Blaine Stephenson
Back-to-back winner
Blaine Stephenson Back-to-back winner
Blaine Stephenson of Hutchinson, Minn., looks to be the first three-peat winner at 57th annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby in Eagle River this weekend, but he will have to do it on a new class of machines for the title race.

The four-day event which lures professional drivers from across the United States and Canada is set for Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 16-19, with the new Pro Champ 440 World Championship race at 3 p.m. Sunday.

In what is a major rule change coming into this race season, the USSA Prostar sanctioning body announced they would be phasing out the traditional Champ 440 class and introducing two new classes of competition with the Pro Champ 440 and Formula III classes.

While this year’s World Championship race will be the Pro Champ 440 class, next year the Formula III class will likely take over as the featured event for drivers seeking the coveted title of World Champion.

Many drivers say the change will help keep costs competitive for smaller-budget race teams and allow for more disparity in the sport. (See related story on the new Pro Champ 440 class for more details.)

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 third straight title.

Stephenson won his first title two years ago at the age of 21 in what is still being called one of the craziest finishes in Derby history. Last year he held off two-time Derby champion Nick Van Strydonk of Tomahawk to win his second consecutive title on the famous banked ice oval.

So far this season, Stephenson has been almost unstoppable riding his No. 102 Polaris-powered sled that comes complete with a Wahl Bros. chassis.

He won in what was for many racers the season-opening event in Beausejour, Manitoba, Canada, back in early December, and then backed that up by winning the Saturday final at the Ironwood Snowmobile Olympus event two weeks ago in Ironwood, Mich.

In Ironwood, Stephenson withstood a charge from another favorite this weekend in Illinois-based driver Gunnar Sterne, who two 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. Sterne comes into this season as the two-time defending points champ in the sport’s top class.

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

Other favorites

Back on the Eagle River track this season will be a sentimental favorite and long-time Vintage class driver, Matt Goede.

The New Germany, Minn., driver has won at Eagle River before, claiming a Vintage World Championship in 2013 prior to a serious injury which took him out of competition for almost two full seasons.

Goede finished third at Ironwood two weeks ago, just ahead of Van Strydonk who at the end of last season informed fans that this would be his final full-season of driving his No. 13 Polaris machine.

Travis MacDonald from Gonor, Manitoba, finished second in the opening race of the season at Beausejour and will come to Eagle River with some momentum after he too ran well at Ironwood.

Other drivers looking to make their mark on the championship race will be New York driver Nick LaGoy, who hasn’t had the best of luck at the track in recent years, and Glen Hart of Winnipeg, Manitoba, who two years ago reached the podium with a third-place finish.

Mention of those two racers together brings back memories of the 2019 Friday Night Thunder event where on a restart LaGoy took an extremely tight line into turn one, seemingly dive-bombing to the inside of Hart and colliding with the left side of Hart’s sled midway through the turn.

Both sleds then got hooked and slammed hard into Stephenson, who was on the far outside, and all three sleds careened up into turn two in a hard crash, bringing out a red flag.

Hart quickly climbed to his feet, walking up behind LaGoy to give him an open-handed whack across the back of the helmet. LaGoy then took exception, jumping to his feet and going after Hart, with the two helmeted drivers tumbling dramatically down the banked track in an odd-looking brawl, with fists flying both ways.

The lone female driver in the field makes her return to Eagle River this weekend as Sabrina Blanchet of Quebec, Canada, will make the push to be the first-ever female to be crowned champion riding her No. 79 Ski-Doo.

Other drivers expected to be part of the field include No. 23 Jake Beres (Polaris), No. H20 Chris Huther (Ski-Doo), No. 9 Davis Jennings, No. 233 Matt Bennett (Polaris), No. 39 Tom Olson (Polaris), No. 75 Calvin Cook (Ski-Doo), No. 115 Dulan Anagnoustopolous (Polaris), No. 5X J.P. Lepage (Acrolite), No. 1 Griffin Lepak (Arctic Cat), No. 10 Stephan Manke (Ski-Doo), No. 17 Andrew Nordine (Polaris) and No. 39X Justin Peterson (Ski-Doo).

3-time winners

With two straight titles, Stephenson will try to be the only racer to win three straight titles at Eagle River. There are only a hand-full of three-time winners. 

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. 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.

With only two former winners returning this weekend in Stephenson and Van Strydonk, Derby Track co-owner and general manager Russ Davis said it is anyone’s race.

“It really is wide open this year,” said Davis “It sounds like there could be two dozen drivers trying to qualify for the World Championship due to the new Pro Champ 440 class. There will definitely be some new names in the field.”

Time trials for the World Championship will start at 5 p.m. Thursday, setting the tone for the rest of the weekend. Admission is free Thursday.

Race for the pole

For the 13th year in a row, the polesitter in the World Championship class will be determined at a Sweet Sixteen Pole Position event during Friday Night Thunder.

The qualifying event will bring added racing excitement and prize money to the under-the-lights show, according to Davis, who explained the format for the Sweet Sixteen race.

“The Sweet Sixteen will consist of two heats of eight sleds and each heat will send the top five to the 10-sled, 16-lap final to race for the Sweet Sixteen Pole Position for Sunday’s World Championship,” said Davis.

The rest of the top 10 field will be determined in the usual fashion Saturday evening, through a series of heats, quarterfinals and semifinals starting at 6 p.m. There is also a last-chance qualifying race at noon 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 and Canada 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.

“Some of the best racing of the weekend occurs Saturday evening, 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.

The winner’s name also will be engraved on the Snowgoer Cup, a trophy listing all 56 winners of the most famous race in snowmobiling.

The biggest moment of the weekend is Sunday at 3 p.m. for the 57th running of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.