TOLEDO, Ohio (Jan. 5, 2018) -- If you live in Eagle River, Wisconsin and you're headed out for dinner, it makes more sense to hop on the nearest motorized sled. That's what Natalie Decker does.
"We were just out snowmobiling last night…out to dinner," said Decker. "We rode out to the restaurants…it was so pretty."
Decker also hops on the sled when she's headed to work. That would be at the World Championship Derby Track, also in her hometown of Eagle River. And all that snow way up in Wisconsin will certainly come in handy when the World Championship Snowmobile Derby takes center stage over two weekends, Jan. 12-14 and Jan. 18-21. Decker's parents run the show.
"It starts with Friday Night Thunder January 12th. It's our vintage weekend on the Sno-Cross hills. The championship derby weekend starts on the 18th…that would be the championship sleds on the half-mile ice oval."
For months the family has been busy preparing the ice track. If you thought dirt track prep was tough and tedious, try a high-banked pure ice oval for high-performance championship sleds.
"We have a lot of snow up here, but we still make all our ice and snow. It takes a few months to make the ice oval. We have a snow gun that makes snow for the Sno-Cross races on the vintage weekend. The snow we make is just like what you'd make for big ski hills…it's a lot like that…a lot more fine."
Decker won't be able to work the vintage weekend opener because she'll be testing her ARCA car with Venturini Motorsports (VMS) in the open test at Daytona Int'l Speedway Jan. 12-13. But she'll be back in time to work the grand finale -- the World Championship Snowmobile Derby the following weekend.
"This year I'm going to be working in registration. In the past I usually helped sell food and drink tickets, stamp hands and check wrist bands as they come through the gate. It's a really busy time for us…I'm also trying to get ready for my 2018 season with the ARCA Racing Series. It's really crazy right now."
Decker has already announced a full ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards schedule in the 25 Toyota for VMS. But for now, much of her concentration is on championship snowmobile racing. The event goes way back in the Decker family roots.
"My grandparents owned it before parents did. My dad took it over in 1989. He won the World Championship Derby in '87."
While Decker will be preparing to race in the 55th running of the Lucas Oil 200 Driven by General Tire at Daytona Feb. 10, the World Championship Snowmobile Derby is right on pace with ARCA's annual opener at Daytona, with their own 55th anniversary derby edition.
The World Championship Snowmobile Derby draws the best Ice Oval and Sno-Cross racers from the United States and Canada, according to Country Cat Derby Track owner Chuck Decker.
“Because it will be the 55th anniversary Derby, we are inviting many of the old teams and racers back, giving it a throwback theme,” said Decker.
“There will be special 55th anniversary programs and many of those racing greats will be around the track all weekend.”
The Championship Derby is the oldest and grandest event in snowmobile racing, dating back to the first race on Dollar Lake in 1964, the same year ARCA made its superspeedway debut at Daytona.
The Championship Derby grew in the late 1960s and 1970s under the direction of the Eagle River Lions Club. Dozens of snowmobile manufacturers helped draw thousands of people to the event. The race show and Derby Track went to new heights under the direction of the Decker Racing family, which purchased the race and facility in 1986. Today, the show includes world-class Oval racing, high-flying Sno-Cross battles and the first and best under-the-lights show — Friday Night Thunder.
"Getting ready for the event is a lot of work but it's really exciting to be a part of it," Natalie added. "We also do an event in the fall with ATVs and UTVs…the ATV-UTV Derby World Championship. But right now it's all about the championship sleds."
The main event on the Ice Oval takes shape through qualifying and heats.
“We’re going to take the top 16 qualifiers, run two heat races with eight machines in each, and pull five racers from each heat for the final,” Chuck Decker said. “The winner is automatically qualified in the top 10 and will sit the pole position. The winner won’t have to ‘gruel’ it out in qualifications Saturday afternoon.”
Decker said the under-the-lights show is “one of the innovative events that has made the Derby the Indy 500 of snowmobile racing.” He said there will be a mix of other Oval and Sno-Cross classes added into the opening Friday night schedule.
“Jimmy John's Friday Night Thunder will also feature two American Motorcycle Association (AMA) snow bike races on the Sno-Cross course. Snow biking is a relatively new form of winter recreation, where a ski and a lightweight, high-performance track are fitted to modern, off-road motorcycles. On Friday night, there will be a men’s race and a women’s race.”
Saturday will bring both class finals and qualifying in the morning in both Oval and Sno-Cross classes. The AMA snow bikes also will return to the track as the Derby is the second round of an eight-race AMA Championship Snow Bike Series. As in the past, Saturday afternoon will be dedicated to qualifying the top 10 finalists for Sunday’s World Championship event. Sunday, billed as championship day, means finals in the most competitive Sno-Cross and Oval classes, including the Outlaw 600 class where drivers race in specialty-built cockpit style snowmobiles on the ice oval.
The World Championship last-chance qualifier will be held early Sunday afternoon and the 55th running of the Country Cat World Championship is slated for 3 p.m.
“The title race with Champ 440 sleds is, by all measures, the single most important snowmobile race of the year,” Chuck Decker added. "We will again have a split race format in which the racers have to make a mandatory pit-stop on the front straight right in front of the fans.”
Racers throughout the weekend will be competing for a cash and prize purse that exceeds $100,000.
The ice oval at Eagle River is the first racetrack ever to be constructed exclusively for snowmobile racing. Its design — a one-half mile oval on the outside wall with banked corners — remains the most demanding configuration on the racing circuit. Most snowmobile races are held on flat field surfaces or lakes.
Decker also said numerous vendors and displayers will present their products inside the Derby Expo Hall. Ticket prices are $20 daily for Vintage Weekend Jan. 12-14 or $45 for all three days. Hot seats are priced at $120 for Vintage Weekend and that includes gate admission. For Derby Weekend, Thursday will be free, $25 for Friday (day and evening), $25 for Saturday and $25 for Sunday. A weekend Derby Super Ticket costs $55, a savings of $20. After Dec. 25, a weekend pass is $65. Hot seats are priced at $175 for all four days (Jan. 18-21) for Derby Weekend and include gate admission.
“We also have a Derby VIP Fan Pass available for $275. Only 40 will be sold,” Decker said. “The VIP ticket includes four days of admission tickets; four days admission to the indoor VIP suite in the middle of turns 1 and 2 with a host and hostess; four days of catered food, beer, soda, coffee and water; and a free Derby T-shirt.”
Race fans can also get information on advance ticket sales, hot seats, motor home parking, and more information by calling (715) 479-4424, or visiting the Derby website at derbytrack.com.