Iron Dog snowmachine race organizers propose a ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage

Beth Bragg
Bill Roth

Before howling dogs take over downtown Anchorage next February, the streets may roar to life with the sound of revving snowmachine engines.

The Iron Dog wants to make Anchorage the start of the 2,000-mile race across Alaska, a move executive director Kevin Kastner said could increase exposure for the world's longest snowmachine race. The race typically starts in Big Lake.

"The harsh reality of the world we live in is you want to be where the population is," Kastner said. "There's a fair number of people that will drive to Big Lake on Sunday, but we feel we've kind of plateaued."

The 2015 race would begin on Saturday, Feb. 21, the week before the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race and two weeks before the start of the Iditarod.

Kastner said speeds would be restricted in Anchorage, as they are in Fairbanks, where the race ends. The machines won't travel much faster in the city than the dog teams do, he said.

The proposed trail -- which is still under discussion -- would go to Ship Creek, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and perhaps onto the mudflats near Peters Creek before briefly hitting the Glenn Highway on the Knik Bridge, Kastner said.

One lane of the bridge would be closed to accommodate the snowmachines, Kastner said.

"If we get all the way through (the Anchorage Bowl) like we would like, it would be a southbound lane closure for a few hours to get those teams single-file across the bridge," he said. "We would not have any intent to close large sections of road -- we want to be as friendly as possible."

If the Iron Dog gets approval to make the change, the race kickoff would begin Friday night with a freestyle snowmachine event, a la the Winter X Games, and a concert, Kastner said.

Racers on Saturday would travel as far as Big Lake, where there would be a mandatory layover and a Sunday restart.

But before any of that can happen, all sorts of entities need to come on board. Kastner said he's in talks with the city, the military, the state Department of Transportation and others to get permission to create a trail from downtown to Big Lake.

Lindsey Whitt, spokeswoman for Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, said the city is reviewing the Iron Dog's request. Kastner said he is meeting with city officials later this week.

Julie Saupe, the president and CEO of Visit Anchorage, said her organization loves the idea of another major event during the winter and passed a resolution of support for the proposed change.

She said the key concern is safety and noted that the Iron Dog has a good track record in Fairbanks.

"When (Kastner) first approached our board for support our first question was, 'What will you do to make it safe?' '' Saupe said.

"... It's a good fit. We really like, from a marketing respect, for things to be lined up in a nice, linear fashion, where we can invite people to come for one event and then stay to enjoy another event."

Kastner said the biggest safety fear is a mechanical problem.

"Our racers are well vetted, they're pros, so we're not worried about anyone doing anything inappropriate," he said. "A throttle stick or something going mechanically wrong, that's our No. 1 concern, but by keeping speeds slow you are already mitigating any accident or incursion with the crowd.

"We'll have fences and barriers at turns or anywhere there's a potential for a runaway machine. We want to be very conscious of that."

The change would add 40 or 50 miles to the race, which currently runs from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks.

"Once we're on other side of the Knik River bridge, we'd race from there to Big Lake," Kastner said. "That would be the actual timed portion -- we're calling it the Bridges to Big Lake.

"From downtown to the bridges it would be a parade, a ceremonial start, just because safety."

The Iron Dog, once known as the Gold Rush Classic, began in 1984 as a race from Big Lake to Nome. After several years it became a round-trip race, and in 1998 it began the Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks route.

This year's race drew 37 teams -- racers ride in two-person teams for safety reasons. Participation has been strong, Kastner said, but the crowds that come to Big Lake to watch drivers begin their journey have not been growing.

"We've had great participation -- we're getting racers from Maine, Idaho and Minnesota, from all over," Kastner said. "But from a visibility standpoint for sponsors, we've hit a level that's kind of flat."

Kastner thinks there is a ready fan base in Anchorage -- and he says the Iron Dog has ready supply of racers waiting to become the Martin Busers and DeeDee Jonrowes of snowmachining.

"We really do have the urban fan already, it's just that they've not really taken the time to drive out (to the Big Lake start)," he said. "We have the same kind of characters with rich histories as the Iditarod and we're just trying to get them exposed to a bigger population."

Reach Beth Bragg at or call her at 257-4335.