FAIRBANKS — Cory Davis and Ryan Simon won this year's Iron Dog, crossing the finish line in Fairbanks at 1:56 p.m. Saturday, but if Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson have anything to say about it, the race is far from over.
Aklestad and Johnson, who had a safe lead Friday afternoon in Tanana, said they plan to appeal a stunning decision by race marshals knocking them out of the race overnight. The dispute will come down to an interpretation of race rules.
Though they were disqualified, Aklestad and Johnson continued on the course and reached Fairbanks behind the second-place finishers, Chad Gueco and Dusty VanMeter. Micah Huss and Ryan Sottosanti finished third.
On Friday, Aklestad and Johnson appeared to be on their way to a second straight victory in the Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks marathon, with a safe lead at Tanana, roughly 300 trail miles from Fairbanks.
But race marshals saw a picture posted on the internet Friday of spectators pushing down on their two snowmachines during a fuel stop about halfway between Ruby and Tanana at a site that is a Bible camp in summer.
Race director Kevin Kastner said the organization had no choice but to disqualify the first-place team because of a rule governing that section of the trail.
"It's very unfortunate, it's very contentious and we understand that and the implications to us as an organization are very clear," Kastner said.
Kastner said a rule added in 2016 specifically prohibits any "physical contact" between the racers and others on that section of the trail and that "participants will be disqualified if any part of this fueling procedure is neglected."
"To be clear, they're not allowed any outside assistance anywhere, the difference is that the penalty that comes with any physical contact with the snowmachine, any outside help of any kind, other than simply providing the fuel and oil for their use, it's a mandatory disqualification," he said.
As word of the disqualification spread, supporters of the two men said that similar infractions elsewhere have led to much lesser penalties. The rules allow the three race marshals to use their discretion in meting out penalties at checkpoints.
Kastner said he talked with the race marshals and consulted with the board of directors before the marshals released a statement early Saturday on the decision. He said there had been no complaints about the integrity of the marshals.
"The racers who signed up agreed to these rules, then signed their names to these rules. Those rules were also read aloud, specifically that section in question, at the mandatory drivers' meeting," he said.
But a letter signed by 17 racers overnight in Tanana said that the explanation given at the drivers' meeting was that the contestants would not be penalized for incidental contact of this sort. The letter asked that the racers not be disqualified.
"The photo shows 'outside people' pushing down the back of the Snogo, for which no gain obtained as a result," the letter said.
Akelstad said he expects the board to "do the right thing" and overturn the ruling, while Johnson said they will seek a lawyer if that doesn't happen.
"I think there was a misinterpretation of the rules. I think it was wrongfully put out that we were disqualified. We should not be disqualified," Aklestad said at the finish line.
"It was out of our control. They were spectators, we were fueling our sleds." Johnson said. "There are people that were there who have already confirmed our story and said that yes, we told them to get away from our machine."
Pushing down on the back of the sled, called "burping," is a technique to get about a half-gallon of extra fuel into a tank, topping it off, but Johnson said they were not topping off the tank and had no idea who the people were who jumped on the Snogos.
"It didn't benefit us by one second," he said.
At the finish line, Davis said he thinks that nobody connected with the Iron Dog "wanted anything to go down like that. I understand both sides of it. I understand sticking to your guns and rules are rules. I understand it might be a technicality."
Davis said he and Simon made a point to slow down their speed this year. "We knew if we didn't make any mistakes, the machines would make it."
"It's a unique situation, I guess, is how I would subscribe it, I'm very pleased," he said. "I don't want to have a pity party for the other guys involved, but it is what it is, I guess. I'm here, I'm happy," he said.
Interviewed earlier Saturday, Kastner said the organization decided to "stand behind the decision of the race marshals because that's what we do, we've delegated that to this group of volunteers to be impartial and use good judgement," he said. "They're the cops. They enforce the rules. They don't make the rules."
Johnson said he believed that the head race marshal had a grudge against his team from an incident last year when he wanted to penalize the team and other marshals disagreed. "He's been bringing it up ever since," Johnson said.
Aklestad had entered the Iron Dog a dozen times and scratched eight times before winning last year. Johnson had eight scratches in 17 starts before becoming champion.