2012 World Championship Snowmobile Derby

Jan. 23, 2012 By Jeffrey Decker
The Last Chance Qualifier saw #757 slide his back end out too far on turn 2 of the Eagle River oval track, bumping his neighbor out of place.

Nick Van Strydonk has raced at Eagle River since he was four years old. This year was his fourth attempt at the title, and he won the World Championship Snowmobile Derby by a 1/4 sled length. Fifth place used to be the best finish for this 21-year-old from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, but now he is a champion.

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The photo finish was cheered as a great ending to the tight race, with five of the 12 contenders grabbing their share of the lead  over 30 dust-covered laps on the enormous ice oval. A dramatic pass in the last corner of the last lap let Van Strydonk (#13 Polaris) finish just .025 seconds ahead of Matt Schultz (#38 Ski-Doo), who couldn’t use his favored line when the new champ dropped in.

“It’s where he seemed to be running, so I tried taking it away from him and it paid off,” recalled Van Strydonk. “So, I tried it and washed out real high, and that’s the last thing I remember. The next thing I know it’s just side-by-side draggin'. Just good clean racing!”

Dustin Wahl (#74 Polaris) zipped in .612 seconds later despite a hand brake that started to stick after the first 10 laps.

“It must have warped the brake discs,” he thought, as it pushed the pads out. “So it takes a while for the brakes to come back. You’re coming into that corner wide open; you can’t slow down. You kind of get creative with throwing your sled around.”

Control and endurance win this race, and world-class machines are sometimes more likely to give out than world-class drivers. The 2008 and ‘09 champ Brian Bewcyk dropped out after five laps. Last year Van Strydonk pulled off with a broken belt, and this year his machine stalled out almost as soon as it crossed the finish line. It restarted just in time for the victory lap with his father riding along.

Tight battles all weekend long were par for the course at Eagle River.

Schultz switched to his back-up sled in Friday night's heats and had to start the big race in the back row. Action stopped on Lap 11 when Travis MacDonald (#8 Ski-Doo) lost control and was injured, and Schultz was barely able to resume racing.

“I don’t know what the story is, but it cooled down and then it seemed like it came back to life and we got it running again,” Schultz said. Problems started on lap five and the ski was barely running at lap 15. “I was actually surprised that she made the whole race! She’s pretty tired.”

Staying loose is important for race day.

Two other crashes and a mandatory 5-minute pit stop after lap 10 divided what is sometimes an endless whirlwind of man-made sleet. Wahl is one of several drivers who felt their finish would have been different if the racing wasn’t interrupted.

“I was really bummed out at the last red flag. I really thought that I was coming,” Wahl said. “But it was a good race and it was so much fun. I mean, it’s very, very rare that you get a group of four or five guys like that who can battle it out for 30 laps.”

A view of the icy course for the championship race.

Arms and shoulders are tested in speed and g-force, and one little slip always gets bigger.

“Listen, I had the best hole shot I’ve had, probably ever, and I think I was probably eight or ninth into the corner," Wahl said. "I mean, if you’re off just a tick then you’re off half a sled length and that’s means everything, you know?”

Wahl’s brother Terry walked the track with him to spot smooth lines and point out future holes. The track always wears down, and one moment on the dirt is one destroyed carbide. Last year’s track became very slender at points. This year, however, was a good one. “Half the track you could run on,” Wahl said. Wahl’s father and brother together have won four championships.

It’s a family legacy for Schultz as well, and Van Strydonk’s first business after winning was to call his grandfather, Erv.

Van Strydonk's trailer as crew gets sled ready for the race.

“I won ‘er. It’s for you,” he said, overwhelmed with emotion, “And I love ya.”

Asked how his grandfather had been so important, he said, “His love of the sport and our love of competition. That’s what drove it.” Van Strydonk works as a mechanic for his father throughout the year. “It’s 24/7 snowmobiles,” he explains. That love of the sport finally paid off for the young racer, as he now is a champion.

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