Twenty-one snowmachine teams took off from Big Lake on Saturday for a speedy 2,600-mile race across Alaska.
Racing in teams of two, snowmachiners left the start line in two-minute intervals beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday.
By 4:16 p.m., 10 teams had already covered the first 213 miles and were on the other side of the Alaska Range and on their way to Nikolai.
Leading the way in and out of Rohn was the veteran team of Nome’s Mike Morgan and Eagle River’s Chris Olds, who are running their 10th race together. They’re the 2018 and 2019 champions.
Zooming through Rohn a minute behind them was the Valley team of Brett Lapham and Zack Weisz, who placed third last year.
Morgan and Olds finished second last year to Tyler Aklestad of Palmer and Nick Olstad of Wasilla, who posted a wire-to-wire victory. Aklestad and Olstad are teammates again this year, but they weren’t among the first wave of racers to go through Rohn — they took a four-hour layover at Puntilla, the checkpoint 65 miles away from Rohn.
This year’s race is skipping Fairbanks, which has served as the finish line for many years. Financial difficulties led race organizers to reroute the race and make it a round trip between Big Lake and Nome, with additional miles coming in a loop out of Nome that goes to Kotzebue and several other villages.
Racers will take their usual 24-hour layover in Nome, but no halfway banquet is planned there and no spectators will be allowed in the garage as teams work on their machines — all part of the race’s COVID-19 mitigation plan.
Although race officials didn’t plow a parking lot to accommodate spectators at Big Lake, a couple of hundred people gathered to watch the start. Most didn’t wear masks and there wasn’t much social distancing.
Drivers were tested for COVID-19 prior to the race and will be tested again during the race. Anyone who tests positive can’t continue the race.
The pandemic’s real impact could come later in the race, because teams will have to do without air support north of McGrath, and that means extra parts to make repairs may not be readily available. According to the race program, “At the request of communities involved in the race, planes will be allowed only between Big Lake to McGrath.”
The lack of air support could be challenging in a race where solving mechanical problems is crucial to success. Last year, only 11 of 29 teams finished the race, with most dropping out because of issue with their snowmachines.
The race ends Saturday at Burkeshore Marina on Big Lake, with the first teams expected around noon.