As the leaders on the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmachine race settled down in the Yukon River village of Tanana on Friday night, defending champs Marc McKenna of Anchorage and Dusty VanMeter of Kasilof looked to be on the verge of another victory. It would be the fifth championship for VanMeter, the fourth for McKenna -- but only their second together.
Iron Dog competitors go through partners the way talk-show host Larry King goes through wives. VanMeter won his first race in 2000 teamed with Todd Palin, who was then just a guy in Wasilla selling snowmachines, who happened to be married to a woman named Sarah. Todd got out of the business of snowmachine sales not long afterwards. Sarah got into the business big-time politics, and that's all that needs to be said about that.
By 2004, VanMeter was teamed with Mark Carr from Kenai, now a member of the Iron Dog Hall of Fame, who previously raced with Scott Davis of Soldotna, a seven-time Iron Dog winner, who is now paired with Todd Palin. VanMeter claimed his third victory that year while McKenna, a successful Anchorage businessman, was sorting through partners looking for a good match.
He found one the next year in Nick Olstad and won his first Dog. The relationship, however, didn't last, and McKenna didn't win again until he teamed with Eric Quam. They won in 2008, but that relationship didn't last long either. A year later McKenna was teamed with VanMeter, a former winner of the Junior Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race who decided Iron Dogs are more fun to race and less work to maintain than sled dogs.
VanMeter and McKenna put their Ski-Doos in contention in both 2009 and 2010. They were leading the race in 2011 only to have VanMeter sink his sled -- yes, sink -- in open water on the Yukon River. It might be why VanMeter was uttering a bunch of "it's not over until it's over cliches'' when the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner tracked him down in Tanana on Friday.
"It's one of those deals where you never count your chickens before they're hatched," he told reporter Tim Mowry. "One mistake tomorrow and we could be the ones towing (a sled). There's a lot of racing left to go. One blink at the wrong time and something could happen to you."
Maybe so, but McKenna and VanMeter hold a commanding lead of more than an hour, with only about 120 miles of good trail left to the finish of the $210,000 race across Alaska. Even the weather was looking cooperative. It was only 10 below in Tanana and the forecast called for overcast skies Saturday, but no snow. The winner in Fairbanks stands to collect $50,000.
Fierce battle for second place
Second is worth $35,000, and that spot looks like it will be hotly contested. Behind McKenna and Van Meter are three teams within 24 minutes of each other. The first of them is the team of Quam, McKenna's old partner from Palmer, and Brian Dick from Thief Rivers Falls, Minn., the home of Arctic Cat snowmobiles. Dick is an engineer and snowmachine racer for the company. He and Quam, of course, are on Arctic Cats.
For a while Friday, they also looked like they might be on the verge of putting the brand back on top in the Iron Dog for the first time since 2008, when McKenna was still racing the company's machines. McKenna notched his first win on Cat with Olstad, and the brand owned every Iron Dog from that point through 2008. Things don't look so good this year, however.
Team Arctic came into Tanana towing Quam's broken sled. The ability to tow broken machines between checkpoints to make repairs in the few villages along the race course is one of the reason's the Iron Dog requires racers to compete as teams of two. Safety is the other reason. Several racers have been seriously injured in past races and saved by their partners. There have been a number of injuries this year, but none reported as serious.
Quam and Dick checked into Tanana only four minutes in front of Tyler Akelstad of Palmer and Tyson Johnson of Eagle River on their Ski-Doos. It is expected to take the Arctic Cat team far longer than four minutes to make repairs once they're back on the clock Saturday.
They'll be racing, in fact, to get repairs done and be on the trail in front of Brad George from Palmer and Aaron Bartel from Anchorage on their Ski-Doos.
Watch finish on Channel 2
A pair of up-and-comers -- George, 18, is still years away from being able to legally drink and Bartell is but 22 years old – they are only 13 minutes back from second. Behind them lurk Mike Morgan from Anchorage and Chris Olds from Eagle River, another past Iron Dog champ, only 24 minutes out of second on their Polaris snowmobiles.
In all likelihood, second, third and fourth will go to these teams, which leaves $22,000 up for grabs. Second pays $35,000; third, $18,000; and fourth but $13,000. Davis and Palin, the race's graybeards, are likely to finish a respectable fifth. Davis is 52 years old and has already retired once. Palin is 48. The pounding of the trail -- the Iron Dog is a physically demanding race –appears to have taken a toll on them. They have slipped back from the leaders since the race started back from the halfway stop at Nome.
Anchorage television station KTUU -- Channel 2 -- is covering the race finish live in Fairbanks Saturday. Coverage is scheduled to start sometime after 12:30 p.m.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com