Buckle up, the Seavey era of distance dog racing dominance is here

NOME -- While Dallas Seavey beat his dad, Mitch, to the Nome finish line on Wednesday, the family was reveling in a one-two finish that seemed inevitable early Wednesday morning, with Mitch in second place out of Safety, the final checkpoint, and enjoying a healthy lead over his nearest rival, Aaron Burmeister.

Leading the Seavey gang off the plane at the Nome Airport to witness history was family patriarch Dan Seavey, who helped found the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and finished third in the inaugural event in 1973. The eldest Seavey was hoping for son, Mitch, and grandson, Dallas, to come in champion and runner-up, and his prayers were being answered.

Four generations of Seaveys were at the finish line to greet Dallas, including his brothers Conway and Danny, mom Janine, grandparents Dan and Shirley and niece Allikz. Dallas's wife Jen was there, too. Dan Seavey said he couldn't be happier.

"Oh, I'm elated," said Dallas's grandfather.

Dan called his grandson's accomplishment "nothing short of amazing."

When Seavey and his fellow race founders started the race, he said most never dreamed the Iditarod would become the worldwide sporting spectacle it is today.

"Oh, heavens no," he said inside the Nome Convention Center shortly after the finish.

But he said his old friend Joe Redington Sr. -- known as "the father of the Iditarod" -- would be overjoyed to see the crowds in Nome 43 years after the race was first run.

"His buttons would be poppin' no doubt," he said of the late race founder.

The annual trip to Nome has become a regular pilgrimage for the clan, which has over the past decade become the first family of Alaska distance mushing.

"It's our home away from home," Dan said.

Four times he has been on hand to welcome family winners, twice each for Dallas and Mitch. And if they go 1-2 this year, a distinct possibility, it would be the first time a father and son have done that. It would also cement the Seavey name in Iditarod history as its own era.

Fifty-five-year-old Mitch already has 11 top-10 finishes in his career, including race titles in 2004 and 2013, despite a slow start to Iditarod racing 20 years ago. Dallas has six top-10s to his name in just eight races, and the first two didn't really count. He ran Seavey family puppy teams in 2005 and 2007 to train young dogs for the trail.

He didn't enter a full-on race team until 2009. He finished sixth. Only four years later, he claimed his first Iditarod victory. Mitch won the next year to give the Seaveys three in a row. Another win by Dallas this year would expand that to four in a row.

A five-time finisher, Dan last made the run up the Iditarod Trail to Nome behind a sled in 2012. He was 74 years old and finished 50th. He is one of six Seavey family members to have run the race.

They have become the standard bearers for Alaska mushing over the past decade. Dallas grew up helping out with the family's successful sled dog tour company out of Seward and now runs his own tour operation and kennel out of Willow.

The family has known a lot of success, but that wasn't always the case. When Dan first raced from Knik to Nome in 1973, he noted the sled dog racing world was a much different place. Back then, he said, mushers simply harnessed whatever dogs they had in their yards and headed down the trail. Results were mixed.

Today the sport is far more organized and professional. It features highly trained canine athletes bred over multiple generations for speed and endurance.

"When we did it, it was whatever we had that's what we ran," Dan said.

In that first Iditarod, it took him 20 days to make it to Nome. Last year, Dallas made the same run in well less than half the time. He winning time was eight days, 13 hours, an Iditarod record.

Dan said the difference is the dogs. Over the years, the family has studiously worked to perfect their dogs, using the best of them to help create successive generations of winners, he said.

"What's happened over the last 20 years is incredible with the dogs' genetics," he said.

Dan sat down with Mitch about a year ago and started counting back generations of dogs in Mitch's kennel. They reckoned there were about 20 generations in the Seavey line, some going back to animals Dan ran in the 1960s and '70s.

"It's always directed toward speed," Dan said of the family's careful breeding program that has grown to give the Seaveys a massive reserve of canine talent.

"Mitch started his training with 30 select dogs, not just hopefuls," he said. Those dogs were whittled down to the best 16 to start the race. Dog power matters.

When Mitch first ran the Iditarod in 1982, he finished 22nd. He soon climbed into the top-20 but remained largely a second-tier competitor for a decade. His average finish over that span was 16th.

Everything changed in 2004 with a breakthrough victory. Mitch has remained a contender for victory ever since, and the Seaveys have cleaned up. On Tuesday they were in position to make more history, with Dallas leading dad into White Mountain.

There have been other successful distance mushing families to come down the trail. The Mackeys -- father Dick and sons Lance and Rick -- own six victories. They are the only other father-son duo to win, with Dick turning the trick in 1973 in the race's only photo finish, Rick winning in 1983 and Lance winning four times.

The husband-wife duo of Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore from Two Rivers became the first couple to win a 1,000-mile sled dog race -- in their case the Yukon Quest from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, to Fairbanks -- but they have not been so lucky in the Iditarod.

And no family has dominated distance racing like the Seaveys in recent years.

Dan said the family has worked tirelessly to perfect its craft.

"I took third in the first race in 1973 and it took me 20 and a half days to get here," he said. "Dallas wins last year and it takes him eight days and 13 hours. That tells you a lot about genetics and a lot about nutrition and dog care," he said.

With Dallas seeming to face the toughest competition from his own father in the closing stages of the race, Dan was leaning toward Seavey the younger as the winner. Dan said his grandson looks to have the team to beat. But he also said race fans shouldn't discount the other Seavey lurking just behind.

"We don't discount Mitch until we see what happens on Front Street," he said.

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.