in that day Sterne piloted is No. 220 Ski-Doo to the victory lane, winning the F-III final which this year is the division that takes the spot as the new World Championship class at Eagle River.

“The main focus this weekend is a little different,” said Sterne. “With having both the F-III and Champ classes to run that will change things up a little bit. It is race weekends like this where the training aspect really comes into play. I do a ton of pre-training getting into the season, because trying to get ready during the season just isn’t going to happen with everything we have going on week-in and week-out.”

Sterne said that in many aspects the, jumping off of his Pro Champ machine and on to the F-III bring with it some similar aspects. Though he admits that with fewer races under his belt on the F-III he always anticipates a few more challenges.

“The F-III sleds are a handful for sure,” said Sterne. “They can be very unpredictable so you’re always on edge, not knowing where the sled can go. We use a few different muscles because maybe I am gripping quite a bit tighter because you’re not as familiar. They ride smoother over the bumps, but with that you have to be on your handle bars a lot more ready for a change in direction.”

Sterne began his season with winning the Pro Star Tour event in Manitoba.

“The first weekend in Canada is always sort’ve a breakthrough,” he said. “We ran well and pretty much accomplished what we wanted to. Moving over to Ironwood then last weekend we were pretty dialed in so we feel a little jumpstarted for this weekend.”

Sterne admits that there are more favorite tracks of his to race at, tracks he says he is faster and more suited for than Eagle River. However, there is none more coveted than the World Championship, so he’s hoping to come this week with a setup and race package that’s honed in and ready to go.

“It’s not my most suitable track if I had to look at it, but I tend to think I can have some success here,” he said. “With our sleds, there isn’t a lot of setup to change from one track to another. Though our first setup will be drastically different from what we ran in Ironwood, we’re familiar with Eagle River and how to run fast. The one thing we never know is what the track is going to be like. That’s where running the extra laps with the F-III and Champ sled will help us from one division to the next.”

Sterne has raced both divisions for the past couple year now, so he expects to be ready come Sunday for the final push, even through all the extra laps that could take place Friday and Saturday.

“It is a little more wear and tear, but that’s why we put in the time in the offseason, to be ready for weekends like this,” he said.

Sterne said that in Sunday’s championship race on the F-III, look for the likes of Tyler Beach and Calvin Cook to be in the mix with the regulars.

“Tyler looked really comfortable in Ironwood, and Calvin is another up and comer,” he said. “I predict it’s going to be a little more competitive than some people think.”

Though he has yet to claim a win in the spectacle of ice oval racing, Sterne said it hasn’t stained him.

“We know winning it would be huge, and it’s sort’ve been that last bucket list item,” he said. “More than anything I want to do it for my guys. They’d be pretty proud as a team, especially. It’s a big race, but it’s just another one. It’s not going to define who I am, but we’re definitely going to go out there this weekend and give it our best.”

The Sterne Racing team includes Sterne’s parents, Shawn and Juli Sterne, mechanics Tim Sniezek and Dave Defreece and Snowmobile Hall of Famer and former World Championship driver, Mike Houle.