The best oval snowmobile racers from the United States and Canada gathered at the start/finish line prior to the 2020 World Championship race. This scene will be repeated Sunday at 2 p.m., but without Canadian racers. —STAFF PHOTOS
The best oval snowmobile racers from the United States and Canada gathered at the start/finish line prior to the 2020 World Championship race. This scene will be repeated Sunday at 2 p.m., but without Canadian racers. —STAFF PHOTOS
Blaine Stephenson of Hutchinson, Minn., was the first three-peat winner of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby in 2020 and could become only the second four-time winner this weekend.

The four-day event in Eagle River which is expected to lure professional drivers from across the United States is set for Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 14-17, with the Pro Champ 440 World Championship race at 2 p.m. Sunday.

In what is a major twist this year, no pro racers from Canada will be at the coveted Derby due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, USSA Prostar, the sanctioning body for the weekend race series, announced earlier that the organization would not be at this year’s Derby (see related story inside).

This year’s World Championship race will again be in the Pro Champ 440 class, through there are discussions that the Formula III class will someday take over as the featured event for drivers seeking the coveted title of World Champion. 

Many drivers say the change would help keep costs competitive for smaller-budget race teams and allow for more disparity in the sport.

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 fourth straight title.

Stephenson won his first title three 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. Then last year, he again topped Van Strydonk and cruised to the title on his No. 102 Polaris.

The big problem this year is there have been no races, as events have been canceled, including the season-opening event in Beausejour, Manitoba, Canada, back in early December, and the Ironwood Snowmobile Olympus event two weeks ago in Ironwood, Mich.

Race officials have announced the title race will be 25 laps without a mid-race break, just like in 2019 and 2020. In several years prior to 2019, the race was 30 laps, with a break after 10 laps. 

Other favorites

Van Strydonk, a two-time Derby winner in 2012 and 2017, has retired from racing and will not be in the line-up this year after placing second each of the last two years.

One of the favorites to top Stephenson this weekend would have to be Illinois-based driver Gunnar Sterne, who three years ago held the lead on the final lap of the World Championship before a spin-out in turn two crushed his title hopes and gave Stephenson his first WC victory. Last year, Sterne was eliminated from the race after a crash with Stephenson in turns one and two. Sterne, of North Chicago, was the USSA Prostar season points champ in Pro Champ 440 in 2018 and 2019, while Stephenson took that honor in 2020. Sterne pilots a Ski-Doo.

Likely back on the Eagle River track this season will be a sentimental favorite and long-time Vintage class driver, Matt Goede, of Mayer, Minn., on a Ski-Doo. He finished ninth in the title race last year and was second in season points in 2020.

Other drivers looking to make their mark on the championship race will be Tom Olson of Lodi on a Polaris, Matt Bennett of New London on a Polaris and Justin Peterson of Campbellsport on a Ski-Doo. Olson was fifth last year, Bennett was 10th and Peterson 12th.

New York driver Nick LaGoy, who was seventh last year, won’t be racing this weekend. According to reports, LaGoy broke his L2 vertebrae in a race accident at Boonville, N.Y., near the end of last season. He hit the wall while leading in lap 10 of a 12-lap feature. He was airlifted to Albany Medical Center and is working through therapy and is still on crutches.

Canadian racers who will not be at the 2021 Derby due to COVID-19 travel restrictions at the border include Travis MacDonald from Gonor, Manitoba, who finished third last year on a Ski-Doo; Colt Dellandrea of Sandridge, Ontario on a Ski-Doo, who finished fourth in 2020; Felipe Roy-Lalonde of Saint-Jude, Quebec on a Ski-Doo, who finished seventh last year; and  Sabrina Blanchet of Grummondville, Quebec, who was the first-ever female to make the World Championship field on her No. 79 Ski-Doo in 2020. She finished the race and placed ninth.

With Van Strydonk retiring, Stephenson is the only former champion returning this weekend.

The history book

With three straight titles, Stephenson will try to be the only racer to win four straight titles at Eagle River. P.J. Wanderscheid of Sauk Centre, Minn., is the only 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).

With several newcomers expected to make the championship field on Sunday, Derby Track co-owner and general manager Russ Davis said it is anyone’s race.

“It really is wide open this year because you won’t know much about many of the racers,” said Davis “It sounds like there could be at least two dozen drivers trying to qualify for the World Championship. There will definitely be some new names in the field.”

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 14th 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 Davis, who explained the format for the Sweet 16 race.

“The Sweet 16 will consist of two 7-lap heats of eight sleds two additional option heats. There will be two semi-finals if needed and a 10-sled, 16-lap final to race for the Sweet 16 pole position for Sunday’s World Championship,” said Davis.

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. 

“Some of the best racing of the weekend occurs Saturday afternoon, when the top racers put it all on the line in heats, quarterfinals and semifinals for a shot at making the top 10 and receiving a prestigious top 10 ring and top 10 Fly Racing jacket,” said Davis.

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

Davis 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 57 winners of the most famous race in snowmobiling.

The biggest moment of the weekend is Sunday at 2 p.m. (an hour earlier than previous years) for the 58th running of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.

For those fans who haven’t had enough racing at that point, Davis noted the first 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 $2,000 added purse.

“An awards ceremony which is open to fans will take place outside the Expo Hall two hours after the final race,” said Davis.