The start of the Iron Dog is quintessentially Alaskan. Amidst the scores of new machines beefed up and tricked out in preparation for the longest race of its kind in existence are the usual sights and sounds when Alaskans gather for events like this. Overhead are bush planes and even helicopters circling the starting gate, snowmachines from every era and style coming and going, jacked up UTV’s, and usually a fur coat and hat can be seen glancing in any direction. The fur items were a welcome accompaniment for the race fans today as temperatures hovered around 15 below zero as they waited for their favorite team to leave under the starting gate, beginning what will be a record distance of 2,645 miles.
Traveling in pairs, 21 pro-class race teams left the starting line in two-minute intervals beginning at 11am. In typical Iron Dog fashion, these racers chewed up the first section of the trail getting to the Skwentna checkpoint in just over one-hours time. Incredibly favorable trail conditions, good lighting for visibility, and cold temperatures sent these racers quickly through the first several checkpoints of the race. The first 16 teams to pass through the Skwetna checkpoint did so with only a split-time difference of 11 minutes through that entire field. As of writing this, just 6 hours from dropping the green flag at the start, teams are more than 250 miles into the course.
It is important to set the tone for the race early, and that means attempting to establish early leads, position yourself on the trail, and race both cleanly and also race with strategy. That said, racing across the heart of Alaska on a snowmachine at 60-100mph means that any wayward bump, stump, ledge, or other unforeseen obstacle can send you flying…quite literally. Racers are required to wear protective gear for not only their heads, but also their chest and other body parts to help protect them from the hazards of what they’re participating in. Team 5 got a good taste of what the protective gear meant for them early in the race with this spill:
The above crash didn’t seem to slow down Team 5 as they are still well in the race after this unfortunate event. What did slow down the household names of Team 7, Tyler Aklestad and Nick Olstad (affectionately called ‘The Stads’) was a broken driveshaft on one of their Skidoo machines. A broken drive shaft is something that is not often a failure point and was a surprise to these racers. In the video below you can hear Aklestad explaining that they were 11 minutes out of the lead, gaining on the leaders before this happened. Parts are on their way to Puntilla Lake where they declared a very early 4 hour layover. They anticipate the repair taking about 30 minutes time, and remember that all repair ‘wrench time’ happens on the clock. Racers are not allowed to work on their machines during layover time. More details below.
As the sun sets on the first day of racing on the longest, toughest snowmobile race in the world, the night does little to hinder progress across the frozen trail, up and over a few mountain passes, across scores of frozen lakes and rivers. LED lighting technology has come a long ways in the last several years and it is more uncommon to not see large amounts of auxiliary lighting on these machines as a significant aid in safely navigating the trail at night. Often in the past, the factory headlights were something that would actually slow racers down, as the skilled riders would actually outrun their lights, meaning they could push their machines fast enough down the trail to not get a good look at what was beyond the darkness. This is largely not the case these days. Below is a photo of the immense amount of aftermarket lighting on the Hale brothers machines.
What we will see as teams make their way up and over the Alaska-range is that overall trail speeds will slow compared to the first section of what is largely swamp, frozen lake, and river running where there are fewer turns and less obstacles overall. What this also means is that teams will still be pushing both their bodies and their machines as fast as they can allow. If history tells us anything, the slower sections of trail could be argued as being some of the more dangerous parts since slow often means more technical, and more technical means more chances for small mistakes that could lead to either broken parts, injured racers, or sometimes both. Let’s hope that isn’t the case with this 2021 field of pro-class racing teams.
Team 6 Schachle/George are known to be incredible racers. Both veterans of several prior races, this duo is off to an incredible start. Blessed with incredible talent for riding at this level coupled with some youth sprinkled in the mix, Team 6 started the race this morning in 13th position and were just the 3rd team to pass through the Rohn checkpoint. This places them just six minutes from the lead position, not even accounting for the fact that start-times have not been trued up yet. This will be a team to watch.
So far it seems that the majority of racers have not encountered anything that would hinder their progress on the trail too badly so far. As teams fight their way through the darkness of a cold Alaska winter, the positioning is sure to make some changes as headlights shine into new checkpoints along the way.