By Justin Matley
Photos by Justin Matley, John Woodbury
The spectacle may be finished for fans, but for racers, the 2010 Iron Dog will live on in infamy for far longer. A fortunate few will recount their glorious moments, while others dwell on where they might have gone wrong. All are certain to feel a chill up their spine at the thought of the hundreds of miles endured over rough ground, and some may even have a few nightmares, reliving fearful moments of near peril.
The 2010 Iron Dog was nothing less than dramatic. It seemed each day of the race presented more difficulty, from overheated and blown motors to layover congestion, or fans begging for morsels of race news and a retraction of the new rules. And yet, despite all the hardship, the Iron Dog certainly lived up to its name. After all, it is the “Longest, Toughest, Snowmobile Race in the World.” No one expected it to be easy.
Things seemed smooth at the start. It was business-as-usual for Iron Dog as they released teams, one racing pair at a time, while hundreds of spectators turned out to watch the departure. No doubt there were more fans than even the previous year, a tribute to the appeal of the race. And when Team 28 tore off for the trail, having been released last, spectators dispersed quickly to huddle around home computers for GPS tracking updates.
Iron Dog teams were making good progress, or so it seemed online. Matters on the ground were far worse. It wasn’t until some time had passed that Team 14, race favorites Marc McKenna and Dusty VanMeter riding Ski-Doos, could be seen quite fixed in place on the map. Mechanical failure caused an early scratch. Soon to follow was Team 18, another strong team comprised of Andy George and Tre West III on Arctic Cats, with a reported scratch at Shell Lake due to injury, exactly what no one wants to hear but knows to expect. And after all other racers continued past Puntilla Lake, the first of a series of optional layover locations, Team 22, Scott Davis and Todd Palin on Arctic Cats, and Team 19, Micah Huss and Brandon Baxter, also on Cats, remained. Each scratched due to injury with little over five hours logged on the trail.
After Puntilla, however, is when the dirt really hit the fan, metaphorically speaking. Fan-cooled engines might have been helpful this year, as there was little snow to keep machines cool.
“We probably stopped 20-25 times,” said Stephen Spence of Team 7 who later finished second on their Arctic Cats. “You’d know when the light would turn solid the machine was saying, ‘I’m hot.’ You’d pull over and find a little snow, which was usually hard ice. You’d stomp and break it up and carry it to the machine. On the back we set snow on the heat exchangers while the machine was running until the light turned off. We’d take off again and after 500 yards do it again,” he said.
Overheating machines was literally an alarming situation; and yet, this isn’t a new phenomenon to Iron Dog.
“I’ve been with the race for a long time. I raced in ’97 myself, and you hear it on and off; the conditions vary every year,” said Laura Bedard, race director. “In 2007 the conditions in the (Farewell) Burn were very similar to this year when racers had to ride through tussocks or drive over the nearest ice patch to cool the snowmobile. That puts a lot of wear on the engine, and on the cooling system,” she said.
The slow progress made extended night riding inevitable, and with rules that required layovers at specified points only, anyone who passed Puntilla Lake was forced to continue through the night all the way to McGrath, or else be on the clock. Many didn’t arrive until late in the night or the next morning. For them, the remainder of Day 2 was spent resting for the required 12 hours, helpless to make good time under the sun. A pattern of night riding to Nome had been initiated.
“As far as teams go, Scott and I are fast riders at night. Sometimes it’s an advantage to not see what’s going on all around you but focusing on the trail ahead of you,” said George Woodbury of Team 28, riding Ski-Doos. “Scott and I were rookies this year, so not having knowledge of the trail, daylight would have been a beneficial factor in the race,” he said.
A fortunate few who had been at the front of the release order in Big Lake, and who had ridden fast and steady, were able to reach McGrath earlier, fulfill the layover and leave under the sun. Able to see well, race speeds would undoubtedly be quicker than the rest of the pack, and the race would be theirs from then on. But, with Iron Dog, it’s anyone’s race until the end.
First in and out of McGrath was Team 8, Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson on Ski-Doos, holding a healthy lead. Unfortunately, after three miles they returned under tow with a blown engine. Team 16, Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad, riding Polaris, were then able to take charge all the way to Nome.
Eventually, all teams but three had left McGrath. Three scratched due to busted machines. Minimal snow prior to McGrath was taking a big toll on racer’s rigs and the situation only degraded. Three more teams, including Team 8, scratched in Galena due to mechanical failure and a fourth, Team 9, Darrick Johnson and Kurt Steiner on Arctic Cats, scratched with an injury.
“The stretch of the trail from Puntilla to McGrath was all bad with Farewell Burn being the worst,” said Keith Manternach, who piloted the entire race with an aerial view of the turmoil. “The rest of trail was thin snow, but snow. But, you put a snowmachine through that kind of abuse, if the failure doesn’t happen there, it’s going to happen on down the road,” he said.
For those who were able to continue on toward Unalakleet, they were clearly fortunate to still be in the race with functioning machines, but unless at the head of the pack, darkness was still an issue.
It was near Unalakleet that Team 28, Woodbury and Miller, veteran snowmachine racers yet rookies to Iron Dog, had one of the most traumatic experiences in the history of Iron Dog. Despite not having the usual escort to Shaktoolik, the two were content to follow the directions from a resident of Unalakleet who led the team out on the ice of Norton Sound and pointed out the direction to continue on alone. Unable to keep up with the freezing fog, Woodbury and Miller removed their goggles and maintained a cruising speed of 40-50 mph. The lights of Shaktoolik could eventually be seen, a comfort to the team. Then matters took an alarming turn for the worse. Unknowingly, with each approaching fast, out of the darkness came the edge of the ice with waves splashing into view. Woodbury and Miller jammed on the brakes. Miller, within a second of losing his life, came to a stop as one ski dipped over the edge.
Now lying on the ice next to the Ski-Doo, Miller held tight to keep the machine from dropping over. Woodbury, having missed the edge by less than 10 feet himself, dismounted and ran to assist Miller. Both held onto the back bar of Miller’s sled, but lack of traction, increasing weight of the machine from ocean waves, and further disintegration of the ice made retrieval an impossible task. Having seen water splash up from a crack behind them, the two agreed to sacrifice their Ski-Doo to the depths of the sea. As the ice shelf they were on began to separate, both scrambled for Woodbury’s rig, saddled up and hit the throttle toward safer ice. Where the ice shifted apart with water splashing up, the machine hit hard, nearly throwing the riders, as they pitched up onto more solid ice and made their way back to Unalakleet. They remained alive and cared little for the lost machine, a small price to pay for survival. A Unalakleet local of 50 years remarked later that he had only seen solid ice there twice in his time. It was not common and not safe. Team 28 had made considerable gains on their opponents and were facing a promising finish until forced to scratch in Unalakleet. Team 11, John Bahnke III and Brad Reich, also on Ski-Doos, also scratched due to a machine break.
Following the mandatory layover in Nome, 2009 champs Minnick and Olstad of Team 16 had climbed into the lead. They returned to Nome shortly after the halfway restart to repair a blown motor, allowing Team 10 into the lead. Team 3, Shane Barber and Aaron Loyer, riding for Polaris, also returned to Nome, Barber having fallen victim to a broken leg when the two collided.
Before the end of the race, Nome, White Mountain and Manley claimed the final four scratched teams to include Team 16, last year’s champs. Twelve of the original 29 teams remained on the course.
The race was back on track for the final few days, a delight to fans that seemed in disarray over events thus far. And by the time Fairbanks was ready to welcome riders, it was Team 10 on Polaris, veteran Iron Doggers Tyler Huntington of Galena and Chris Olds of Eagle River, that came tearing into the finish before all others with an elapsed time of 41 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds.
“It was kind of a weird race this year; never felt like we were racing even from the beginning. Our goal from the start was to survive the first day and not get beat up or the machines. That paid off,” said Olds.
Next in line was Team 7 on Arctic Cat, Doug Dixon and Stephen Spence, with a time of 43 hours, 37 minutes, 40 seconds. Spence cited training and preparation as the main reason they did well. Having switched out a clutch in nine minutes in Galena, it was only obvious the team had practiced machine mechanics.
Third place was held by Team 25 also on Arctic Cat, Brad Helwig and Eric Quam, with a time of 44 hours, 34 minutes, 46 seconds.
Now Iron Dog organizers and racers can look ahead to a much-deserved break before making preparations for 2011. And after this year, anyone who says they’re not anticipating how the 2011 race will pan out is fooling themselves. From trail quality and rules to tracking and better use of technology, all who know and love Iron Dog are looking forward to next year’s race leaving this one… in the dirt.
“We’re still wrapping up. Generally after the race there’s a month to two months to finalize things and touch base with racers, sponsors, race teams that may have had defaults out there or injuries. There’s still a lot to do,” said Bedard. “Then we’ll finish up the race and start gearing up for 2011 and look at anything we can do better. We took notes this year and will take a look at what we can improve for next year.”
According to Iron Dog staff, some great things that came from this past race was the support from the Army National Guard who provided funding and communication, even in one of the most remote locations.
“From what I heard they had a camp out there with internet. People said that in some cases it was better than their home internet,” said Bedard.
She also cited Mystic as a huge benefit and appreciated their personal involvement as well, having noticed some of the corporate staff from Texas watching the race in person.
“Quality brands and quality companies are going to say a lot for the future of Iron Dog,” she said.
As for Team 10, expect to see them defend their championship.
“Tyler and I both made a great team. There were different times where we split. He led in some sections; I led in others. I think that definitely helped out in certain areas. He was able push me, and I was pushing him in certain areas,” said Olds. “I’m looking forward to next year already. We’re both planning on doing it as a team again next year.”
(For more photo and video media, or to follow the race as it happened, visit teamalaskasnowrider.com.)