The first 354 miles of the 2021 Iron Dog have proved to be almost literally bumper to bumper racing, all things considered. A scant 17 minutes separated the top 7 teams. In years past we would have likely seen several additional layover hours taken, some towing back to checkpoints, or even several teams being forced from the race due to mechanical issues. Miraculously only one team (Miller/Miller Team 23) scratched out of Puntilla citing mechanical issues, which was reportedly a broken a-arm on one of their Ski-Doo machines.
With 20 pro-class teams left in the race, many of the top teams elected to take either 12 or 14 hour layovers in McGrath, getting a break from the 20 below zero temps and getting some much needed rest for their bodies. So far two consecutive days of amazingly clear daytime weather means racers are opting for more resting during the night hours since they are not fighting ‘flat light’ conditions during the day, which can make night time travel with powerful LED lights almost easier due to the increased contrast. Visibility is everything in this race and having the ability to see obstacles as far in advance as possible is critical.
Race fans, and even race officials, were having a difficult time making sense of the leaderboard early Sunday morning. The new flexible layover schedule, coupled with teams having their start-times trued up, painted a very muddy picture of who was actually in the lead. Regarding the flexible layover schedule, for the first time, racers are able to declare a layover in hourly increments. Additionally, they are allowed to make a change and add time to their layover or elect to leave early as well. This confusion has largely been corrected as of now. The wildcards of taking layover time when others don’t, and running into mechanical issues can always mean that whoever is leading the pack may not currently have the shortest overall course time, which is who will ultimately win the race.
Historically, trails between McGrath, Ophir, and Poorman can be very rough with little to no snowpack. Racers will experience lots of frozen dirt, stumps, and also many instances with overflow on creeks or even open water can pose additional hazards to the teams. Below is a taste of what the Iron Dog trail breaking crew ran into a week before the race started. So far, there have not been many reports of these issues being a hindrance.
Team 5 (which you’ll remember from yesterday’s update had the crash caught on video) was the first team to make it to the Yukon River. This is where flat river-running is met with triple digit speeds. Racers can often be found running their machines at wide-open throttle for extended periods of time, pushing both their mental sharpness and machines to the max. One wrong move at these speeds could easily mean severe mechanical damage or bodily injury.
Currently, the top 5 teams have elected to take 14 hours of layover time in Galena. All 5 teams are separated by merely 20 minutes. The Galena checkpoint marks 587 miles from the starting line. To have this many teams this close, means the trail has been forgiving, the weather mild, and the luck has spilled over to more teams than in years past. To me, the most interesting bit of the standings snapshot below is the average moving speed for the first 5 teams, which is just over 1mph difference! This proves that even though this race is incredibly long, running just 1mph faster than your opponents could make all the difference.
With all but one team still on the trail, information and details surrounding issues and problems these racers have encountered have been almost non-existent. Tomorrow, teams will continue to push down the Yukon River and then make their way up the western coast of Alaska toward Nome. With COVID restrictions in place, Galena is the last available layover for racers before they make their way several hundred more miles to the mandatory 24-hour layover in Nome. Upon arrival to these villages along the trail, racers are all tested before being allowed to stay. White Mountain had originally indicated it would be a layover checkpoint for racers but is now just an emergency stop checkpoint, not allowing layover.
Early tomorrow morning is when you’ll want to have the GPS view pulled up on your computer as racers are poised to be putting up some impressive speeds along the largest river in Alaska.