On the eve of the start of the 2011 Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby sledRacer.com has seen fit to rank the top Champ 440 riders headed into the event. These rankings are not overall rankings, but rankings specifically for Eagle River. We took into consideration past performances, how the riders have been doing so far this season, any changes within their team structures and how cool their hoods look. Before we hit the rankings, we start with an honorable mention, Dan Fenhaus. Fenhaus has Eagle River dialed and the past two Derbys he’s been money, finishing third in 2009 and second in 2010. With that, we move on to our Top 10.
10. Joe Fjerstad
Joe Fjerstad is young and doesn’t have the experience of some of the other riders on this list, but he always manages to put in his best performances at Eagle River. Fjerstad is a superbly fit rider and has a certain amount of fearlessness that makes him a threat. A privateer who rides a customer Wahl chassis, Fjerstad will have the odds stacked against him at the Derby, but if the chips fall right and he gets out front it may be game over.
9. Brian Bewcyk
An experienced, veteran Champ rider, Brian Bewcyk won back-to-back World Championships in 2008 and 2009. Bewcyk has struggled even to make a final so far this season. He isn’t likely to set the world on fire with his lap times, but he is tough to beat if he gets some open track. Bottom line is, the veteran will come to Eagle River with a winning setup and looking for his third title.
8. Jacques Villeneuve
Arguably the greatest ice racer ever, Jacques Villeneuve has been racing since the early 1970s and is literally a living legend. No one comes more prepared to race at Eagle River than Villeneuve and his equipment is often some of the best-prepared on the track. But, the three-time Eagle River winner is old, sometimes struggles with control and is prone to crash. However, that’s been his way for most of his auto and snowmobile racing career prompting one Indy 500 critic to nickname him Jacques “Absorber.” Don’t count him out though, last year he turned the fastest lap of the Derby and if he gets out front it could be lights out.
7. Nick VanStrydonk
Another rider who seems to shine at Eagle River is Nick VanStrydonk. While he sometimes struggles with setups and control and has already totaled one sled this season, he has also put in some impressive performances on the Derby track. VanStrydonk rides a Wahl chassis, he benefits from having Larry Rugland build his engines and has the backing of the family dealership, Erv’s Sales and Service. He is another rider who, if he has a good weekend and gets out front, could steal the thing.
6. Dustin Wahl
Since Terry Wahl won the derby in 1998 the Wahl family has struggled with bad luck at this event. Terry was never able to repeat his win and no one in the Wahl camp has come close to the success of Dave Wahl who won the Derby three times including back-to-back wins in 1996-1997. Dustin is the son of Dave Wahl and, while wicked fast on the 600cc Champ, doesn’t always do as well on the 440 Champ which is what he’ll be on for the WC. However, he is a Wahl, and Wahl is to Champ what Penske is to Indy car, so anything can happen.
5. Brandon Johnson
One of the most interesting stories in the Champ pits is Brandon Johnson’s. His resume includes Eagle River World Championship titles in both Kitty Cat and Vintage, he works at Wahl Racing and races a mini sprint car in the summer. Johnson works directly with Durmont Wahl on his setups and his riding style is a virtual mirror of Terry Wahl’s. Johnson started the year out well winning Beausejour and was running good in Iowa before he was hit by another racer, totaling his fast new Champ. He’s switched back to last year’s chassis which didn’t set the world on fire, but was fast nonetheless. He’s a really fast, smooth, consistent rider and has the experience and backing to win it all.
4. Malcolm Chartier
When Chartier Motorsports decided to go ice racing they hired Mike Houle, one of the best oval racers of the past two decades and two-time Eagle River winner, to help them out. Houle builds wicked-fast champs and Malcolm Chartier is a top rider and leads the TLR Cup points. The one question mark is whether Chartier has the stamina to hang on to his Champ for the entire 25-lap WC final, but he did last year and this year he’s a full-time racer this year so his fitness should be top notch. He will be tough to beat.
3. Gary Moyle
Once a hard-luck racer, Gary Moyle figured out his program and won Eagle River in 2005 and again in 2007. He benefitted from a partnership with John Hooper and now runs his own program and rides a unique Champ that features a tubular frame. Having cut his teeth in enduro racing, he likes the longer races like the 25-lap WC final. Moyle is a fast, experienced veteran who rarely makes mistakes, and he knows how to race at the Derby. ‘Nuff said.
2. Matt Schulz
Matt Schulz won it all last year at the Derby. This year he switched brands and he’s on a Ski-Doo, but it’s still a Wahl chassis, the same kind he used last season. He benefits from being on Dale Loritz’s team along with Spencer Graff and his long-time crew chief is Al Fenhaus. When Schulz’s stuff is working he’s one of the fastest guys out there but so far he’s struggled this year and has had a few DNFs. If he can put it together for Eagle River he will be tough to beat.
1. P.J. Wanderscheid
Three-time Eagle River winner, P.J. Wanderscheid is without a doubt the fastest rider on the track when it comes to Eagle River. He won his first WC as an 18-year-old rookie and since then has been a force at the track that has made so many riders famous. Wanderscheid’s riding ability combined with the knowledge of John Hooper makes for a deadly combination. Hooper champs have won six of the last 10 Eagle River World Championship races and Wanderscheid has won three. Do the math.