We tend to throw out terms like ‘dominate’ a little too freely when we talk about racing. However, you won’t find many people who’d argue that Polaris didn’t thoroughly dominate the field at the grueling Soo I-500 enduro race that took place this past Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013.
The Gabe Bunke-led Bunke Racing 1 team won for the second year in a row and nine Polaris teams finished in the top 10. Polaris race teams finished first through seventh and took ninth and 10th places as well. Gabe Bunke teamed with Aaron Christensen and Spencer Kadlec for the victory, the team’s second straight Soo win and the fourth of Bunke’s career.
Bunke, a Polaris cross-country racing specialist, was also a successful team owner in the 2013 Soo race, which was shortened to 455 miles from the usual 500-mile distance on the 1-mile Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. ice oval. The Bunke Racing 2 team finished second with Ryan Faust and Travis Faust sharing driving duties. Finishing third was 131 Racing, with Bobby Menne (Bunke’s cross-country racing teammate), Mike Babcock and Ivan Hanson piloting a Polaris sled.
The Bunke Racing 2 sled driven by Ryan Faust was leading as the race passed the 440-mile mark in the early evening darkness. Gabe Bunke, aboard the Bunke Racing 1 sled, had to work his way through the pack after a pit stop, and he drove masterfully, powering through traffic despite the blinding cloud of snow dust that hung above the track. Bunke took the lead on lap 451, and four laps later a caution flag flew. Race officials stopped the field on the backstretch, discussed the racing conditions – most notably the poor visibility for the racers – and they declared the race was over.
Qualifying well did not prove beneficial this year as few of the top qualifiers finished the race, and only one sled that finished in the top 10 had started in the top 10. The winning Bunke Racing team had started 12th, while the runners-up started 17th and the third-place 131 Racing team started 15th.
In recent years, Gabe Bunke has played a key role in the development of Polaris cross-country and enduro race sleds. The Polaris Racing program has struck on a winning sled setup for the Soo, and Bunke said success at the famous track always requires hard work as well as strong sleds.
“We certainly worked hard in the off-season, and we came out with three bulletproof sleds,” he told i-500.com after the race. “There were a lot of Polaris [sleds] out here today, and they did pretty well. Hopefully we can carry it along next year and other years… The Faust boys ran a heck of a race, and Bobby Menne, we built the [131 Racing] sled in our shop. We didn’t have the same program for him, but he didn’t do bad for his first time. It was an awesome day.
“It’s the 45th [Soo] race, and it was dedicated to my good friend Leroy Lindblad. It’s pretty special,” Bunke said. Lindblad, a Polaris cross-country star who raced in the 1970s with Bunke’s late father Jerry, passed away in the past year. Lindblad was on the Polaris team that won the Soo I-500 in 1974.
All Polaris racers at the Soo, as well as snocross racers who raced in an ISOC event in South Dakota, raced with heavy hearts after the Jan. 31 death of Polaris snowmobile freestyle star Caleb Moore.