Engines will roar and the scent of racing fuel will fill the air as thousands of spectators flood Eagle River for the 58th World Championship Snowmobile Derby this Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 14-17.

With cold weather allowing event organizers to build up the ice on the oval, this year’s Derby is expected to attract thousands of fans and close to 300 top snowmobile racers.

The 30-plus-acre property on Eagle River’s north side has hosted World Championship Snowmobile races for nearly 60 years and is considered a vital contributor to winter tourism of the greater Eagle River area.

Drivers on the ice oval will have their aspirations set on coveted trophies, prizes and thousands of dollars in cash awards, but most of all, they will compete for the prestige of winning at the mecca of ice oval racing, Eagle River.

“Everyone comes to Eagle River to be crowned a World Champion,” said Russ Davis, complex president and general manager. “It’s a special venue and a special weekend for a lot of racers.”

Davis said the 58th Derby will bring many exciting activities to this year’s event, including the Badger Winter Games opening ceremonies during Friday Night Thunder, UTV side-by-side races Saturday and the 100-lap Pro Enduro Sunday afternoon following the World Championship race. There also will be youth snowmobile races on a special track on the Derby Complex grounds.

“One of the featured events this year will be side-by-sides, better known as UTVs, running with studded tires on the fully-banked ice oval on Saturday afternoon and evening. Johnny Greaves, the off-road truck world champion, is going to be helping us put this exciting event together,” said Davis.

Sunday will feature the first-ever Midwest International Racing Association (MIRA) World Championship Pro Enduro race. According to a MIRA spokesperson, MIRA has raced at the Derby Complex for the last two winters, but is now included in the World Championship weekend and is very excited about being a part of this history-making event.

“Craig Marchbank from the Derby Complex and Karl Schwarz, president of MIRA, have been working all summer to put this race together and are looking forward to a great event,” the spokesperson said.

New last year was the Formula III class which is now featured in all events due to its lower equipment cost which results in increased participation on the track and increased safety for the drivers, said Craig Marchbank, race director for the famed Eagle River Derby Track.

For fans on the bank, warmer temperatures for the weekend will kick off near the freezing point on Thursday before dropping to around 30 degrees on Friday, and then falling to the low- to mid-20s for the remainder of the weekend.

From a track maintenance standpoint, Davis said that the track was in really great shape for Vintage weekend, and colder temperatures during the night are perfect for making more ice.

“We have been working all through the night to flood the track to boost ice and will continue to do so this week. We will be in excellent shape this weekend,” Davis said on Monday. “Fans will notice a blue tinge to the ice because we put a blue dye in the water that is dumped on the track. The blue ice provides better visibility for drivers and prevents the UV rays from deteriorating the ice if the sun is out.”

A high turnout is expected even though racers were not permitted to travel from Canada and other countries due to COVID-19, and some from outside the Midwest opted not to travel for this year’s event.

“Turnout and ticket sales have been great. Indoor spectator hot seats are sold out, and Vintage weekend was sold out as well,” he said. “We had more Vintage racers than last year, which is encouraging since Canadian racers couldn’t cross the border to attend.” Davis said the lack of Canadian racers resulted in about 10% less racer entries for this year’s Derby.

The schedule

Track officials noted there are some changes in the race schedule, including the main championship event on Sunday being moved up one hour to accommodate the MIRA Pro Enduro 100-lap race.

Thursday, Jan. 14, will be a practice day from noon to 3 p.m. for drivers to fine-tune their machines before qualifying heats. Admission is free for all fans on Thursday and Derby grounds close at 5 p.m.

Following Thursday, Davis said fans can witness three days of action-packed racing.

Oval racers will take to the ice track starting at 10 a.m. Friday for World Championship, Formula III and Outlaw 600 time trials. The afternoon will feature qualifying and finals in 14 classes.

Then on Friday night, thousands of fans will converge on the Derby Complex grounds for the most progressive and highly popular Friday Night Thunder event.

“This is absolutely the finest and most entertaining show in snowmobile racing with the under-the-lights show opening ceremonies at 6 p.m. and racing at 6:30 p.m.,” said Davis. “It will include the opening ceremonies for the Badger State Winter Games, with the lighting of the cauldron by two celebrity participants in this year’s Snowmobile Torch Ride.”

In attendance will be celebrities Derek Kraus from Stratford, who competes full-time on the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, and Mike Trapp, two-time back-to-back World Snowmobile Champion from 1971 and 1972. He will be in Eagle River celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first World Championship win, considered by many as the Derby’s “greatest race.”

Returning by popular demand on Friday night is the Woody’s Challenge Sweet 16 event where the top World Championship qualifiers go head-to-head under the lights.

“The winner of Woody’s Challenge Sweet 16 is automatically qualified in the top 10 and will sit on the pole position for the final on Sunday, plus win a $1,500 added purse from Woody’s,” said Davis. “The winner won’t have to duel it out in qualifications Saturday afternoon.”

There will be a mix of other Oval classes in the Friday night schedule, including the Outlaw 600 class in cockpit-style snowmobiles. Friday Night Thunder also will feature American Motorcycle Association (AMA) motorcycle races on the ice oval course.

Organizers canceled the popular fireworks display as well as the Derby Royalty this year due to COVID-19 to try to keep everyone distanced, according to Davis. “The fireworks require members of the fire department to work elbow-to-elbow, so we canceled that to help keep people distanced. Same with the queens, who have to do a lot of close contact.”

A full day of events kicks off Saturday at 9 a.m. with a series of races, including Formula III, F-500 and F-440 laps, Pro Enduro hot laps, the first Shootout UTV hot laps and more. The track will be closed for prep from 1 to 2 p.m., and races will start again in the afternoon.

Saturday will look a bit different with no Sno-Cross races this year. “Due to the close proximity of the racers in Sno-Cross and the number of safety workers needed, the Sno-Cross races will not be held this year as a COVID-19 safe guard,” said Davis.

As in the past, Saturday afternoon will include qualifying races for the Top 10 finalists for Sunday’s World Championship event starting at 2 p.m., followed by Pro Enduro time trials and UTV Shootout races.

Championship Sunday will begin at 8:30 a.m. with finals in 20 Oval classes, including junior classes, several Vintage classes, and heats in the Outlaw class. There will be finals for the F-500 sponsored by Wahl Brother’s Racing, the F-440FC sponsored by Team Z Fanz Racing, and Formula III sponsored by Marchbank Racing, with a $1,000-$5,000 added purse. The last chance qualifier for the World Championship will run from 11 to 11:30 a.m.

That will set the stage for the 58th running of the Pro Champ World Championship at 2 p.m.

“This year’s race will be a 25-lap, no-stop feature,” said Davis, noting that there will not be any breaks in the action for pit service.

Last year, Blaine Stephenson of Hutchinson, Minn., won his third straight World Championship on a Polaris, taking home the $10,000 prize and a coveted Eagle trophy. His quest now is to be a four-time winner at Eagle River. Following the title race, The SnowGoer Cup, inscribed with the names of all past winners, will be hoisted in victory for photo ops in front of Derby photographers.

Davis said the winner of the World Championship will receive a $10,000 prize, a huge Eagle trophy and a special jacket. All World Champs in other classes will receive cash payouts based on entry fees and special added cash purses by sponsors, jackets and Eagle trophies.

“The World Championship race with highly exotic Pro Champ sleds is the single most important snowmobile race of the year for the racers,” said Davis. “To win the World Championship and the resulting honor that goes with that is a great accomplishment that only a very few have earned the honor of claiming.”

The awards ceremony will take place outside the Derby Complex Expo Hall two hours after the final race. Fans can be either indoors or outdoors for the ceremony in order to keep people separated.

“Everything we’ve changed this year has been amplified by COVID. We are doing everything possible to stay clean,” Davis said.

Fan features

Thursday is a free day for those wanting to come and check out practice sessions. The cost for an individual general admission day pass ticket is $25 for Friday, Saturday or Sunday, or an advance super ticket for all three days can be purchased for $70 and includes entrance to the entire weekend’s events. Indoor hot seats, sold on a limited basis this year due to COVID-19, are sold out. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the Derby Complex office.

Although no Derby Royalty will be seen throughout the Derby grounds this year, the Sno-Eagles Snowmobile Club’s Miss Sno-Eagle Cheyanne Warren, will be on site to reign over the event.

“There will be no Derby Queen or Princesses handing out trophies as they do a lot of close contact for photos with winners, so we opted not to have them this year,” Davis said.

Limited vendor displays will be offered inside the Derby Expo Hall, reduced from the usual 30 vendors down to 10 to follow safety guidelines. Vendors will feature everything from snowmobile accessories to clothing, according to Davis.

The children’s snowmobile races which have grown in popularity over the last couple years will be held on the grounds again as well. Davis said they saw very good attendance during Vintage weekend, and expect participation to be nearly double for this coming weekend.

Numerous giveaways also will be offered this year, as event sponsors have contributed many prizes, according to track officials.

New this year, the event will be livestreamed all over the world for those who are unable to attend due to travel restrictions.

“We get spectators usually from places like Switzerland who cannot attend this year, so it will be available for those who can’t make it to watch online through a subscription-based platform,” Davis said.

The snowmobile races can be viewed online at floracing.com.

Safety precautions

Because of COVID-19, Davis said there have been numerous safety precautions put into effect at the track. “90% of what we do is outside. Racers have their own trailers, and people will be wearing masks,” he said.

Davis also noted that 28 porta-potties are located on the grounds, and food and beverage sales are available outside as well as inside, although alcohol sales still must be made indoors at the bar.

“All food will be prepackaged and sealed as well. There are limited indoor displays — usually there are about 30 but this year it has been cut down to 10 — and tables will be spaced inside.”

Clear plastic shields also have been put up in the Gift Garage, will-call house and registration center, and only two racers are allowed in at a time to register. Cleaning crews will sanitize all fixtures, door handles, and use sprays to disinfect each night in all the buildings as well.

Davis said it has been a challenging year due to COVID-19, but the track owners are committed to holding a safe event, following guidance from both state and local health departments.

“We got numerous calls from people asking us not to cancel the event. We also got a couple negative calls, as well as one letter in the Vilas County News-Review, but we are doing everything we can to stay clean. With local numbers going down, we thought we could put on a safe event. Had we seen an increase in cases, we probably would have canceled.” Davis stated that 12 events have been canceled at the Derby Complex since the fall.

Race fans can get information on advance ticket sales, Hot Seats, motorhome parking and more by calling (715) 479-4424 or visiting derbycomplex.com.