By Kathy Cutforth, Correspondent
In 1964, Eagle River was a little summer resort town with few winter tourists and the sight of a snowmobile was a rarity. Today, Eagle River is the Snowmobile Capital of the World® welcoming about 40,000 visitors each year to the World Champion Derby Complex (WCDC).
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the World Championship Snowmobile Derby. Taking place January 19th through the 22nd, it is one of the oldest continuously operating snowmobile races in the world and a destination on the international snowmobile racing circuit.
Called “the sport’s most hallowed grounds” by Snow Goer magazine, the complex hosts a variety of events. This season starts on Thursday, January 12th with the opener of the popular Vintage World Championship Snowmobile Races. Now in its 22nd year, this event features restored racing machines from the 1960s to the 1990s for four days of racing action.
The track’s signature World Championship Snowmobile Derby follows the week after, closing with the 130-lap World Championship Pro Enduro. The season rounds out with new events Legend Laps and the World Series of Snowmobile Racing in February.
Current co-owner and WCDC Racing Director Craig Marchbank said, “It is the World Championship and THE race to win. … It puts Eagle River on the map.”
Beginnings and Growth: 1964 to 1970
Generations of people from Eagle River and elsewhere have grown up on the track and look forward to the event as an annual reunion of sorts. From the very beginning, the races have been largely staffed by volunteers. They organized and brought the Derby to national prominence in the early years and are essential to its operation every year.
Started as a tourism stunt in 1964 by the Chanticleer Inn on Dollar Lake, the event attracted considerable local media attention and drew far more people than expected. According to track history, the first year was billed as the World’s First Snowmobile Derby. By year two, the event became the National Snowmobile Derby. By year three in 1966, the Eagle River Lions Club took it over and upped the ante by renaming it the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.
That daring bit of boosterism stuck. The name was eventually trademarked after 1971, once the Derby had achieved fame and international participation.
In 1966, the event outgrew its original site and moved to its present 30-acre site on Highway 45. It contained new short tracks, added parking and the first oval racetrack, just a quarter mile long and groomed in a natural depression. Over time, the Lions placed a few trailers and stands to handle the onslaught of media attention and spectators.
In 1967, the racing event gained nationwide coverage from Life and Newsweek magazines, 20 newspapers and 16 TV stations. ABC Evening News Anchor Peter Jennings covered and raced in the event. In 1968, it was featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
The publicity brought tourists and new fans. There were only three television networks at the time, NBC, CBS and ABC, and Wide World of Sports was one of the most popular weekend sports-themed shows ever produced, viewed by millions each week.
By the end of the decade, attendance reached levels that rivaled crowds for NASCAR auto racing.
From Amateur to Pro Racing: 1970 to 1985
Since the beginning, the Derby consisted of multiple race and exhibition events that varied from year to year, starting with trail and hill racing. For the years 1965 to 1969, the main event was a 42-mile cross-country race from Eagle River to Rhinelander and back. In 1970, the cross-country race moved to Rhinelander, changing the World Championships forever and shifting the emphasis to oval racing.
Over time, rather than naming one winner participating in a variety of events, the World Championship title became separate from other weekend event races. The event grew from one to two days in 1972 and later to three days by the close of the 80s with “Friday Night Thunder” added to the line-up.
The 1970s to 90s also saw many technological and event changes, a shift from amateur racing to corporate involvement and an ever-growing roster of professional racers and winners.
Specialized clothing, corporate sponsorship and racing teams completely changed the sport. As many as 45 different brands competed in the 1970s, but ultimately narrowed to the big four snowmobile manufacturers by the mid-1980s: Artic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo and Yamaha. Many different classes and customized sleds developed over the next 30 years as the sport matured, and the Derby changed format several times.
The facility expanded as well. In response to more powerful and faster sleds, and warm weather that nearly melted the snow-covered track in 1973, the current large half-mile banked track was built in 1974. The surface was a combination of snow and sawdust until 1985 when it switched to pure ice.
Purses and crowds grew larger, but a few years of very cold weather hurt attendance and the event became more difficult for even its most devoted volunteers to manage. 1982 saw the lowest temperatures ever seen on the track, hitting -80° with wind chill on Saturday and -42° absolute temperature on Sunday.
Privatization: 1985 to 2018
The all-volunteer era ended when the Lion’s Club sold the property to Audrey and Richard Decker in 1985. The Deckers were both racers. Over the years they had owed a snowmobile dealership, a touring company and a family racing team, Team Deckers, to race with their sons and daughter.
Richard Decker placed in the Derby in the 1970s and Audrey Decker was a trail-blazing racer in her own right, beating both men and women until her last race in the early 80s.
In 1987, son Chuck Decker was on the podium in first place. Two years later he bought the property from his parents and managed it for nearly three decades.
Although privatized, volunteers were essential for success. The community remained committed to the race, helping in every way possible to ease the transition. Later, the Lion’s Club and other groups worked out an arrangement where club members raised funds for their organization in exchange for volunteering for the Derby.
The Decker family oversaw sweeping facility and programming changes that brought the track into modern day racing and high attendance figures. The era’s big trucks, fancy uniforms, custom-painted sleds and faster speeds added excitement and pageantry.
The Deckers worked to modernize the track and improve facilities in the first decade of ownership, investing much of their profits into facility upgrades. New lights and buried wires were installed, the first of the new enclosed heated seating areas was built, RV trackside parking was added, and track and safety improvements were implemented.
In 1998, the track changed the title race to Champ 440 Class, a powerful low-slung custom-built racing sled. That same year, Chuck Decker supervised construction of a 10,000 square foot Expo Center with climate control, full bar, gift shop, kitchen and restrooms. He also built a large heated general seating building on the west side, referred to as “hot seats”.
According to the current owners, these facility improvements have served the Derby well for more than two decades and are rather unique in the world of snowmobile racing. In 2018, the complex was sold to an investment group dedicated to keeping the Derby in Eagle River.
Countdown to Year 60 and Beyond
The new owners are: Tom Anderson, longtime industry promoter and journalist, founder and CEO of the nearby International Snowmobile Hall of Fame (ISHS) in Eagle River, and Craig Marchbank, former drag racer, custom engine mechanic and President of the Snowmobile Hall of Fame (SHS) in St. Germain.
As a team, Craig handles technical and racing issues and Tom does public relations, marketing and snowmobile shows. A third owner, Russ Davis, former Vice-President of Marketing and Sales at Bombardier/Ski-Doo, acted as WCSC President and General Manager before he retired from the partnership in 2020.
The partners came in with big plans and new ideas: (1) to introduce a new class of racing sled, (2) to create and schedule new events to more fully use the facility year-round, and (3) to implement a long list of facility and safety improvements that exceed International Snowmobile Racing (ISR) standards.
The first change was the most complex. The Derby has focused on the Champ 440 Class since 1998, which has become more expensive to field and run since the engine type went out of production in 2007. The new Pro Formula III World Champion Class sleds are modified production models that can be raced at half the cost with only a slight loss in speed.
It took two years of negotiation with ISR to write the regulations, plus more time to bring manufacturers and new racing teams up to speed. The change was fully implemented in 2022, a year later than planned because of COVID.
The partners hope to bring the event back to its roots, using “snowmobiles that look like snowmobiles” that fans can relate to and cheer as their favorites. For the first time in decades, all four major manufacturers are represented in the World Championship.
Craig says the changes have brought increased interest and competition to the Derby. It is also bringing in brand loyalty and new opportunities into the mix, setting the stage for the next generation of racing that is just as exciting, and more approachable, as before.
Despite controversy, attendance has remained constant as the race enters its sixth decade. Ultimately, the beauty of the area, community support and the excitement of the event keeps fans coming back year after year.
“Our future plans are to do whatever we can do to make this place better for oval racing.” Craig concluded, “As race director it falls on me. … My catchphrase is, ‘Help me keep racing positive.’”