Rush is on to mush in Iditarod

Mike Campbell

Mushers will start signing up for the 2009 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this morning -- and they better have a fat checking account.

The entry fee for next year's Last Great Race is $4,000, up from $3,000 this year and $1,860 in 2007 -- a 115 percent increase.

Chas St. George, the Iditarod director of public relations, said 15 entries have already arrived by mail. Mushers who sign up early get to draw for the more-favorable early start positions.

Last year, 110 paid to enter the race and 96 left the Fourth Avenue starting line in March. This year's field will be capped at 100 mushers.

Even with a $4,000 entry fee, said Iditarod board member Mark Moderow, mushers are paying a fraction of what it costs to stage the long, cold adventure.

When last calculated, the cost per musher of putting on the Iditarod came to about $12,000, said St. George. Sponsors and revenue from Iditarod-related enterprises make up the difference.

Concerns about fuel prices and insurance costs contributed to the board's decision to raise the entry fee and reduce the race purse from $900,000 this year to $660,000 for the 2009 race in March. The winner will still collect $69,000, said Iditarod veteran Moderow, but the prizes going to other top mushers will be reduced.

Iditarod president Stan Hooley said race expenses -- excluding prize money -- have shot up nearly 500 percent since the mid-1990s, going from $208,000 to more than $1 million.

"At times," he said, "various expenses ... grow at rates that outpace our ability to grow our revenues."

But a handful of hardscrabble, back-of-the-pack mushers hanging on along the rural road system may be hit hardest by the price hike. One of them earlier this month said he can't afford it.

"It is very unfortunate that the sign-up fee has gotten in the way of an otherwise great sporting event between mankind and the great canine athletes," said G.B. Jones, who has finished two of the six Iditarods he's started.

Last year, 56 mushers signed up on the first Saturday and another 15 arrived by mail

A general membership meeting starts at 10 a.m. at Iditarod Headquarters, Mile 2.2 of Knik Road in Wasilla. Election results for the Iditarod board of directors will be announced. Three seats are being contested.

• Mike Owens of Nome is seeking re-election.

• Richard Burmeister of Nome is stepping down after 12 years, including three as board president. Burmeister ran both the 1979 and 1981 Iditarods. Donna Quante and Aaron Burmeister, Richard's son, are running for his seat. Aaron has finished 11 Iditarods, with six consecutive top-25 finishes. He was 19th this March.

• Dan Seavey of Seward is seeking re-election.

A volunteer appreciation picnic begins at noon.