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McKenna, VanMeter repeat as Iron Dog snowmachine champions

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

As many anticipated, Iron Dog drivers Marc McKenna from Anchorage and Dusty VanMeter from Kasilof roared across the Fairbanks finish line of the world's longest and toughest snowmachine race to notch a second consecutive victory shortly after 12:30 p.m. Saturday.  The winners drove Ski-Doo machines, as did four of the next five teams.

First place had largely been decided a day earlier when the nearest competition broke down on the Yukon River and reached the Tanana checkpoint not minutes behind -- as McKenna and VanMeter had feared -- but more than an hour back.

Racers are held in that village overnight to ensure a daytime finish in Fairbanks. McKenna and VanMeter went to bed knowing they were in control, but still nervous about what could happen over the last 250 miles to the finish line.

Unknowns often decide Iron Dog

"You never know,'' VanMeter said in the finish chute. He is still haunted by what happened in 2011 when he and McKenna were leading the race only to have VanMeter sink his sled in a manmade hole in the Yukon River ice that had been opened so that gravel could be excavated for use in construction. Those kinds of "unknowns,'' he said, can decided the race.

Two years in a row, coming into Fairbanks on the winding Chena River, "we almost had head-ons (head-on-collisions)'' that could have ended any hopes of victory, he added. Driving alertly and conservatively on the outskirts of the largest city in the Alaska Interior, the drivers both times avoided accidents. Had they been able to avoid that hole in the ice two years ago, McKenna said, "we might have a had a chance three in a row.''

The Ski-Doo snowmachines of the two racers were cheered into town by a sizable crowd that gathered along the Chena despite the minus-10 cold. The families of McKenna, an Anchorage businessman, and VanMeter, a Kenai Peninsula oilfield operator, were in the finishing chute to greet the winners. McKenna jumped off his sled to hug and kiss his youngest daughter before the families of both riders piled on the machines to ride to the winner's circle on their predominately black sleds with slashes of Ski-Doo's classic yellow.

Young guns finish 4th

The Canadian manufacturer appeared to be taking over the largest, highest profile motorsport competition in the 49th state, the only one north of Canada. Behind McKenna, 38, and VanMeter, 43, four of the next five finishers were riding Ski-Doos. Among them were young guns Aaron Bartel from Anchorage and Brad George from Wasilla in fourth place. Bartel, a veteran of three previous Iron Dogs, is 22 years old, and George is only 19. They would appear to have a promising future.

The winners collected $50,000 for their victory. Both praised their equipment.

"The strategy to who wins this race is who works on (the machine) least,'' McKenna added. "The Ski-Doos are tough. That makes it easy on us.''

The sleds he and VanMeter raced this year were new but identical to what the team ran in 2011 and 2012. They have been tweaked in various ways to improve their equipment-carrying abilities -- Iron Dog racers must lug survival gear and travel in pairs for safety -- and durability. But they are largely stock. The two racers said they had to do almost nothing to the two machines on their 2,000-mile ride through the wilds of the nation's wildest state. 

All they had to do was show the judgment of when to go as fast as possible to make up time and when to take it easy to save the sleds.

"We started a little slow,'' McKenna said. "Things just started to come together in the middle of the race.''

Starting slow might not have been a bad strategy. Thirty-nine teams began the Iron Dog at Big Lake just north of Anchorage, the state's largest city, on Sunday. A dozen of them were out of the competition -- either due to injuries to the riders or mechanical failures -- before the race reached the Bering Sea coast and turned north for the halfway stop at Nome. The climb into the Alaska Range on narrow, winding trail, the run on the Yukon River, and stretches of rough, winding trail though forest paths barely the width of a snowmachine always takes a toll. 

Faster on the flats

Average speeds for the machines in those parts of the race were in the 45 mph range. By the time, McKenna and VanMeter got done racing the smoother, flatter coast and Interior Alaska rivers, they'd pushed their average to 57.22 mph. Or 47.4 mph, depending on how it was calculated. The latter, slower speed is from the GPS satellite tracking devices on the sleds of the racers. GPS data says the race course is 1,661.7 miles long. Iron Dog officials say it is closer to 2,000 miles. 

The differences arise because of the many twists and turns as well as ups and downs in the trail. The GPS takes a position reading only every few minutes. A lot can get missed when a snowmobile is covering ground at nearly 100 mph. The faster average speed for McKenna and VanMeter is based on what is believed to be the more accurate odometer measure of the course at 2,000 miles.

Whether 2,000 or 1,662, the Iron Dog trail is long, especially when things go wrong. And they can.

Early Friday, Eric Quam from Eagle River, a former Iron Dog champ, and Brian Dick, an engineer and racer for Arctic Cat snowmobiles in Thief River Falls, Minn., appeared ready to challenge for an Iron Dog victory that would have been a first. An Outside rider has never been part of a winning team, but Quam and Dick were closing on McKenna and VanMeter as the race roared east on the Yukon.

McKenna expected the two to be within minutes at Tanana, but Quam's Arctic Cat broke down between there and Ruby and had to be towed behind Dick's. By the time Quam and Dick crawled into Tanana, they were more than an hour behind the leaders. It took them 20 minutes to make repairs Saturday morning when racing resumed, but the delay dropped them further behind. Were that not enough, Quam and Dick got only about halfway to Fairbanks on Saturday before they broke down again

The GPS tracker showed them parked on the Tanana River as at least a half-dozen teams went past, including graybeards Scott Davis, 52, and Todd Palin, 48, on their Ski-Doos. A seven-time Iron Dog champ, Davis had a long and fruitful relationship with Arctic Cat, but moved to Ski-Doo this year, saying the machinery was simply better. The Soldotna businessman was hoping it would be good enough to give him an edge that would allow him to break the seven-win deadlock with retired Iron Dog champ John Faeo of Wasilla.

Sarah Palin congratulates her husband

It didn't happen, and there was speculation about whether Davis might retire. He's already done so once -- only to be lured back. He credits, in part, ever improving machinery that makes the snowmachine of today both easier to ride and easier on the body than the snowmachine of a decade ago. A decade ago, it was still uncommon to have an Iron Dog winner reach the finish line saying they never needed to do much, if anything, to fix a machine.

Davis' partner was congratulated at the finish line by his famous wife, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who posted on Facebook from the Fairbanks finish line:

"We're proud of our Iron Dogger.  Todd just told me, 'Along with the competition, this was another great trip across Alaska seeing old friends in villages . . . I'm overwhelmed by the hospitality and support shown to us in each town and village.  I love these folks. It was a rough and tough race, but I'm glad we were able to finish.' "

Iron Dog Top 6 Finishers

1) Marc McKenna and Dusty VanMeter, Ski-Doo, 36 hours, 58 minutes, 54 seconds.

2) Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson, Ski-Doo, 37:49:39.

3) Mike Morgan and Chris Olds, Polaris, 38:17:22.

4) Brad George and Aaron Bartel, Ski-Doo, 38:19:24.

5) Scott Davis and Todd Palin, Ski-Doo, 39:00:35.

6) Chris Collins and Brad Reich, Ski-Doo, 39:04:42. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com