Between last-minute scratches, uncooperative weather, rookie wonders and a new race start in the state’s largest city, Iron Dog 2015 was one of the most exciting in the race’s 30-plus year history. The event known as the world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race took to Anchorage’s city streets for a start that allowed fans to see the race up close. And the racers? Who doesn’t love being cheered on by adoring fans?
“The first Anchorage start and events were a great success,” said Iron Dog’s executive director Kevin Kastner, who spent the past five years working on the move. “Despite the miserable weather, we had decent attendance and a great series of events both Friday night and most of the day Saturday.”
Pro-class riders were especially happy with the race start location, Kastner noted. At first skeptical about adding extra mileage to an already grueling, 2,000-plus-mile race, they were rewarded with the platitudes of fans, who cheered them on as they departed Downtown.
“They were very pleased with the community interaction, both in Anchorage and across Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, where soldiers and their families greeted them as they passed through,” Kastner said. “It’s not every day you get to ride your snowmachine down Fourth Avenue.”
Kevin Hite, president of the Alaska State Snowmobile Association, echoed the start’s success. The Anchorage start was one of the biggest developments Iron Dog has ever known, up there with the 1998 addition of Fairbanks as the race finish. Both moves were made to draw more people to an aspect of Alaska life that is prevalent throughout the state.
“There are over 200,000 (snowmachines) in use in the state,” Hite said, although under Alaska Statute 05.30.120 only some 50,000 are registered, he added. “Anchorage far and away has the most registrations in the state.”
Combined with Mat-Su, more than 50 percent of registered snowmachines are from Southcentral, making an Anchorage start, where fans are plentiful, a smart move on Iron Dog’s part, he said.
Likewise, Hite said, “Ending the event in Fairbanks adds in another 20 percent of the registered snowmobilers in the state. With those numbers, the Anchorage Iron Dog start and Fairbanks finish exposes the race to over 70 percent of snowmobilers in Alaska.”
Bolstered by the Downtown pomp and circumstance, the 2015 race continued as usual – with the restart in Big Lake and the trail heading north over extremely rugged terrain made infinitely more treacherous by lack of snow cover and ugly weather. Open water and dry tundra were not uncommon, and warm conditions meant obstacles that grabbed sleds, tore parts and beat up bodies.
Still, the racers soldiered on.
“Considering the conditions last year, which were historically the very worst known to our most veteran racers, the attrition was actually very low,” Kastner said. Of the 38 teams registered, only 20 completed the race, a scratch rate of just about 47 percent.
“Each year since about 2009, we have seen a steady increase in the percentage of teams who finish the race,” he said. “It’s difficult to know for sure, but the general consensus is that, one, racers are getting a little smarter about not pushing too hard in the first day; and, two, the research and development gleaned from the Iron Dog is paying off with considerably more capable and durable snowmobiles. Just 10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see 70 percent or higher attrition during a ‘normal’ Iron Dog.”
For team No. 39, Cody Barber and Brett Lapham, the race was challenging, but ultimately rewarding. The rookie team proved that the third time was indeed the charm, placing fifth among the 20 finishing teams in a time of 46 hours, 13 minutes, 12 seconds. They were one of only two rookie teams to complete the race. Rookie team No. 49, Klinton and Kris VanWingerden, came in last, still an accomplishment for these so-called beginners. Team 20, Scott Faeo and Eric Quam, took the win on their Polaris-driven sleds, in a time of 41:46:52.
“The slow snow conditions kind of had everybody a little bit nervous about what the turnout was going to be,” said Barber, of Willow. Last year was Barber’s third attempt at an Iron Dog finish, while teammate Lapham was a true first-timer. The childhood friends proved their pairing a success, clearing water, dirt and other sled-destroyers while focusing on riding smart and not outpacing their abilities.
“There was a lot of dirt – there was places where you would have rather had a four-wheeler,” Barber said. “There’s certain temperatures and everyone will stop when their sleds get there. We would try to find an ice patch, or a creek and stuff like that. If you could get there and spin your track on it, onto the heat exchanger, it would help out. It was slow going, but we weren’t the only ones doing it.”
Barber said with two late-in-the-game scratches from previous Iron Dog’s under his belt, he knew not to celebrate too soon as he and Lapham raced. But the two gelled, and he was impressed with how clean Lapham rode at race pace. They stayed steady and resisted the temptation to chase racers down if they thought it too risky.
As they rode into Fairbanks, cinching a fifth-place finish, Barber said his confidence grew and he finally could celebrate.
“I feel that we may have surprised a few people, including ourselves,” Barber said. “ Now that we’ve placed fairly well, it’s kind of got our hopes and confidence up but I don’t want to become complacent or anything. We still have a lot of training to do.”