Difficult trail takes its toll on Iron Dog snowmachine racers

Mike Campbell
Spectators watch the start of the Iron Dog at Big Lake Feb. 21, 2010, as competitors in the pro class begin the nearly 2,000-mile race across the Alaska wilderness from Big Lake to Nome to the finish in Fairbanks.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Tammy Barber and Jana Pevan are the third women's team to compete in the Iron Dog.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Decorated champions fell victim to the brutal Iron Dog trail nearly as fast as rookies did on Monday.

By the time an unusually warm February sun dipped below the Alaska Range in the late afternoon, four former champions who had collected 15 Iron Dog titles among them -- Scott Davis, Todd Palin, Dusty VanMeter and Marc McKenna -- had retreated to the sidelines.

Decidedly not in that group were defending champions Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad, who pulled into the Yukon River town of Galena at 5:42 p.m. in front of a field slimmed down from 29 to 22 teams.

But the most experienced driver in the 27th Iron Dog, seven-time champion Davis of Soldotna, scratched with partner Palin near the Rainy Pass checkpoint in the Alaska Range.

Davis, 51, said a combination of problems put the duo out of contention and, eventually, out of the race. A crash broke the handlebars on Davis' Arctic Cat snowmobile as well as some springs. His back, which was sore at the start, worsened steadily.

"It was an accumulation of stuff," Davis said by phone. "It just wasn't going our way. We probably could have slugged it out with the kids, but when you're 140 miles behind and a couple of hours down, you wonder if it's worth it."

Wet snow carved up by rain, heat and nearly 100 snowmachines left the trail deeply rutted and full of bumps. Davis and Palin started 22nd among the 29 teams on Sunday, putting them behind most of the pro class racers as well as the 28 trail class riders who started on Friday.

"It was as bad as I've ever seen it," said Davis, who ran his first Iron Dog in 1984. "It's pretty torn up. A lot of machines went over it. It's going to be one of those survival years."

In many Iron Dogs, the number of racers who scratch exceeds those who reach the finish line. With almost a quarter of the field already out of the race, this could be one of them.

The depressing day left Davis talking about quitting a race he's dominated for decades, a move he's mentioned before.

"Nope, I'm done," he said at first. "My thoughts were to retire after those seven," he said, referring to his record-tying seventh championship in 2007 with Palin.

"We're still competitive," he allowed later, "but things have to go our way."

"I'll never say never," he said still later. If you quit every time you don't win or have to scratch, you wouldn't last very long in this race."

Other teams bowing out in the early hours of the race were Nome drivers Joe Fullwood and Mike Morgan; Tommy Kriska of Fairbanks and Tre West II of Nome; rookies Micah Huss of Anchorage and Brandon Baxter of Windber, Penn.; brothers Fred and Kelly Smith; and the warm-weather pair of Daniel Lowrie of Albuquerque, N.M., and Raymond Rapp of Phoenix.

But while many drivers struggled, the defending champions looked magnificent as they pulled away on the thick frozen ice of the Yukon River.

Nightfall found Minnick and Olstad starting a mandatory eight-hour layover in Galena, while the second-place drivers Chris Olds of Eagle River and Tyler Huntington of Galena were on the Yukon River out of Ruby with a 50-mile drive ahead of them before they'd reach Galena. The third-place tandem of Doug Dixon of Anchorage and Stephen Spence of Wasilla were out of Poorman and on their way to Ruby.

Galena is second of three mandatory stops all teams must make heading northwest to Nome. McGrath was the first and Unalalkeet on the Norton Sound coast is the final one.

Last year's runners-up, Tyler Aklestad of Wasilla and Tyson Johnson of Eagle River, were out of Ophir at 4:28 p.m. in fourth place.

Earlier Monday, Anchorage rookie Louis Miller III said the trail was fine until he and his son, Louis Miller IV, reached Rohn before making a stop-and-go 80-mile run across the tussock-strewn Farewell Burn.

Riding mostly on dirt, the pair's Polaris IQ Shift 600 snowmobiles kept overheating. Every five minutes or so, they would stop and gather some snow to pack over the engine to cool it before they could proceed. He estimated the ride across the Burn took more than four hours.

"It's really rough," Miller III said by phone from McGrath. "I hit one of the tussocks hard, it and threw me over on the ice. They don't move, you know."

The third-place team of Stephen Spence and Doug Dixon was a surprise. Dixon is a rookie and Spence, who scratched last year, was seventh in 2008.

Just as surprising was that early Monday the third all-women team in race history -- Tammy Barber and Jana Pevan -- were not only in the middle of the pack but ahead of Polaris drivers Aaron Loyer and Shane Barber, who wrestled with mechanical problems on their Polaris machines.

Before the race, Tammy allowed, "If I beat him, he's in trouble."

By nightfall, though, both teams were in the midst of a mandatory 12-hour break in McGrath.

Race on.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.

Complete Iron Dog race coverage
Course map
Leaderboard: Track the racers
Audio slide show: Women's teammates discuss their race