Speedboat racers battle the river in the Yukon 800

FAIRBANKS — Ashley Wallace laughs fondly when he recalls his childhood exposure to the Yukon 800.

Growing up in Tanana, he would crawl out of bed and hustle down to the Yukon River near his family’s fish camp to watch the speedboat racers zoom past.

“It used to be the only time in the summertime I’d wake up early to go down on the bank and watch them go by,” Wallace recalled. “I watched it pretty much all my life and always wanted to get into it but never found the time.”

Wallace finally got his chance to compete in the historic Alaska race last weekend. And while he finished nearly 10 hours behind repeat winner Earl Mahler, he and his two-person crew still accomplished a significant victory — simply finishing the race.

Considering the predicament of Team Wallace and their boat named Crazy Train just hours into the race, the achievement was monumental.

The race, which runs 800 river miles on the Chena, Tanana and Yukon Rivers from Fairbanks to Galena and back, is firmly in the tradition of other Alaska distance races like the Iditarod or Iron Dog that test the competitor against formidable conditions.

Less than 100 miles into the race, Wallace and his crew members Laura Ekada and Ken Newman Jr. were tossed into the Tanana River channel when their boat flipped going around a corner.

“We were turning and a gust of wind came in from the side and caught ahold of that bow and up it went,” he said. “When the back end hit the water, it catapulted all of us. We all came up out of the water the same time coughing and sputtering, we all swam to the boat and took a little moment.”

The trio managed to flip the boat back but couldn’t make any progress in getting it to the bank. Fellow racer Joey Zuray was the first to pass the scene. Zuray’s boat was having steering problems but he threw them a rope. Shortly after, Sonny Lord passed through and was able to tow the boat and its crew to shore.

By the time they had most of the water out of the boat, Yukon 800 legend Harold Attla came through on a barge and gave the Wallace team some encouragement to get the boat back in working condition.

“We checked the oil and it was fine,” Wallace said. “The cylinders were filled up with water. We took out the spark plugs. We knew we had a fuel source and so we started it up and it sat there and idled.”

They eventually got the boat back racing and Wallace was happy to see race fans still down on the bank cheering for the boats flying by.

“We went by Tanana (and) there were still people there and it was 9 at night,” Wallace said. “We went by Ruby and it was a couple of kids still sitting there. I did a fly-by of my fish camp just for old time’s sake.”

Of the nine racers that started, Wallace’s arrival at just after 1 a.m. meant all of them made it as far as Galena on Saturday. Eight completed the race, with Sterling DeWilde scratching during Sunday’s return leg.

But over the course of the race, nearly every driver dealt with some sort of breakdown, mechanical or otherwise. Zuray’s steering problems necessitated some creative problem-solving. For nearly 100 miles, he guided his boat by hand with a paddle strapped to the motor. Five-time champion and perennial contender Tom Kriska had to hand-pump his fuel bulb for a portion of the race until he reached Tanana. Kyle Malamute overheated multiple times and ripped a hole in his rear fuel tank near Galena that held him up. Wallace, despite continuing on and completing the race, had a number of further issues resulting from his boat being swamped.

“Don’t expect anything because anything that’s going to happen is going to be outside of your expectations and preparations,” Wallace said.

Mahler, who is from Fort Yukon, averaged over 60 miles per hour on his route with top speeds upward of 70 mph going downstream. He said river knowledge and a fast boat are key components to a winning run, but it also requires good fortune when it comes to avoiding crashes and breakdowns.

“It’s a little bit of both and a lot of luck, the main thing is just keeping it together on the river,” he said. “You’re not racing against the guys, you’re pretty much trying to navigate the river. That’s your biggest obstacle in this race.”

The inaugural race in 1960 featured 21 metal riverboats powered by 40 horsepower engines that ran a course from Circle on the Yukon to Fairbanks. Eighteen racers finished, led by Ray Kasola in 26 hours, 26 minutes and 55 seconds. That’s more than twice the time of Mahler’s 2022 race time of 13:05.55. The race wasn’t quite as long back then. It was extended to 700 miles in 1964 and didn’t reach the full 800 miles until 1972.

The event initially stemmed from racing culture on the Nenana River in the 1950s and early incarnations of the race were known as the Arctic Circle Marathon, as they crept up into the Arctic Circle.

But the early years often featured racers on the river for days without any source of communication before completing the marathon run.

“Those guys were astronauts,” joked former racer Tom Huntington, who now both advises current participants and documents the race.

There are many families that have long histories in the race, including Huntington and Attla. A number captains have family members operating as crew.

Wallace’s rookie experience of completing the race was an anomaly. In many years, even experienced racers end up scratching. In 2014, only two racers completed the run.

“Very few people who first start make it,” Huntington said. “It’s overwhelming. It’s a big country out there. The Tanana River is big and you get to the Yukon and it’s huge. It can be intimidating.”

And the racers that get into the race find it increasingly difficult to get out of.

“It’s an addiction,” Zuray said. “You can see how much money you put into this. And if you’re not in the 800 or missing a race after doing it so long, you feel bummed. You want to be in every big race.”

There’s also a personal and community pride that goes along with competing on the river, according to Huntington.

“The biggest driver of wanting to keep going and going,” he said. “There’s a title that’s not spoken about much, and that’s to be called a river man or a river woman. It’s like being called a champion and that title is earned. I think that’s the driving force.”

Wallace, who also ran the Iron Dog snowmachine race in early 2022, said this won’t be his last race.

“Just really thankful for all of the help we got before and during the race,” he said. “Those people still standing on the banks even that late. There’s a reason this race won’t go away for a long time.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.