McKenna, VanMeter win Iron Dog by more than an hour

Fairbanks Daily News-MinerFebruary 25, 2012 

FAIRBANKS -- Holding a bottle of champagne in one hand and his 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Asa, in the other, Marc McKenna tipped the bottle up, took a big swig and then shook it up and sprayed family and friends who had surrounded him.

Next to McKenna, racing partner Dusty VanMeter was being interviewed by an Anchorage television station as his 9-year-old son, Brayden sat next to him on his still-smoking Ski-Doo.

Queen's "We Are The Champions" blared from speakers sitting on top of an RV parked on the Chena River.

To the Iron Dog victors go the spoils.

McKenna, of Anchorage, and VanMeter, of Kasilof, cruised to a record-breaking victory in the Iron Dog on Saturday, capturing bragging rights to what is billed as the world's longest and toughest snowmachine race, as well as a $50,000 first-place prize to share.

The two Ski-Doo riders crossed the finish line on the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks at 12:22 p.m. to the cheering of a few hundred spectators, most of whom were clad in some kind of snowmachine garb.

Their official time on the 2,000-mile course from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks of 35 hours, 39 minutes, 56 seconds was almost 45 minutes ahead of the second-place team of Tyler Huntington and Tre West and obliterated the 2009 course record of 37:19:08, even though the trail was approximately 70 miles longer. Their average speed on the 2,000-mile trail was 56.97 mph.

"It was a fast trail and we had a little bit of luck," said McKenna, still holding his daughter. "You gotta have the ball roll your way in this race and this year it did."

While both McKenna, 37, and VanMeter, 42, have won the race before with other partners, this was their first win together after becoming a team four years ago. It was VanMeter's fourth Iron Dog title and McKenna's third.

It marked the second time in the 28-year history of the race that a Ski-Doo team has won the Iron Dog. The other Ski-Doo win came when VanMeter won his last title in 2004 with Mark Carr.

"I was beginning to think if it wasn't for bad luck we wouldn't have any luck," VanMeter said.

But this year, bad luck struck their competitors, most notably the Polaris team of Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad, who appeared on the verge of catching and passing McKenna and VanMeter on Friday before encountering mechanical problems about 350 miles from the finish.

Minnick and Olstad, the 2009 champs and previous course record holders, were nine minutes behind McKenna and VanMeter leaving Galena, 400 miles from the finish, after slicing 17 minutes off of the 26-minute lead McKenna and VanMeter had leaving Unalakleet.

That was as close as they would come, however. A broken jackshaft on one of their machines ended any hopes they had for catching the leaders. They spent five hours in Ruby waiting for parts and limped into Tanana. On Saturday, they made as far as Manley before running into more mechanical problems. They were still parked in Manley as of 5 p.m., according to the Iron Dog web site.

When VanMeter got to Tanana on Friday afternoon and heard Minnick and Olstad had broken down, he wasn't surprised.

"We knew if they made 15 minutes up on us they were beating through stuff we crawled through," VanMeter said. "It was good trail but it wasn't smooth. There was some rough stuff. There were ice chunks all over the coast. It's nasty trail here and there. When you get that many miles under a machine you gotta take it easy now and then."

Racers averaged more than 95 mph on some stretches of the Yukon River on the southbound leg to Fairbanks. Huntington and West averaged 99.6 mph between Kaltag and Galena while Minnick and Olstad were close behind at 98 mph. McKenna and VanMeter averaged 93 mph on that stretch.

McKenna admitted to looking over his shoulder for Minnick and Olstad.

"We knew they were coming and they were pushing hard," McKenna said. "We didn't plan on letting them get that close but I got stuck on my way into Kaltag and we lost 15 minutes. We lost our cushion. But we kept our head about us and kept riding. When we left Galena we were ready to start getting on it."

Even with a 48-minute lead over Huntington and West leaving Tanana on Saturday morning, McKenna and VanMeter didn't necessarily play it conservatively. They averaged almost 75 mph from Tanana to North Pole before backing off slightly on the final 35-mile leg to Fairbanks down the Chena River, where they averaged 52.6 mph.

"You don't ever know if you've got it in the bag," McKenna said.

Second-place was worth $36,000 for Huntington and West, who were racing together for the first time. Huntington, of Fairbanks, had won the previous two races with Chris Olds but the two racers parted ways this year to ride with new partners. Olds and his new partner, Mike Morgan, were one of the three teams Huntington and West passed on the 900-mile southbound leg from Nome to Fairbanks to climb from fifth place to second place.

"I'm happy with where we are," Huntington said after he and West drove their Polarises across the finish line. "You can't ask for anything else except one spot higher."

Even though they knew their only chance for a win was slim facing a 48-minute deficit over the last 291 miles, Huntington said he and West never let off the throttle between Tanana and Fairbanks.

"We pushed it all the way in," Huntington said. "We never let off until right around the corner (before the finish)."

Third place went to the Polaris team of Ryan Sottosanti and Andy Zwink, who finished in 37 hours, 33 minutes, 54 seconds to win $18,000 in prize money.

They were followed in fourth place by Morgan and Olds, also on Polarises, with a time of 38:06:28 that earned them $12,000. Rounding out the top five was the veteran Arctic Cat team of Todd Palin and Scott Davis in 35:25:09. They won $10,000.

As of 5 p.m. Saturday, 15 of the 24 teams that left Tanana had finished and another eight were on the trail. Thirty teams started the race.

Iron Dog results

1) Marc McKenna (Anchorage) and Dusty Van Meter (Kasilof), Ski-Doo, 35 hours, 39 minutes, 56 seconds (breaks old record of 37:19:08), $50,000.

2) Tyler Huntington (Fairbanks) and Tre West (Nome), Polaris, 36:23:54, $36,000.

3) Ryan Sottosanti (Anchorage) and Andy Zwink (Wasilla), Polaris, 37:33:54, $18,000.

4) Mike Morgan (Nome) and Chris Olds (Eagle River), Polaris, 38:06:28, $12,000

5) Todd Palin (Wasilla) and Scott Davis (Soldotna), Arctic Cat, 39:25:09, $10,000.

6) Chad Gueco (Anchorage) and Tyson Johnson (Wasilla), Ski-Doo, 40:25:32.

7) Archie Agnes (Tanana) and Arnold Marks, Jr. (Tanana), Polaris, 41:19:17.

8) Bob Jauhola (Fairbanks) and Tommy Kriska (Fairbanks), Ski-Doo, 41:34:22.

9) Bob Gardner (Maine) and Dave Hammond (Maine), Ski-Doo, 44:09:51

10) Brian Dick (Thief River Falls, Minn.) and Paul Dick (Grand Rapids, Minn.), Arctic Cat, 45:15:36.

11) Lee Harrison (Wasilla) and Charlie Potter (Wasilla), Polaris, 50:44:32.

12) Kelly Sommer (Nulato) and Harold Warner (Galena), Polaris, 52:42:34.

13) Steven Boney (Bethel) and Arthur Laraux (Bethel), Yamaha, 57:01:19.

14) Rusty Goodman (Palmer) and Lawrence Jones (Anchorage), Polaris, 57:24:24.

15) Mike Swiantek (Wasilla) and Randy Gravatt (Island Park, Idaho), Arctic Cat, 59:10:32.

16) Howard Darling (Anchorage)) and Justin Robertson (Anchorage), Polaris, 57:37:01.

17) Jeremiah Jones (Denver, Colo.) and Robbie Muir (Anchorage), Ski-Doo, 60:04:35.

18) Harold Attla (Fairbanks) and Archie Beetus (Hughes), Polaris, 61:13:29.

19) Jana Peterson-Pevan (Willlow) and Carl Swenson (Big Lake), Arctic Cat, 61:37:46.

20) Joseph Brantley (Selawik) and Frank Ferreira (Noorvik), Polaris, 65:47:27.

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