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Iron Dog leaders arrive in Nome, prepare for long haul to Fairbanks

Craig Medred
Four teams in the 2014 Iron Dog were vying for the lead when they pulled into Nome Tuesday afternoon, but a couple of big names have already dropped out of this year's race -- and may never be back for another start. Loren Holmes photo

The February sun was still bright over the Bering Sea ice outside of Nome when the leaders of the world's longest, toughest snowmobile race rolled into the coastal community late Tuesday afternoon.

Behind them was 1,100 miles of rough, sometimes snowless trail stretching to the Southcentral Alaska community of Big Lake, where the race began Sunday. Despite the conditions, race leaders Chris Olds, a 42-year-old construction project manager from the Anchorage suburb of Eagle River, and Mike Morgan, a 28-year-old welder from Nome, averaged 50 mph on their way to Nome.

The rough trail was not so kind to others. Scott Davis, a seven-time champ, and teammate Aaron Bartel dropped out of the race earlier in the day along the Yukon River after one of their sleds broke down. Davis thus joined former racing partner Todd Palin on the did-not-finish list for the 2014 running of the Iron Dog.

Palin -- a four-time champion now best known to most people as the husband of former Alaska governor and political celebrity Sarah Palin -- and his partner dropped out on the first day of the race with mechanical problems. Some were wondering if the race might have seen the last of both Palin and Davis after this year's disappointments.

They teamed to win in 2007. It was the last victory for either of them. Palin is now 49 years old. Davis, the owner of Davis Block & Concrete, a successful Soldotna company, is 54 and already once-retired. 

Not only that, Davis has an obvious heir to the throne waiting in the wings. He raced to a third-place finish with son Cory, then 22, in 2011. Cory, who is making a career out of racing and performing aerial tricks on snowmachines, has since ditched dad in favor of a younger partner and the support of Thief River Falls, Minn.-based Arctic Cat snowmachines.

Both dad, long an Arctic Cat rider, and then-partner Palin switched their allegiance to Ski-Doo in 2012 when the Canadian manufacturer looked ready to dominate the Iron Dog with a new engine and improved suspension. Ski-Doo riders Mark McKenna from Anchorage and Dusty VanMeter have won the past two Iron Dogs.

Ski-Doo dominance is seriously under threat this year, however. Race leaders Olds and Morgan are on brand new Polaris sleds. On the 1,100-mile run to Nome, they built a lead of about 25 minutes on Cory Davis, now 25, and 31-year-old Iron Dog rookie Ryan Simons from Camrose, Alberta, Canada.

No Outside rider, as Alaskans call those from the Lower 48 and even neighboring country Canada, has ever been a member of a winning Iron Dog team. Should Cory and Simons prove capable of running down the leaders on their Arctic Cats in the second half of the race from Nome to Fairbanks, Simons would be able to claim a first.

The hard-earned lead held by Olds and Morgan is not large. Three teams -- including Cory and Simons, and McKenna and VanMeter -- are within an hour of the leaders. The third team is that of 34-year-old Todd Minnick and 31-year-old Nick Olstand, both from Wasilla and both past champs.

They are about half an hour off the lead, riding on another pair of Polarises. 

The Iron Dog rests in Nome on Wednesday. There is a halfway celebration and banquet there before racing resumes Thursday morning. The race finishes in Fairbanks on Saturday.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.