The Outside invasion: With more Lower 48 racers than ever, the word is out: Iron Dog rules
This year’s annual Iron Dog snowmachine race promises to be one of the most exciting yet. Not only are two of the best names in snowmachine racing returning to defend their winning crowns (Tyson Johnson and Tyler Aklestad) but others also are attempting to reclaim wins from the past (Nick Olstad, Chris Olds and Todd Minnick, for example).
But the well-knowns competitors are not the only interesting names race fans will see this year.
This year’s 34th annual Iron Dog race features the largest field of Outside competitors in the race’s history. Sixteen racers hail from outside of Alaska – 15 from places such as Minnesota, Maine and Idaho and one from British Columbia — and like 2008, five full teams are entered. There also are mixed teams of riders, such as Johnson, who will be racing with Kraig King, who although he lists his current residence as California has spent years living and riding in Nome; and Bobby Menne, who lives in Virginia, Minn., but will be racing with Alaskan and Iron Dog veteran Dan Thibault, from Anchorage.
“The years of solid public relations and media productions like NBCSports and National Geographic shows, strong social media numbers and Iron Dog’s engagement in national snowmobile events like Hay Days are all contributing factors,” said Iron Dog executive director Kevin Kastner. “The Lower 48 has also had some big snow years, which may have led to more word of mouth.”
Indeed this year’s field will be interesting to watch. This year’s Outside competitors represent 23 percent of the racing field – compared to just 6 percent in 2007 and 12.5 percent in 2008, for example. There are plenty of new names to consider. One never knows who might be the next underdog to race from behind – could it be rookies Paul Johnson and Mike Telkamp, the Team 13 duo out of Hoffman, Minn., who are jumping into the pro-racing ranks once again after scratching from last year’s race? Or maybe it will be Team 32, Michigan rookies Rob Cleary from Frankenmuth, Mich., and Dave Hausbeck of Reese, Mich., who chase the podium. The Lower 48 racers are surely spicing things up.
In his first Iron Dog race in 2007, Darrick Johnson and his teammate Fred Grub represented only two of four racers from outside of Alaska. A year later, he and teammate Kurt Steiner returned and again were in the minority. They were one of only five teams from outside of Alaska to enter the race. That year, just three of those teams successfully completed the race, and Johnson, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; and Steiner, from Bismarck, N.D., were the top finishers, placing 10th.
“It’s evolved from that first year tremendously because of the relationships we’ve built with people in Alaska,” said Johnson, who is back to compete this year after a serious injury ended his 2012 Iron Dog quest. “The first year it was a break-the-bank effort because I didn’t know a single person in Alaska. I’ve grown up riding in the Midwest, running ditches and farm fields, and I moved to Coeur d’Alene because I liked the mountains. That’s what drew me to Iron Dog that first time, too.”
The one rule that stands true for this race every year is that nothing is guaranteed.
“There is skill, weather, mechanics and luck involved,” said Johnson, “so you never know what will happen.”
Also new this year, Iron Dog organizers have eliminated the recreational ride. Low turnout necessitated the change, but the race may return in the future.
“It’s really just an anomaly this year,” Kastner said. “As good snow years get riders out on the trails, friends, family and ‘bucket list’ riders will return to go on the Rec Class adventure. I don’t see it becoming a new norm to have so few riders.”
Bobby Menne, a racer from Minnesota who will compete for the second time this year, says he is happy to see the race focus in on the Pro Class. As a highly successful Team Polaris pro cross-country, oval and enduro racer, he has begun to shift his focus to the longer, more challenging races such as Iron Dog. Last year, he subbed into the race last minute, replacing Anchorage rider Marcus Jensen, who was injured before the race and had to scratch.
“I got called four days before the race; (Dan Thibault’s) partner got hurt and ended up not racing, and Cory Davis ended up calling me,” Menne said. “I basically was winging it. We did a 40-mile test run on the sled once I got up there, and I didn’t have any family members or other people up there supporting me. I just basically flew up there and raced.”
Despite having never been on the Iron Dog course and with limited practice time, Menne and Thibault defied the odds – Menne was the top-placing Lower 48 racer, as he and his Team 4 teammate Thibault crossed the finish line in ninth place.
“What kept people away before is the thought that, ‘Oh, Iron Dog’s an Alaska race and you won’t do very well if you are not from Alaska,” Menne said. “But last year, Dan and I were sixth into Nome, and I’d never ran up in Alaska before. I think there can be success for Lower 48 riders.”
This year, Menne has fine-tuned his focus as he and Thibault try to up their placement and become even more competitive.
“We are building the sleds over a longer period of time, and enhancing some different stuff we’ve come up with,” Menne said. “We will be better set up and better prepared than last year, and I will be running a couple of the shorter cross-country races around here to prepare.”
Even after only one Iron Dog though, Menne learned an important lesson.
“Last year I found out it was more mental than anything,” he said. “The speeds aren’t anything different than what I run down here, but it’s the mental side of things where you’re out in the middle of Alaska and nobody is going to show up to help you. You kind of have to pace yourself differently and be positive about the next part of the race, no matter how tired you are.”
As to who will win the race? Well, that’s anyone’s guess said Iron Dog’s Kastner.
“Weather is always a consideration,” he said. “It was Todd Palin (and others) who said ‘Mother Nature dictates this race,’ and he’s correct. Iron Dog as an organization has a stalwart and adaptive approach to managing those challenges. We hope for the best and plan for the worst.”
Most eyes, however, will be on last year’s winners, Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson, who blazed to a scorching 35 hour, 35 minute, 22 second victory, one of the fastest times in race history. Close on their heels were veterans Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad (36:12:18), as well as young up-and-comers Brad George and Robby Schachle (37:42:31). All are Alaskans.
“I have a lot of respect for all the guys that race the race, but there’s really only a few – Mike (Morgan) and Chris (Olds) for one and Tyler (Aklestad) and Tyson (Johnson) for sure, that we will be watching,” Menne said.
For Darrick Johnson, who is already gearing up to head north and fine-tune his sled for racing, the race continues to draw him in, no matter how he places. He said he is forever challenged by the extreme Alaska conditions and considers the race the highlight of his snowmachining season. It’s also encouraging to see other racers join the ranks of Alaskans who have known for years that Iron Dog is king.
“This year, my former partner Kurt (Steiner) is pairing with Dieter Strobel from Minnesota, so you’re starting to see second generations of partnerships coming from the Lower 48. It’s all kind of a relationship of racers who are sharing skills and it’s making awareness of Iron Dog much bigger down here.”
With this year’s race focused on just the Pro Class, however, the microscope will be even more focused on what the teams are up to. Kastner said Iron Dog’s GPS tracking and minute-by-minute coverage of the racing keeps the event exciting even for those sitting on their couches at home. Visit www.irondog.org/live to get the best up-to-date coverage no matter where you happen to be.
Iron Dog 2017
Saturday, Feb. 18
9:30 a.m.: Vintage snowmachine “Shine & Show” and Iron Pup kids in front of Hard Rock Café. Racers must be positioned at the race pit.
10 a.m.: Meet and greet the racers.
10:30 a.m.: Mat-Su Vintage Racing Club’s Shine & Show Parade hosted by Everts Cargo.
11 a.m.: Closing of the pit area.
12 p.m.: Color Guard, National Anthem and announcements.
12:30 p.m.: First Green Flag drops for the first team
1:30 p.m.: AMMC’s Iron Pup Kids Parade
2 p.m.: Second Flying Iron freestyle show at the EasyPark Coho parking lot (Third Avenue & E Street).