UNALAKLEET -- Driving his dogs at a blistering 130 mph into Ruby, Martin Buser on Friday was on pace to break his own race record in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The only problem -- the four-time champion from Big Lake was headed back toward Willow.
At least that's what thousands of Iditarod fans thought.
The 49-year-old musher pulled a fast one on Idit-a-nation during his 24-hour mandatory layover in the remote checkpoint of Cripple. Buser gave his IonEarth tracking device to an Iditarod Air Force pilot headed for McGrath to make Web users believe his team was running furiously off the grid. The unit showed Buser traveling south at 130 mph along the Iditarod Trail.
"It took a little ride," said Buser, while entertaining an audience of locals late Sunday night here in this Bering Sea town. "It was funny. Well, I thought (it was) at least.
"I guess they thought it wasn't funny enough for me to keep me wearing it. So they took it away from me, which is saving me 2 pounds."
The "they" Buser referred to is the Iditarod Trail Committee and IonEarth, the company the Iditarod hired to track 17 mushers and one trailbreaker with Global Positioning Systems units along the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail.
To them, Buser's prank wasn't so funny.
IonEarth's Jerry Miller said Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley wasn't amused with Buser's stunt. At first, Miller wasn't either. But this year is only a test run of the system -- and after a little footwork, IonEarth got the unit back.
"I was trying to pull a fast one," Buser said.
Miller is flying the Iditarod Trail to see how the units are working. He caught up with Buser in Cripple.
"Hey Martin," Miller said. "How's that unit staying on your sled?"
"Oh yeah, everything's OK," Buser said in his Swiss accent.
"Well let me take a look at it," Miller said.
Buser froze, Miller said.
"Well, I just gave it to a pilot," Buser said. "He's flying around with it. He'll have it back in the morning."
"I chuckled a little," Miller said. "Everyone was freaking out because here was Martin's GPS flying around."
Buser never got the tracker back. Miller gave it to musher Sylvia Willis of Deshka Landing instead.
From the start of the Iditarod on March 3, Buser wasn't thrilled about carrying a tracking device. He thought the technology had the potential to destroy race strategies. With that in mind, he contemplated ways to play tricks on Web users on his way to Cripple.
"I was going to pack it in hand warmers," he said. "But it was already warm outside. So when I got to my 24 (hour layover in Cripple), I gave it to one of the pilots.
"And he gave it to a different pilot."
According to one Iditarod Air Force pilot, Iditarod fans flooded the trail committee's e-mail account with hundreds of e-mails asking what happened to their lovable four-time champion.
"Why is Buser going backwards 130 mph?" Buser asked. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.
"I was going to give it back before my 24 was over."
In some ways the furor over Buser indicates how popular tracking has been to race fans. But it's not the only indication. On Monday, Miller said the IonEarth Web site has crashed a dozen times.
Find Daily News sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklott or 257-4335.