Matt Ritchie and his team put up a good fight to get in with snowmobile racing’s big boys.
Ritchie, at 17, qualified for the world championship race at the Amsoil Eagle River World Championship Snowmobile Derby Jan. 20.
“We competed for the world championship, which is the 440 Champ Class,” Ritchie said. “It’s a 440 completely modded out, with a custom-built chassis.”
The Derby culminated in the championship race, but leading up to it was a grueling four days of racing.
“It started out with Thursday’s time trials, which we qualified sixth in,” Ritchie recalled. “And that night we had to run heats and we were running second when we blew a motor after qualifying.”
Mechanical issues are part of the game, though.
“Friday, we ran the Friday Night Thunder and we qualified eighth,” Ritchie said. “Then we had to pull off due to ... motor problems. We blew a motor and a stator.”
He said a good, dedicated crew keeps his No. 355 Polaris running.
“We have nine mechanics that work on the sled. They completely stayed up all night and all day ... all night Friday and all day Saturday until 1:30 to get the sled rebuilt and get ready for qualifying for the world championship.”
Saturday’s qualifying race was close, but no cigar.
“We failed to qualify on Saturday. We were 11th and you had to qualify 10th to make it, so that put us to Last Chance on Sunday,” Ritchie said.
Ritchie led the qualifying race most of the way Sunday and ended up a close second. “The Last Chance Qualifier Sunday put us into the world championship,” he said.
The top two of 10 racers in the LCQ qualified for the world championship race. Qualifying for the prestigious race put Ritchie in some rarefied company, especially for a teenager.
“I’m not the youngest ever, but I’m the youngest for this last (derby) weekend,” Ritchie said. “And I’m tied for the youngest – which is 17 years old.”
And the championship race in Eagle River is exactly where a racer wants to be. “That’s what we work for all year,” Ritchie said.
He enjoys the fact that it’s an area race with a rich past and history that has spanned a half-century.
“It’s only a half-hour away in Eagle River and it’s 50 years, which is a lot of history behind it,” Ritchie said.
“It started out on a lake, I think, the world championship, then they moved to the field right next to the school and I think 20 years later they moved to where they are still to this day, on the ice oval.
“It’s pretty cool after 50 years, where they are still, and how far they’ve come.”
There’s a lot to take in at the derby, which attracted about 30,000. Plenty to keep the interest of a young racer.
“There was a lot of manufacturers there keeping an eye out for people,” Ritchie said. “There was, I think, 30 of the past 50 champions there. It was pretty cool to meet with them and talk with them.”
Ritchie’s own start in racing was natural one. He was born into a family of racers.
“My brother and my sister race and I started when I was four years old. I started racing Kitty Kats,” Ritchie said.
“My brother and sister did it and I just followed in their footsteps. One thing [led] to another and now we are where we are today.”
Ritchie finished 12th in the championship race. He said he has graduated high school and pursues racing as a career.
“It’s pretty much a full-time job,” he said. There are places far and wide to hit the oval track in search of a win.
“We race 13 weekends a year,” Ritchie said. “Our closest ones are Eagle River and Wausau ... Our farthest race is 27 hours away over in Valcourt, Quebec.”
Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Manitoba and Ontario are also racing destinations for Ritchie Motorsports.
It was Wausau the weekend following Eagle River. And a race with a cause – the Wausau 525.
“This last weekend, the 525, was a memorial race for a gentleman named Flip Merwin, who passed away 10 years ago at Eagle River,” Ritchie said.
“They started a memorial race ... to donate money to give kids scholarships towards college. That was what he wanted to do eventually – to help kids get a better life in college and everything.”
Amsoil, Polaris, Ritchie Oil and Propane, Stud Boy, Castle X, HJC and the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St. Germain are among Ritchie’s sponsors.
Malcolm Chartier, of Marine City, Mich. took the checkered flag at the championship race.
Other area racers see success
Tomahawk’s Nick Van Strydonk, the 2012 champion, finished eighth in this year’s championship. Van Strydonk took first in the Factory 600 race and second in the Friday Night Pro Champ 440 and TLR Cup race.
Chris Dahl, of Minocqua, rode his Yamaha to a third-place finish in the Semi-Pro Champ Friday Night Thunder.
Arbor Vitae’s Mike Lehman, a weekend removed from taking the checkered flag in the Sno Pro 340x/IFS Masters during Snowmobile Derby Vintage Weekend, rode his Ski-Doo to third place in the Semi Pro Champ.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org