Eganville – The Bonnechere Cup snowmobile races returned to the half-mile oval track at the Sno-Drifters Club on the weekend bringing with them one of the largest crowds in the modern day history of the 47-year event.
And not only did the event attract a large crowd and the best racers on the North American pro circuit, but there was a commitment made Sunday by the two main race sponsors – Castle Building Centre and Honest Herbs – they will be back next year with $25,000 in sponsorship money.
Barry Verch, one of two club members who has been involved with the Bonnechere Cup races since their beginning in 1975, said a commitment a year in advance from the two major sponsors takes the pressure off of club members and allows them to focus on planning the races without worry.
That, coupled with the pending announcement the Township of North Algona Wilberforce (NAW) will be assuming ownership of the club property and track, is also great news for the future of snowmobile racing locally.
“Years ago we always had to worry about getting good crowds to cover our costs,” Mr. Verch said. “But now our sponsors cover most of the costs and it has removed a lot of pressure on organizers.”
Mr. Verch, 69, and club member Tom Gallagher, 82, have worked the races every year since they began and even before that when the races were held on the Bonnechere River and at the Legion Field.
“Only myself and Tommy are left from the original crew,” he said. “I was here for the first race and I am still here.”
Club membership has dwindled over the years and the majority of the original members have passed away in recent years. In fact, at the official opening ceremonies of the races Sunday, race director Scott Clark paid tribute to several members who have died since the races were last held in 2020. (Events in 2021 and 2022 were cancelled due to COVID-19). They were Erne Plotz, Keith Freitag, Elsie Zadow, Alton McKibbon, Les Moore, Rod Wilcox, George Wilcox, Guy Jamieson and Ken Clark.
“These original members — past presidents, snowmobile racing enthusiasts – are why we are here today,” he said. “We hope you are proud of us carrying on your legacy.”
Mr. Verch said the club is looking forward to working with NAW Township, describing the pending take-over as a win-win situation.
“We couldn’t do it on our own,” he stressed. “The biggest thing was we couldn’t get insurance anymore. No one would provide insurance and when we were able to get it, it was costing $20,000 just for the weekend. It was nuts. All of our money was going out for that.”
As he looked out over the crowd on Sunday, a huge smile covered his face.
“This is the best crowd in many years,” he said. “Saturday was bad because of the cold weather, but even according to our gate it wasn’t real bad, but today is an awesome day. It certainly is one of the best ones in many years.”
Mr. Verch is optimistic for the future of racing, explaining the arrangement with the township will help to ensure the races continue as well as allow for the opportunity for more year-round outdoor events to take place on the property.
He is also proud of the young people who have stepped up to the plate to continue to make the races happen. Many of them, like Zach Plotz, Scott Clark, Cindy (Brash) Jessup and Paige Zadow are children or grandchildren of original club members and race weekend volunteers.
“The people who are taking over are doing a great job,” he said. “I am very happy to see this happening and I am proud of this generation taking over to ensure the legacy of professional snowmobile racing continues.”
Mr. Clark paid tribute to the Ontario Snowmobile Oval Racers (OSOR) organization and United States Snowmobile Association (USSA) which included the Bonnechere Cup Races in their point circuit this year. Getting involvement with the USSA guaranteed all of the top racers would come to Eganville as they accumulate points for the season. There are four races left and so far the Wahl Bros. Racing Team of Blaine Stephenson and Tom Olsen are leading the pack.
And they had a near perfect weekend in Eganville, not only finishing one-two (Stephenson and Olsen) in the Bonnechere Cup Race Sunday, but they also won Saturday’s Pro Champ race adding to their total points and putting them ahead of others in the pack by 82 points.
At Sunday’s opening, Mr. Clark also paid tribute to three generations of Selles – Ralph, Ron and Corey – for building another “awesome” ice track.
“When we started out in late December the odds were against us with the bad (mild) weather,” he remarked, adding it was only decided in early January the races would go ahead as flooding only began four weeks previous to race weekend.
“We have so much appreciation for the many volunteers and sponsors,” he said. “We look forward to a long-lasting relationship with you. Our future is bright.”
Mr. Clark said the club has had many hurdles to jump in the last few years, but said the remaining members never gave up because of their love for racing and a desire to carry on the tradition of past members.
He expressed his thanks to Pembroke lawyer Sheldon Reiche for all the work he has done for the club and also to the fans for their commitment.
“You’ve come back every year to make this event possible,” he said.
“Finally to our racers and teams. You put on a great show, running on the edge so that we can all feel your adrenalin, pumping excitement.”
Politicians from all levels attend the opening ceremonies and this year was no different. The only one missing was Renfrew Country Warden Peter Emon who was unable to attend because of the Ontario Winter Games taking place in the county.
NAW Mayor James Brose said he was pleased to see the races return after an absence of two years and also to see the fans return.
“It’s great to see the track in such great shape and it’s great to see such a committed crowd of volunteers and hats off to the Eganville Sno-Drifters Club for pulling this off after a two-year hiatus,” he said.
Others who spoke included Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy, Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke MP Cheryl Gallant and MPP John Yakabuski. There was some cheering when Ms. Gallant said “you never know what you had until you missed it.
“And we missed it,” she said. “We are happy to see everybody back and let’s make this the best one ever.”
Mr. Yakabuski said it is easy for events to get forgotten when they haven’t happened for a few years, “but the Reiche’s were there and they are here and this is one of the biggest crowds we have had at these races.
“And that speaks to the fan base here that has been itching and aching to see oval track racing return to Eganville and area. I want to thank everyone who has put so much into this. The track is fantastic.”
Jeff Yonin and Nikoma Tenniscoe, representing Honest Herbs at Pikwakanagan, are new race sponsors this year and they are committed to supporting the races in future years. An avid snowmobiler since she was 12, Ms. Tenniscoe has attended many Bonnechere Cup races in the past and said it is an “awesome event.
“On behalf of Honest Herbs thank you to all of the volunteers and racers. It is a beautiful day out here and everyone have an awesome afternoon and enjoy the races.”
Mr. Yonin said when Honest Herbs was approached last year to become a sponsor there was no hesitation on their part but COVID cancelled the races.
“We want to be part of this, for sure,” he said. “It’s amazing for what it does for everybody around this area. We’re on board. We’re committed.”
Sno-Drifters President Zach Plotz said he was very pleased to see the races back.
“The turnout has been great, the volunteers have been great,” he said. “Everything has run extremely well for us, especially after a two-year hiatus.”
Other than the two-hour power outage Saturday morning that caused some grief and problems for organizers, the weekend was, otherwise, problem free. A few of the races had to be held over from Saturday due to lack of daylight, but they were worked into Sunday’s schedule in the morning.
Mr. Plotz said the best news from the weekend are the commitments from both the title and presenting sponsors for next year. Castle Building Centres is the title sponsor and Honest Herbs is the presenting sponsor.
Sunday’s 15-lap Bonnechere Cup final said the Wahl Racing team of Blaine Stephenson and Tom Olsen finished first and second, which was a reverse of the 2020 race when it was Olsen and Stephenson. Finishing third in the crash-free race was Gunnar Stern.
Stephenson managed to break out into the lead in the one-two turn and led the pack for the next 15 laps around the track. He has been racing for the Wahl team since 2019.
With Sunday’s victory, he said he was honoured to join such an elite group of people whose names adorn the Cup.
“There are a lot of really great names in the sport,” he said. “A lot of hall of famers.”