WASILLA -- Experience -- i.e. age -- tends to be the key trait shared by winners of the 2,000-mile Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race, which begins today on Big Lake.
Conventional wisdom would thus discount the first-time partnership of 28-year-old Todd Minnick and 25-year-old Nick Olstad, both of Wasilla, as contenders.
Conventional wisdom might be wrong.
Despite their relative youth -- compare them with last year's winners, Scott Davis of Soldotna and Todd Palin of Wasilla, who are both over 40 -- Minnick and Olstad are old hands at snowmachine racing.
Minnick for the past six years partnered with John Faeo of Wasilla, who raced every Iron Dog from its inception in 1984 until retiring last year. The 52-year-old Faeo, who won a record seven times, saw something in Minnick when he opted to ride with him in 2002. Back then, Minnick was a 22-year-old rookie fresh off of winning the Klondike 400 and Valdez Mayors Cup.
Olstad also has an impressive resume. As a rookie, he won the 2005 Iron Dog with then-partner Marc McKenna of Anchorage, and he's twice claimed the Valdez Mayors Cup as well as titles in local races.
"I think they're two of the best riders in the state," said Faeo, who will fly air support for Minnick and Olstad in his Piper Super Cub for the first part of the race. "And they're both well-rounded mechanically. They have an excellent chance."
Minnick's highest Iron Dog finish is sixth, in 2005. Engine problems ended the Iron Dog for Minnick and Faeo for three of the past four years.
Olstad hasn't finished the past two races. Last year, partner McKenna broke ribs when he was thrown from his sled during a wreck outside of Unalakleet; the year before, McKenna hit a tree outside of Rohn and Olstad smacked into him from behind, which totaled both sleds.
"It just wasn't our year," Olstad said. "It's always something."
Consider how cold it would be to drive a snowmachine at 50-60 mph at 45 degrees below zero.
Or the disconcerting feeling of trying to find the trail in a blizzard so thick with fat snowflakes and fog that you can barely make out your partner 10 feet away.
Or the frustration of getting stuck in bottomless powder, your machine laboring to move in snow the consistency of sugar.
Or breaking down miles from a checkpoint and making makeshift repairs in subzero cold by the light of a headlamp.
These are just a few of the variables Iron Dog riders have faced over the years. Overflow and open water on rivers and injuries from wrecks aren't unusual.
For those reasons, racers spend as much time inspecting, modifying and reinforcing their sleds as they do on training rides. The training rides -- Minnick and Olstad will have ridden 3,000 miles before today's 11 a.m. start -- are as much to see what breaks on the sleds as they are to condition back, shoulders and arms for 2,000 miles of racing over seven days.
That kind of homework -- knowing your sled down to every 25-cent nut -- distinguishes the top riders. It's a given that some sort of repair, major or minor, will have to be made along the trail.
And that's one reason Minnick and Olstad could contend.
Minnick, an equipment operator with his father's Wasilla construction business, has been racing and working on sleds since before he entered high school.
Olstad, a welder and pipe fitter with Udelhoven Oilfield System Services, kept the family's old Elan snowmachine running as a kid. At 14, he bought a Polaris with a blown motor and rebuilt it himself.
Socket wrenches ratcheted and country music played softly on a recent evening as Minnick and Olstad worked on their stripped-down Polaris IQ 600 snowmachines in Minnick's clean, spacious, meticulously organized and well-lit shop.
Both sleds were propped up side by side above the cement floor. Minnick and Olstad were rebuilding the sleds, part by part, at the same time in the same order.
Opposite the stripped-down machines were two more Polaris "practice sleds" they rode for testing.
The work is necessary because Iron Doggers ride newer machines just about every year, Minnick said. They get one model dialed in, then start work on the next. Certain modifications, such as adding an auxiliary fuel tank under the seat, are standard Iron Dog add-ons.
"We do a lot more wrenching than training," said Minnick, looking up from his sled. He and Olstad worked on their machines past midnight most weekday evenings.
The Polaris sleds retail for about $10,000. Olstad said he wouldn't sell his race-ready Polaris for less than $20,000.
Olstad found himself looking for a new partner after McKenna decided to race this year with his old partner, Eric Quam of Eagle River. Quam broke his leg before the 2004 Iron Dog and served as mechanic for McKenna and Olstad. This is Quam's first race since his accident.
"There was no bad blood," Olstad said, adding that he talks to McKenna several times a week. "He just wanted to try something different. I learned a bunch of stuff riding with Marc. He's fast and knows the trail pretty well."
Minnick also was looking for a new partner after Faeo retired. Minnick and Olstad had ridden some together when both were teenagers and competed against each other in various races. Both grew up in Wasilla and now live within three miles of each other. It seemed a natural fit.
"Nick is a good, fast, smart kid," Minnick said. "To go from John to Nick, I can't complain. I've been very fortunate.
"We're both young and real competitive," Minnick said. "He's pushing me and I'm pushing him."
Daily News sports reporter Ron Wilmot can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 1-907-352-6712.