Nine hours after the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race began at Big Lake, Alaska, on Sunday, the pretenders in the world's longest, toughest snowmobile race were spread out along a couple hundred miles of the Iditarod Trail north and south of the Alaska Range, and the top contenders had reached the Interior Alaska community of McGrath.
They began arriving just past supper time, but not so late they couldn't grab a bite to eat before hitting the sack for a well-deserved rest. The usual suspects were at the front, led by 41-year-old Chris Olds from Eagle River and new partner Mike Morgan, 27, from Anchorage, who roared into the wilderness outpost at 7:05 p.m.
Olds won this race 2010 and 2011 when he paired with another younger rider, Tyler Huntington from Fairbanks. Olds is now introducing another young partner to wilderness racing, and it appears to be going well. They were chased into McGrath, a community of about 350 residents about 220 miles northwest of Anchorage, by Tyler Aklestad, 27, from Palmer and Tyson Johnson, 33, from Eagle River.
Between them, that duo has started 26 Iron Dogs. They’ve regularly been in the hunt but crashed out almost as often as they’ve finished. Teams race in pairs by rule because of the danger of such crashes in the isolated wilderness along the 2,000-mile trail from Big Lake to McGrath to Unalakleet to Nome, where racers pause for 36 hours before heading toward to finish line in Fairbanks. The rule has saved the life of more than one racer.
New faces in lead pack
Chasing Akelstad and Johnson north from the start were two surprising racers -- 22-year-old Aaron Bartel from Anchorage and 19-year-old Brad George from Wasilla. George started the Iron Dog last year, but did not finish. Bartel last raced in 2011 and finished after a DNF in 2010. They lack the seasoning of those running nearest them: Eric Quam, the 2008 winner from Palmer, and new partner Brian Dick from Thief River Falls, Minn. Thief River is the home of Arctic Cat, one of the big four of snowmachine production in the U.S. Dick is an experienced Team Arctic rider and an engineer for the snowmobile company.
Rounding out the bunch of early leaders were Scott Davis, the race's only active seven-time champ from Soldotna, and partner Todd Palin, a five-time victor from Wasilla; 2010 champs Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad from Wasilla; and defending race champions Mark McKenna from Anchorage and Dusty VanMeter from Kasilof. Between them they have seven Iron Dog victories.
The 24th of 39 teams to leave the start line for the race with a $210,000 purse, McKenna and VanMeter had to claw their way through a lot of traffic to get near the front. By the time they roared off Big Lake into the flat light beneath the gray skies on Sunday, the lead team was already closing on the checkpoint in the small congregation of people called Skwentna, 60 miles north along the Iditarod Trail and the last taste of civilization enroute to the vast wilderness ahead.
Palins' celebrity exceeds race's
Skwentna always offers the racers a warm welcome. Mark Torkelson, who owns the Skwentna Roadhouse along with partner Cindi Herman, was once among the Iron Dog racers. Now retired from snowmachine racing, he won the Iron Dog in 1989 with partner Davis from Soldotna. Davis continues racing, his seven Iron Dog victories, tying him with the legendary John Faeo of Wasilla as the winningest racer in Iron Dog history.
But he is now also nationally recognized for his ties to present partner Todd Palin, a B-list celebrity from the TV show "Stars Earn Stripes" and the husband of A-list celebrity Sarah Palin of Wasilla, the former Alaska governor and failed Republican vice-presidential candidate, who has gone on to huge success as an author, reality-TV star, and Tea Party inspiration. Sarah was at the Big Lake start on Sunday to bid her husband goodbye, but didn’t appear to leave the truck she drove that was parked on the ice.
A four-time Iron Dog winner, Todd is known as a great teammate.
"Todd hates to lead, and I hate to follow,'' Davis told Men's Journal magazine back in April 2009, just before the Palins of Alaska vaulted onto the national stage. Three months later, Sarah quit her job halfway through her term as governor and the rest is history. The chaos that followed kept Todd out of the 2010 Iron Dog.
But were back, albeit on separate teams, in 2011, and last year they teamed to finish fifth behind a bunch of younger racers. They hope to do better this year, and with the snow flying south of the Alaska Range, Todd was one of those on the trail with a special skill -- a willingness and ability to ride in the rooster tail of snow behind a partner.
"I hate the snow dust,'' Davis told Men's Journal reporter Daniel Duane. "I fucking hate it.''
Nasty crash sidelines two-time champ
Former Iron Dog champ Tyler Huntington was in the snow dust of partner Evan Booth along the Bering Sea coast about three weeks ago when he painfully outlined the reason Davis hates riding back there. Speeding along the coast near the remote village of Shaktoolik at about 80 mph, he hit a chunk of driftwood unseen in the spindrift and crashed badly. He might have died had not Booth organized a prompt and efficient rescue that ended with Huntington in Anchorage hospital undergoing emergency surgery hours after the accident.
He is now on a long trail back to recovery, and among more than a half-dozen or so Iron Dog entrants who couldn't make it to the starting line this year because of injuries suffered in training. Booth, a two-time Iron Dog champ, stayed in the race, but with a replacement partner -- Anchorage businessman Doug Dixon. Dixon is a three-time Iron Dog finisher, but he's no Todd Palin.
He and Booth were averaging less than 45 mph on the trail to Skwentna Sunday afternoon, according to the GPS tracking system Iron Dog now requires racers put on their sleds. The race leaders in 2012 averaged near 90 mph to Skwentna last year. But that was then, and this is now. Rough trail and falling snow stirred by snowmachine tracks were seriously slowing things down. There was reported to be less snow falling in the Alaska Range, which likely helped.
As Davis has in the past observed, the Iron Dog is a third preparation, a third execution and a third luck with Mother Nature still playing a large role. Blizzards, 50-degree-below zero cold, lack of snow and even floods have caused problems during past races. Flooding on Big Lake earlier this year raised fears the race start might have to be moved. The race stalled along the Bering Sea coast last year and then was put under a yellow flag, an Iron Dog first, for almost 200 miles from Unalakleet to Nome after high tides and coastal storm put parts of the trail underwater.
The biggest problem this year -- at least so far -- has been the shortage of snow before February, which forced competitors to train on rough, icy trails, causing injuries. And then came the snow, too late to make anything better but just in time to add to problems for racers.
Battleground to snowmachine makers
Early race leaders Olds and Morgan were on a pair of Polaris Switchback snowmachines, an upgrade to the machines on which Olds and Huntington dominated the race in 2010 and 2011 before they parted ways. Iron Dog partnerships change almost as often as the weather in Alaska.
Meanwhile, the 2,000-mile course has become a battleground for three of the big four manufactures of snowmobiles in North America. For years, Minnesota-based brands Polaris and Arctic Cat dominated, but last year the race was won on Canadian Ski-doos by Mark McKenna of Anchorage and Dusty Van Meter of Kasilof. Van Meter is the only Iron Dog racer to have won an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, albeit the Junior Iditarod in 1988. He switched from flesh-and-blood dogs to Iron Dogs soon afterwards. He teamed with Todd Palin to win the 2000 Iron Dog. They repeated in 2002. Both times, they rode Polarises.
By 2004, Van Meter and Todd had split ways, and Van Meter teamed with Davis's old racing partner -- Mark Carr of Soldotna -- to win the race for the first time in history on Ski-doos. Carr had been riding Arctic Cats through the late 1990s, when he and Davis dominated the race. Davis has a long, long association with Arctic Cat. The company in the past dispatched one of its engineers, and a veteran racer, north to ride with him in the Iron Dog and test the machinery.
But Davis this year switched to Ski-doo, along with Todd, an old Polaris jockey. Todd who was a partner in a Polaris dealership in Wasilla before he switched to Arctic Cat, which led to a silly ethics complaint being filed against his wife, then Gov. Sarah. She stood accused of a conflict of interest that went like this: She wore Arctic Cat gear to the Iron Dog; her husband races for Arctic Cat in the Iron Dog; viola she had a financial conflict of interest in helping to promote her husband's business with free advertising. Almost everyone laughed at the complaint except the woman who lodged it and Sarah, who thought it illustrated how her enemies were trying to persecute her in Alaska in the months after her short and unsuccessful run for the White House with Presidential contender John McCain.
Gossipy Iron Dog
Welcome to the Iron Dog -- where the gossipy, behind-the-scenes stories are sometimes almost as interesting as what is actually happening on the trail. Soldotna businessman Davis, a smart guy and master mechanic, has regularly been accused of various forms of sophisticated cheating, though there has never much evidence -- if any-- to support any of the accusations.
And defending champ McKenna, a hard-driving businessman, was said to burn through partners like they were candles. Over the course of his first 10 races, McKenna teamed with six different riders before he and Van Meter clicked in 2009. Late starters in a race that was still sorting itself out, they had moved up into the middle of the pack late Sunday afternoon with Olds and Morgan still at the front and Davis and Todd Palin pushing.
One of the latter duo’s great strengths used to be the ability to find creative solutions to mechanical problems allowing them to keep moving along the trails, but over the years that has become less and less of an advantage. Barring major crashes, many of the new sleds are able to go 2,000 miles with few repairs needed.
"We've been watching this snowmobile, the E-TEC 600, for the last several years and have thought that it was probably the best, all-around Iron Dog sled out there,'' Davis said. In a commercial for the company, he specifically cited the machine's fuel efficiency and comfort, especially for a pair of aging Iron Doggers.
There are a bunch of riders on Polarises and Arctic Cats who plan to challenge those assertions on the trail this year.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com