Checking into Tanana, Team 8 of Tyson Johnson and Tyler Aklestad boasted an incredible 1 hour and 14 minute lead over their pursuers, Team 41. With just shy of 300 miles of very fast river running to complete, a back-to-back win for both the racers and SkiDoo appeared to be a lock. Johnson and Aklestad had put together pretty much a flawless run and short of anything out of the ordinary happening, the $65,000 payout along with other prizes looked to be theirs. Well, something out of the ordinary has happened, shaking up this race like we’ve never seen before.
We first heard rumblings of a penalty and/or disqualification for Team 8 just past 11:30pm yesterday and before 1am, Iron Dog has made it official that Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson have been disqualified from the 2017 Iron Dog race. On the Iron Dog Marshals Facebook page, it was stated:
“The Iron Dog requires racers to receive fuel only in designated checkpoints with very specific rules and procedures. We make one exception for the trail section between Ruby and Tanana because it is the longest distance between checkpoints. It can be difficult for teams to carry enough fuel even with auxiliary tanks under certain trail conditions to make that distance. The rules were written so teams could stage fuel and oil between Ruby and Tanana, but otherwise not allowed to receive any other assistance.
This rule was discussed at length in the drivers meeting before the race. The Lead Marshal read aloud Rule 13.2.1 to all the racers and reiterated that no physical contact with the snowmachines was allowed when fueling in this area by anyone other than the racers, which applies to all other locations with the exception of Nome.
The Marshals found evidence that Team 8 received outside assistance. The crew providing fuel between Ruby and Tanana made physical contact with the racer’s snowmobiles. Rule 13.2.1 is one of the only penalties that is explicitly specified within the rules. The Marshals have determined that Team 8 violated Rule 13.2.1 and 13.2.2. The penalty for those violations is disqualification as specified in Rule 13.2.3.
The Marshals have disqualified Team 8 for violating Rule 13.2.”
It was discussed that the photo snapped below likely forced the disqualification of Team 8:
Online discussion and even reviews of the SkiDoo tank design mention the necessity to ‘burp’ the air out of the tank, which allows the last remaining 1/2 to 1 full gallon of fuel to be put in the snowmachine. This is what is happening in the above photo. Due to SkiDoo potentially losing a back-to-back win in the longest, toughest snowmobile race on the planet, I wouldn’t doubt that this could warrant a redesign from the BRP engineers.
Here’s where it gets hairy……
The rules state:
13.2.1. NO OTHER ASSISTANCE OF ANY KIND INCLUDING PHYSICAL CONTACT WITH THE PIT CREW WILL BE PERMITTED.
13.2.3. PARTICIPANTS WILL BE DISQUALIFIED IF ANY PART OF THIS FUELING PROCEDURE IS NEGLECTED.
Because the rules state that no outside assistance can be given, this has resulted in scores of video clips and photos of numerous other teams having other individuals come into ‘Physical Contact’ with the racers equipment. Does this mean standing on the running board means DQ? Does this mean that when someone held a piece of bungee cord while Team 2 installed a side panel mean DQ? Does this mean that unscrewing the cap on an oil jug and handing it to a racer means DQ?
There have been questions like “How does the Iron Dog define the ‘Pit Crew’?” and “Was the person who touched the sled invited?”
I believe, and this is just me, that this is where the ‘nature of the rule’ comes into play. In other instances, it could certainly be argued that any physical touch would and could shave time off of a fueling stop, but the perception (please read perception again) of how it looked when Team 8 was refueling is that they were blatantly getting assistance from two other individuals in speeding up the time it took to completely fill up the sleds with fuel. The rule begins with ‘NO OTHER ASSISTANCE OF ANY KIND’…regardless of how the words ‘Pit Crew’ are defined. The real question might be ‘What defines assistance?’.
Could those two locals in the photo have known that the SkiDoo sleds need to be burped? Absolutely! Could they have been unwarranted help while the racers were unaware of this? Sure, that could be true. Could they have turned around, noticed this was happening and immediately instructed them to stop? Without a doubt. I just can’t get past the fact that how the photo looks is what forced the decision. It ‘looks‘ orchestrated. I’m not saying it was, but I’m saying the perception is bad, and was bad enough to have the Iron Dog Marshals make that call. One thing to also consider is that the Marshals have more information on the topic, have talked to everyone in question, have deliberated over this, and ultimately have made this decision.
There has been a literal storm of emotions online about this decision, and there will be more of this as the day breaks and the news spreads that this has happened. Would it be so seemingly egregious if it had been another team that isn’t the ‘all stars’ at the moment? I’m not sure, but having the leaders, the reigning champions, and the team that everyone ‘knew’ was going to win (I spoke with a racer on day 3 that, when asked, said ‘Tyson and Tyler will win for sure’), get disqualified is certainly grounds for driving emotions, anger, and confusion. Emotions aside, and yes, I would’ve loved to see TnT race to Fairbanks in a back-to-back win, I think it was what could have been the ‘blatant nature’ of the photo above that had to force the decision to be made. If all goes well on the river in the morning, Team 41 should easily clinch the victory in this race. Will it be a hollow win? It very well could be. If anything it will probably feel as if there is an asterisk on their victory.
Nobody, including the people involved in this decision made this without extreme difficulty, knowing that there is so much on the line.
**Day 7 Update**
Iron Dog race officials have released a statement as to help clarify the decision making process after Team 8 had been disqualified, and from their perspective, it is fairly cut and dried. Our Iron Dog Oracle was at the finish line in Fairbanks and has reported that “Most of the people that I spoke to at the finish line understand why the decision to DQ Team 8 was made. They don’t like it, but the do agree with it. ” The online community of spectators and individuals following the race do seem divided on the issue, with some calling the ruling a disgrace and on the other end acknowledge that if a rule was broken, and that a disqualification is the penalty, then the ruling must be followed.
What do the racers think? I spoke with Kyle Conner, who has raced in the Pro-Class of the Iron Dog four times and he said that ‘The cool thing about Tanana is that all the racers are in one big room at the checkpoint, so you know everyone is talking about this, and discussing the decision’. A photo on social media has cropped up which is a petition written and signed by all the racers stating their disapproval of the disqualification, which could speak volumes as to future rulebook changes, tweaks, or clarification. A video from Rebecca Charles, below, at the finish line is the interview with Tyson Johnson regarding this petition
With Team 8 officially out of the running, Team 41 was scheduled to leave Tanana at 8am. In what seems to have been a declaration of rider unity, the two teams left Tanana and rode nearly the entire last portion of the race as a group.
Team 41 and Team 8 raced toward Fairbanks from Tanana until roughly 10 miles from the finish line. The first three sleds went across an ice shelf in the river and the third sled broke through the ice, which was ridden by Tyson Johnson of Team 8. His Ski-Doo slammed into the ice shelf and ripped the right front side of his sled off. Team 41 stopped and helped them get the sled out of the river and back on the trail. With Team 17 gaining on them rapidly, Cory David and Ryan Simons jumped back on their sleds and raced toward the finish to ensure that they didn’t lose their lead position in the race.
Team 41 crossed the finish line in Fairbanks at 1:56:25pm. Ryan Simons has become the first person to claim the Iron Dog Championship that was not an Alaska resident.
Team 17 finished 1 minute 4 seconds later
Team 8 physically crossed the finish line in third, position, but were still officially disqualified
Team of Huss/Sottosanti have officially rounded out the podium of the 2017 Iron Dog crossing the finish line in Fairbanks at 3:09:02pm
Cory Davis is seen below in a post-race interview. You can clearly tell that Davis is hesitant to discuss the decision for multiple reasons, and gives his take on how they ran the race.
The feeling at the finish line was that, ultimately, the racers and fans alike are now just glad that the race is over. Team 41 has been declared the winner. KTUU has reported that “Galena resident and longtime Iron Dog fan Peter Aloysius tells KTUU that he and his father have gone up and staged fuel for riders for many years, but it was the first time for the two spectators who pushed on the sleds. Aloysius continues, “Tyson and Tyler both noticed and asked them to stop. Which they did. Now the picture doesn’t do it justice for what all happened. A picture is a split second. These guys are professionals at this sport and are where they are by knowing and following the rules. They had no intentions of cheating as this gave them no possible benefit.”
Rebecca Charles released a video shown below of Tyler Aklestad of Team 8 at the finish line. See his response to the disqualification and what he hopes comes after the race has ended.
Tyson Johnson also gives further explanation of what had happened and gives expanded clarification surrounding the photo in question
The feeling of the racers and many of the spectators discussing the situation are firmly in the camp that there was some predisposed feeling that Team 8 was not running a clean race. Tyson Johnson gives us a bit more information on the history with the current race marshal and the feelings of what they may do if something doesn’t happen o change the outcome of the 2017 Iron Dog.