Iron Dog demands the best of its participants – as well as community support
There are few if any motorsport events that can measure up to the Iron Dog, from physical hardships endured by racers to length, logistics and rural support. Combine that with an astoundingly skilled field of racers and the best performance sleds the industry has ever produced, and you’ve got a race that seems less geared for racing and more focused on survival.
At 2,031 miles from Big Lake to Fairbanks, through Alaska’s harshest environments, participants aren’t simply gunning for the finish line; they’re pushing new boundaries in the limits of man and machine. The battle for Top Dog continues on Sunday, Feb. 16, on Big Lake, and if you’re not excited, you should be.
Iron Dog executive director Kevin Kastner is.
“On the race front, I’m really excited about the strong teams,” says Kastner. “I mean, there are so many real contenders this year that it’s going to be exciting to watch.”
Kastner, in fact everyone, had similar thoughts last year, and yet the astonishing reality is the Iron Dog 2014 has drawn even more powerhouse teams to our remote destination.
“Last year was strong, too, and there’s always like a half-dozen or more that are contenders, but this year there’s got to be 12 to 15 contenders,” says Kastner. “There’s a lot of strong teams.”
The level of competition only adds to the drama building up. Teams have changed race partners, racers are riding different brands of sleds, rural teams are picking up more support, and Polaris has passed the baton to Ski-Doo as the brand with the most tracks on the trail.
Kastner says, “This is the first time that I’m aware of that Ski-Doo has the largest number of teams compared to everyone else.”
That’s partially due to teams changing brands—riders, too. One of the more notable teammate changes, a split some thought would never happen, has occurred between Todd Palin and Scott Davis. Palin will now ride alongside Tyler Huntington as Team 11 on Ski-Doo, both proven contenders with first-place trophies to decorate the mantel. Meanwhile, Davis has partnered up with Aaron Bartel, Team 7 also riding Ski-Doo. Bartel’s a youngster by any comparison who proved his ability last year with a fourth-place finish. Davis’s near-30 years of Iron Dog racing and Bartel’s determination and skill will likely keep them near the head of the pack.
Both Palin and Davis have shed their green colors for the new Ski-Doos, but there’ll still be a Davis on the trail waving the green colors of Arctic Cat. Cory Davis, son of Scott, will be competing against his father with teammate Ryan Simons, Team 41 riding Arctic Cat. Both Cory and Simons are X-Games veterans and champion riders.
Everyone’s competing against last year’s champs, Dusty VanMeter and Marc McKenna, Team 17 riding Ski-Doo. They’ll be defending their title as hard as ever, knowing when it comes to Iron Dog a previous win doesn’t guarantee success.
“There’s so many good teams that I don’t think we’re that far above anybody to relax and not go,” says VanMeter. “There’s no doubt that we’ve been one of the top teams for many years. Whether you won or not, you know, you’re still a force to be reckoned with and there are several more of those in the race.”
Team 17 knows one seemingly insignificant mistake could cause them the race with so many good riders hot on their heels.
“There’s several of them and all it takes is blinking one time the wrong way and the top team can be out of the race,” says VanMeter.
Racers will depart from the starting line on Big Lake in random order determined by the annual drawing. Each team leaves in succession, and their overall course time determines the winner. For seven days they’ll ride through deep mountain passes, along frozen rivers, across tundra with hundreds of miles of tussocks, along the coast and on ice shelves with the leaders averaging nearly 60 mph the entire 2,031 miles.
Over twenty checkpoints and rural communities are visited along the way, allowing Iron Dog to connect with thousands of rural residents and Alaska Natives, many of whom look forward to cheering the racers on each year if not volunteering to assist the race.
Kastner says, “There’s so many stories that go untold of individuals and businesses that pitch in without us even knowing, just to make it (Iron dog) happen.”
Although much of Alaska may take it for granted as an event that happens every year, according to Kastner, “it’s nothing short of a miracle that it happens at all.”
“It’s pretty important to note that this race includes more communities and covers more territory in this state than any other event,” says Kastner. “Obviously Iditarod comes close, but just the sheer geographic size and the area that we cover requires an enormous amount of cooperation from private individuals, volunteers, and it takes lot of resources from our sponsors in kind as far as transportation goes, logistically. It’s a pretty amazing thing that it happens at all, quite frankly,” he says.
Fans reap all the reward from the hard work. Enjoy the starting line festivities on frozen Big Lake. Join in on half-way challenge awards in Nome and the finish line fun in Fairbanks with final awards banquet at the Fairbanks Westmark Hotel. From home stay on top of the race action on the Iron Dog website and Facebook page with fan discussions and live GPS tracking. Local TV stations are also expected to have live coverage mixed in with Winter Olympics presentations and news programming.
Stay informed and support your favorite teams as the 2014 Iron Dog drama unfolds.
What 2014 looks like for fans and racers
There’s been a very mild change to Iron Dog rules regarding layovers. Last year, Iron Dog implemented a flexible layover option that could be taken advantage of at any point along the race course. For safety, this year it has to be used by McGrath.
The flexible layover has to be used on Day 1, if at all. If something happens to a team early in the race, as is often the case, they may be able to stay in the race.
As for fans, Iron Dog executive director Kevin Kastner said the race is going to be very similar to last year. However, the tech inspection and pre-race banquet has been divided into two events to do a better job of recognizing the racers during the start order drawing and additionally the sponsors during the banquet. These events will take place in Anchorage to accommodate more participation.
The finish awards banquet has been moved to the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks having simply outgrown the capacity at Pike’s Landing, which supported the race for so many years.
Iron Dog a reality-TV dream
One would think that with all the Alaska reality TV shows, Iron Dog might have made the cut. It’s long, hard and full of colorful characters dong something extraordinary and chasing after an elusive goal. The money spent, training required, machines and time off from work, not to mention time away from family, are all aspects of Iron Dog that remain untold.
“I believe if you could really tell the human drama story that goes along with Iron Dog – because it’s not made up, none of it’s contrived like some of these other Alaska shows or anything like that; that stuff’s built right in and the characters and the personalities, too – you could make a series of shows on Iron Dog, even make a full season of it on just one race,” says Kevin Kastner, Iron Dog executive director.
That’s if, according to Kastner, film crews could keep up with the pace of the race, distance and weather, which is what makes it so challenging for the racers themselves.
“At the end of the day, from a global perspective, this motorsport event is the most challenging winter sport race in motorsports that there is,” Kastner says. “I can’t think of anything else that compares to it.”
The Iron Dog staff is actively pursuing options to increase awareness of Iron Dog via a televised series or documentary. According to Kastner, “it’s only a matter of time.”
Iron Dog’s future: Looking toward 2015
“Anchorage is on the horizon,” says Kevin Kastner, Iron Dog executive director. “In fact, I’ll be doing a lot of scouting and scoping and vetting our course for 2015.”
According to Iron Dog, the plan is to have a downtown Anchorage start as part of the Anchorage Centennial celebration.
“Iditarod does a ceremonial start,” says Kastner. “My goal is Iron Dog would leave Anchorage and be on the race trail. They would actually run all the way until they connect with the trail system on the other side (of Knik Arm).”