Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers will be able to make and receive cellphone calls during next year's race to Nome after its board of directors passed new, looser rules Friday for two-way communication devices.
The board voted to largely strip out language in 2016 race rules that had banned two-way communication devices. This means the iPod Touch that got top-flight Iditarod musher Brent Sass of Eureka disqualified from the race in 2015 is now legal. Mushers can carry cellphones and satellite phones.
However, board members made it clear Friday that they didn't intend for the race to become a phone call and internet free-for-all.
Mark Nordman, Iditarod race director and marshal, said during Friday's meeting that mushers cannot use their phones or other two-way communication devices during the Iditarod to call the media and participate in live interviews or to update their social media webpages.
"I don't want people running their own Facebook, their own stuff going out there, because we have a product," Nordman said during the meeting at the Lakefront Anchorage hotel.
About a decade ago, the Iditarod debuted the subscriber-only Iditarod Insider website. It gives users access to race trackers, live broadcasts, videos and articles on the race. An individual Ultimate Insider subscription costs $33.95 a year. Hooley said he didn't have specific numbers Friday afternoon on how many were sold, but said the revenue from the Insider has grown about 10 percent each year.
The Iditarod also has agreements with certain media organizations for special access. The official media of the 2016 race were Iditarod Insider Productions, Sportsman Channel, KTVA and Ohana Media Group.
Nordman said the Iditarod already has rules in place that bar mushers from carrying broadcast or recording equipment without the approval of the executive director.
A rule will be added that explicitly says personal communication devices cannot be used during the race to contact the media, said Stan Hooley, Iditarod chief executive officer.
Andy Baker, president of the Iditarod board of directors, said during the meeting that he thought the Iditarod should allow two-way communication devices because of potential safety issues.
During this year's race, mushers Jeff King of Denali Park and Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers both said a snowmachiner smashed into their dog teams as they traveled on a trail to the Nulato checkpoint along the Yukon River. One dog died and others were injured.
Hooley said that if the mushers had had access to a satellite phone, it might have created "a different situation in order to respond." He said he supported the rule change.
"I think 2016, 2017 is a different day, a different era from 1974," he said.
The board considered whether a musher could gain a competitive advantage by using an electronic device to call other mushers in the race or an outside coach.
If mushers can access the internet, they can also access race trackers and determine the whereabouts of their competition. Certain Iditarod checkpoints already broadcast the information on televisions or print out the standings.
Aaron Burmeister, a board member who placed third in the 2015 Iditarod, said mushers at the front of the pack would not have time to think about using a phone.
"The last thing I want to think about in the world is a phone," Burmeister said.
Sass said in a phone interview that he felt moments of irritation Friday when thinking about the new rules and his 2015 disqualification, but overall it's "all water under the bridge," and he was happy to hear the news.
He said it made sense to get rid of rules that were difficult to uniformly enforce given that mushers can easily stick a slim two-way communication device in a pocket, and he knew people who already did.
Plus, he said, "anyone who is running in the top end of this race knows they have to focus on their dogs and their race."
Sass said that he used his iPod Touch for music and as an alarm clock and camera in 2015. He said he didn't think about connecting it to the wireless Internet.
When asked if he would carry a cellphone during next year's race he laughed and said, "To tell you the truth, I will probably bring my iPod Touch."