The Iditarod is cracking down on "outside assistance" -- help mushers can receive from supporters at checkpoints.
At the urging of mushers, particularly four-time champion Martin Buser, the board of directors tightened the rules this summer, said race marshal Mark Nordman.
Nordman said that Buser alerted him in the village of Elim, far into the race, that another musher seemed to be getting a lot of attention from a close relative and race expert who was following along the trail by snowmachine. Buser also spoke out about the issue at a post-race mushers meeting in Nome.
The musher in question was Ramy Brooks, the second-place finisher who hails from three generations of famed Alaska dog drivers. The allegation was that Brooks' mother, sprint-racing champion Roxy Wright, may have offered a little too much race-related information to her son.
Brooks, who finished two hours behind Buser, strenuously denied that in an interview recently, saying he ran his own race.
"I didn't break any rules," he said. "I'm going to support the rules because my life revolves around the Iditarod."
Wright did not return numerous phone messages seeking comment.
Race rules prohibit mushers from receiving assistance or coaching anywhere along the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. Mushers are also barred from having anyone care for their dogs or gear. Race judges have had the authority to penalize or even disqualify a musher who breaks these rules, which have been enforced with varying degrees of muscle over the years.
"The rule has been bounced around in various forms since the beginning of the race. It's gyrated from ludicrous to lax enforcement, and now it's swung back again," said race commentator and former Iditarod champion Joe Runyan.
The Iditarod board has added a time penalty at the White Mountain checkpoint for anyone who violates the rule on outside assistance. The race marshal has the discretion to determine the length of the penalty. Nordman said it could affect the outcome of the race because White Mountain is just 77 miles from the finish line in Nome.
In a competition during which sleep deprivation is one of the toughest obstacles, mushers say a well-rested race consultant can provide pivotal advice on strategy. Many times it's unintentional chitchatting at checkpoints over who's where and doing what. But other times, people may knowingly overstep the lines. It'll be up to the judges to watch for rule violations. The marshal will decide whether to penalize the musher with a warning, a time penalty or disqualification.
Buser, contacted in California two weeks ago, said his race wasn't affected by what happened along the trail, but he was concerned for other mushers.
"I filed my first protest in 19 years because I didn't feel Dee Dee Jonrowe and John Baker were getting a fair shake," Buser said.
For much of the race Buser and Brooks ran in first and second place. Jonrowe held on to fourth until Elim when her team began faltering. The Willow musher, who is undergoing cancer treatment, eventually fell back to 16th.
Baker of Kotzebue, a rising star in sled dog racing, took third.
Wright, who was filing race reports for her son's Web site, traveled by snowmachine along the trail and was present at nearly all 11 of the checkpoints on the 440-mile stretch from Ruby to Nome, Nordman said.
"Did Roxy's involvement change the outcome of the race?" Nordman said. "No. Martin still had the best team."
But the perception remained that someone with Wright's experience and expertise could easily pass along useful information, like where competitors were or how many dogs they had left or where they were resting, Nordman said.
"We can't have everyone out there with their pit crews," he said.
Now seven months removed from when he set a new Iditarod record by covering the 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome in less then nine days, Buser downplayed the significance of the rule change. At the same time, he emphasized that a level playing field is vital to keeping the Iditarod fair.
"I choose to race according to the rules," Buser said.
Brooks said he does too and that he has no problem with the action taken by the Iditarod board.
"If someone is getting outside assistance, the rules state what should happen," Brooks said. "The officials have to enforce the rules."
After Buser voiced his concerns along the trail, Nordman said he spoke to Wright and told her to put some distance between her and her son. She responded appropriately, and Nordman said he saw no need to penalize Brooks.
Some mushers also complained that three Norwegian racers seemed to be getting a lot of strategy advice from their webmaster, who was following them from checkpoint to checkpoint. Nordman said the concerns were serious enough that the Iditarod Rules Committee decided to review the matter when it met in May. The panel suggested adding tougher language to Rule 31 -- the one governing outside assistance -- and the board approved the change in early June.
Veteran Iditarod musher Bill Cotter of Nenana said he supports the crackdown.
"It's just time to make it so there's at least not the appearance of it," Cotter said.
Vern Halter of Willow, who placed fifth this year, thinks the new rule will level the playing field.
"I don't want them to take the total fun out of the race, but I do think they need to make sure that there's not too much support out there that could improve your competitive advantage," Halter said.
John Baker said Wright's presence on the trail didn't affect his race. Winning ultimately comes down to having the best dog team, he said. Still, Baker doesn't think the rule change is a bad idea.
"I would hate to discourage someone like Roxy from being on the trail. She's an excellent representative of the racing community. Yet on the other side, we have to make sure that one musher won't get more help than another," he said.
Reporter Paula Dobbyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-257-4317.