River running. That is what most of these teams have to look forward to after pounding their bodies and machines for well over 1000 miles. Once they hit the 1,470 mile marker of the race back at Kaltag south, they have roughly 700 miles of frozen river to run as fast as they can toward Fairbanks. Since the hard part is behind them, it becomes a game of ‘Who can hold wide-open throttle’ the longest and come out on top. It’s all about whose motor, chaincase, and track that holds together now since the suspension has already done its job and is of little concern on the flat, frozen ice.
Rounding off the 16 teams that have scratched so far, today saw two sets of Arctic Cat snowmobiles forced to hang up their hats and call it quits. Team 30 Crouse/Vaughn encountered shock failure which, in-turn, led to complete suspension failure with no spare parts back in Nome. Between 3:00 and 3:30pm yesterday afternoon it appeared that Team 41 Davis/Simons were towing to Unalakleet. It has been confirmed that they experienced catastrophic motor failure as a Facebook posting reported one of the motors ‘grenaded’, forcing them out of the race. I have heard mixed reports of water ingestion to a batch of bad pistons from Arctic Cat being the root cause of Team 41’s demise. Time will tell. The only team left running Arctic Cat is Team 15 Jurenka/Potter in 18th position as of 11pm 2/26.
Jumping back to more garage time stats, you’ll notice that Team 18 Gueco/Zwink had the longest repair session at 1 hour and 16 minutes…far longer than the average of the other racers. No word on what, specifically, they did or what caused them to be working so long, but they are still currently holding steady in position 7. With Team 33 sinking their Polaris machines just outside of Shaktoolik, they decided to change the chaincase oil, which was a last minute decision and cost them a few more minutes than they had originally planned on. However, it was likely a good move to try and rid the sleds of as much of the ingested seawater as possible.
In one of the most talked about portions of the race, it’s no secret that the vast sections of open ocean water across Golovnin lagoon was not only a very dangerous spot for many racers, but claimed the race of Team 22. Kyle Hopkins of Irondog.tv reports that ‘When the team arrived at Koyuk they planned to cross Golovnin Lagoon into White Mountain. What they didn’t know was that rising tide and high winds had swamped the ice, prompting race officials to stake out an overland route to the east. Strobel and Gravatt passed through the Koyuk checkpoint unaware of the change and struck out onto the ice. It’s unclear how many other racers did the same. “We took the route that was marked, and that I took two previous times running the Iron Dog,” Gravatt said. “Six miles out, five miles out across Golovnin Lagoon, all of the sudden at 93 miles an hour, we encountered open water.” With no other choice than to continue over the water, they continued on. After roughly a mile, it sounds as if a wave splashed into one of the vents, causing the drive-belt to slip in the clutches, sinking the machines. “I’ve done a lot of dumb things before, but I honestly thought this was the last,” Strobel said of his first moments in the water. Strobel, a father of two, said he has always been a risk taker. But this felt different. The sun was still down. The featureless tundra was hard to distinguish from water. He felt as if he was in the middle of the ocean. “If it was 35 below, we would have been icicles,” Strobel said. Gravatt could see shore about 200 to 300 yards away. A plane flew by in the distance, but the racers’ flares were back at their sleds. They were about seven miles from Golovin. A woman at the village tribal hall noticed something peculiar on the ice. She looked through binoculars and saw the Iron Dog racers walking, Gravatt said. “Thank God,” Strobel said. “If she didn’t look, we had a long ways to go, and at that point my hips were locked up.”
Heading South from Nome, the fastest teams were on the trail for roughly 5.5 hours with Team 20 of Faeo/Quam stretching their lead on just about the entire pack. Notably, they edged out another 25 minutes between themselves and Team 7 Davis/Bartel. Concurrently, Davis/Bartel put some distance between themselves and Team 6, the father/son duo of Andy and Brad George. Team 17 McKenna/Hill moved up 2 spots to 3rd. They lost about 11 minutes on the leaders but they made up time on everyone else. They were faster than anyone on the rough trail between Shaktoolik and Unalakleet, their Polaris AXYS snowmobiles showing great rideability on the rough terrain.
Team 18 Gueco/Zwink seems to have something working for them and are looking good despite the small setback on time spent in the garage. They ran from Nome to Unalakleet in the exact same time as leaders Faeo/Quam. Every segment was a minute or two different but the overall time is exactly the same. They are the only team that is keeping pace with front-runners at this time. This is significant to note as their best section is coming up as they have proven to be an extremely fast team on the river in prior years races. They could be poised to make a run.
We were able to speak with Conner/Koontz of Team 33 and they reported that so far, the run South was essentially whiteout and wind. There were sections from before white mountain to Koyuk that were complete white out with visibility under 50 feet. Following that, the run from Koyuk down to Shaktoolik met them with 50MPH sideways wind and glare ice. The racers were thrilled to encounter no open water or water-skipping sections, but the over-land trail provided no cooling for the sleds. Team 33 found themselves stopped many times just trying to figure out where they were and which way to continue with the low visibility. Other than that, they have reported that the machines are in great shape, the motors are running very well, and they are happy to say it has been ‘uneventful’ so far.
With most racers holing up in Unalakleet for their 10 hour layover, the rookie Team 39 of Barber/Lapham decided to brave the rough 90 mile cross country section from Unalakleet to Kaltag before declaring their 10 hour rest. Ryan Sottasanti and Shane Barber of Team 2 decided to make this run as well, showing their veteran stripes as they made this stretch in 2/3 the time the rookies did, almost exactly 1 hour faster.
Team 48 is back on the trail this morning headed up river. They may have had a few troubles between Unalakleet and Kaltag. It took them 3hrs and 27 minutes to make the 95 mile run. Most teams are making it about an hour faster through that section. Their last ping of the GPS reported 54MPH on the Yukon river, so they both must be running.
Faeo and Quam had a great run up the river early this morning. They stretched their lead by another 28 minutes on Davis and Bartel. No other teams have run up the river faster than Team 20. Gueco/Zwink was close to that time and McKenna/Hill had a decent run but Faeo and Quam are basically running away from everyone. Team 20 is now in Ruby finishing up the last of their 10hr layovers. They will pull out of Ruby about 1:15 this afternoon for the sprint up river to Tanana. All the teams will finish today in Tanana. In Tanana they will participate in a few celebratory meetings and greetings, receive a great dinner along with a good rest in preparation for the sprint to Fairbanks tomorrow. Teams will begin leaving Tanana by about 8am.
Speaking of veterans, nobody in this race knows the game better than Scott Davis. Having run every race but two, he has claimed 7 titles and podiumed another 20 (yes TWENTY) times. Knowing where to pour the coals to the equipment, conserve energy, and make the right chess moves is well within his radar of capability. With that said, its now Team 20’s race to lose. Faeo/Quam will have to have issues or some of the other teams simply might not have enough time to catch them. There is already 5 hours separating 1st place from 5th place. For the rest of the pack it’s about preserving your sleds for the leaders and making up time on everyone else. This should be interesting.
Team 20 – Eric Quam / Scott Faeo were in at 2:49, out at 2:52 with no problems to report, making great time. John Faeo was here to support the team.
Team 7 – Scott Davis / Aaron Bartel came in at 3:49 and went on layover. Davis crashed and broke another windshield Thursday, between Shak and Unalakleet I think. They both were feeling beat up and ready for over the counter medication. They had some concern about their front shocks being nearly worn out also.
Team 17 – Marc McKenna / Allen Hill are cruising, despite Hill being sick for the past two days with a stomach bug. They got into Galena at 4:15 and stayed.
Team 6 – the George boys, have some damage to worry about on Brad’s machine. The track is beginning to tear right near the edge, he lost 2 bogey wheels and says the center shock is out. Andy and Brad thought they could get a new track from Davis’ spare parts in his support plane.
Team 18 – Gueco/Zwink had the fastest split time from Kaltag to Galena so far – 1 hour 16 minutes, even with Gueco taking an accidental detour into downtown Nulato. They had no mechnical issues to report.
Team 2 – Shane Barber and Ryan Sottosanti came in at 5:50 and went out at 5:54. They said things are going well for them, and thus wanted to keep moving as far as possible down the trail before shutting down for the last mandatory layover.
Team 39 – Cody Barber and Brett Lapham have lost time and positions. We thought they were coming into Galena under tow, based on the slow times displayed on the GPS tracker. But they did not, saying only that they were taking it easy on the portage section of the trip from Kaltag (from the village of Koyukuk overland to about 5 miles downriver of Galena). They were ahead of Cody’s dad Shane for most of the race so far, but now the older guys are ahead and gaining.
Also of note, we’ve talked about the problem that many of the Polaris AXYS Switchback’s seem to be having with “the triangle” – the aluminum frame that holds the rear axle/track tensioner. Tyler Huntington broke his on the first or second day, Olds and Morgan had a problem with that piece, and likely several others. I was interested to see that the top two Polaris teams at this point, Teams 20 and 17, both modified that part of their machines before the race. They have a custom welded reinforcement plate that fills in the triangle, making it stronger. Below are photos of Team 17’s modified triangles, compared to Team 2’s unmodified triangles.