When Howard Thies started the Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic in 1986, he wasn't sure if anyone would show up to watch snowmachines pull skiers in a race high in the Hoodoo Mountains.
But nearly 80 people showed up to watch 10 fearless teams race at raging speeds, dropping down a 5,800-foot peak near Summit Lake in the Alaska Range.
Word quickly spread that skiers had tested their limits in an event that combines skiing and snowmachining on a course accessible only by snowmachine. That was just the beginning of what has turned into one of the most-watched sporting events in Alaska.
In the neighborhood of 10,000 race fans, snowmachiners and skiers are expected to gather today for the 23rd annual Arctic Man Ski and Sno-Go Classic. Located at Mile 196 of the Richardson Highway, the Arctic Man turns a nearly deserted area into one of the state's larger communities overnight.
"I don't know why everyone shows up," Thies said by cell phone. "It's a spring fling."
Last week, about 930 motor homes had already reserved spots to watch nearly 50 skiers and snowmachiners compete for a chunk of the prize -- an estimated $36,000 purse.
One skier who won't compete is U.S. Olympian Scott Macartney of Salt Lake City, who posted the fastest time in race history last year with snowmachine partner Tyson Johnson of Eagle River.
Macartney, Arctic Man's two-time and defending champion, suffered a concussion and other injuries in January when he crashed during a World Cup downhill race before thousands of spectators in Austria.
Macartney was clocked at 87.74 mph when he lost his balance at the final jump and landed on his head, according to Associated Press reports. The impact broke his helmet and race organizers said he suffered a brain concussion.
The scary crash can be seen on YouTube. Some of the videos have already had more than 465,000 hits.
The 30-year-old had three months to recover for Arctic Man. But Thies said U.S. Ski Team doctors did not want him to compete in an event where skiers reach speeds of more than 80 mph, while being towed behind a snowmachine.
The accident left Johnson, Macartney's snowmachine driver the past two years, without a partner. Thies said if Johnson doesn't find another skier, he will watch.
"That would break his heart," Thies said.
Also disappointed is Marco Sullivan, who finished second in his Arctic Man debut last year behind his U.S. Ski Team partner.
"Last year I was trying to unseat him," Sullivan said by phone from his home in Lake Tahoe, Calif. "So this is a real bummer for me because (Macartney) was my competition."
The 27-year-old Sullivan is signed up to race with Palmer driver Tyler Aklestad.
Aklestad paired with Johnson in this year's Iron Dog, the longest and toughest snowmachine race in the world. They scratched on their way to the Fairbanks finish.
Sullivan hooked up with Aklestad thanks to Brian Burnett, a ski technician in Girdwood. Sullivan said it was a "chance deal" he and Aklestad met, but with last year's runner-up finish, they are expecting nothing less than victory.
"We'll be trying to win," Sullivan said. "But if we don't, it's not the end of the world."
Sullivan is coming to Alaska mostly to relax after the four-month World Cup season ended three weeks ago. He captured a gold medal on Jan. 26 in France, a special victory after knee injuries ruined previous World Cup seasons.
Nothing was going to stop Sullivan from competing in his second Arctic Man.
"I've been looking forward to it since last year," he said. "The whole scene up there is awesome; up in the middle of nowhere.
"The race is a lot of fun, but it's secondary. Especially for a guy who's not from Alaska."
Find Kevin Klott online at adn.com/contact/kklott or call 257-4335.
Arctic Man schedule
Mile 196 of Richardson Highway
Today: Course open for practice
Thursday: Racers' meetings at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Friday: Races start 1 p.m. There are four races: men's ski and snowmachine; women's ski and snowmachine; men's snowboard and snowmachine; women's snowboard and snowmachine
Saturday: Weather day if Friday races postponed; awards ceremony 6 p.m.