Iron Dog – Day 1 – Leaving it all on the Trail
Overcast, flat light, and snow gently falling from the sky met the racers as they lined up on the Iron Dog starting line amidst thumping bass, a growing crowd, and the smell of two stroke exhaust in the air. The Iron Dog restart is always a popular event, and even if you weren’t watching the racers, there is so much going on around the venue that ends up being quite the spectacle. Helicopters sounding their arrival or departure with humongous plumes of freshly fallen snow bursting into the air, Alaskan bush planes flying in formation, drones capturing crowd footage, powered parachutes looping and twisting overhead, and the start of an ice-oval race nearby with studded rubber catapulting another set of racers on dirt bikes and four wheelers around an ice track.
A bit of fresh snow on the first several miles of the trail are likely making those in the middle of the pack grateful for the front-runners as they will be packing down the trail toward Skwentna, which offers a new prize this year. First team to Skwentna gets a $5,000 payout. In years prior, Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson made the 90 mile jaunt from Big Lake to Skwentna in 60 minutes flat. You know that teams have their eye on that cash as they leave the starting chute. The trail from Skwentna to Puntilla is bound to be ‘whooped out’ by now, meaning the trail looks similar to a motocross track with what is commonly referred to as the washboard section, but these are much deeper. They got 2 feet of snow in the last few days and the trail was not broken as of yesterday. The front teams are plowing through deep snow but leaving a whooped out trail in their wake.
The Iron Dog, like any other race, means racers have spent the better part of a year planning and preparing for this big day, and some of them don’t even make it off the lake before running into problems. Team 12 and Team 25 know exactly what this feels like. I was taking photos for a photo album on our Facebook page, when the wife of Kyle Conner (Team 30) approached me and asked if I knew what had happened to Team 12. They had apparently returned to the starting line, smoke reported to be billowing from one of their Arctic Cat sleds.
On the same thread, Team 25, the rookies Bogert and Burmeister ran into a severe track issue and ended up towing one of their SkiDoo’s back to the starting line. It is reported that they had a torsion spring pop out of the holder and rip the outer belt of the track off, causing them to have to remove the entire skid from one of the sleds and cut the track off. This rookie team has made the necessary repairs to keep going and we hope for some clean racing from them, if only for a mental boost after that punch in the gut early on.
Team 6 George/Schachle started this race in 7th position, and are already putting up impressive split times as they whittle away at the frontrunners. They had already caught the leaders just past Puntilla Lake, while Team 41 Davis/Simons decided to crawl up several positions as they head deep into the Alaska range as well. Unofficially, Team 6, had the fastest time from Big Lake to Skwentna at 1 hour and 17 minutes. If this is true, they will receive the $5000 prize for their efforts. Early cash and wicked fast splits may have ended quickly as this early success for Team 6 may have been short lived, since it appears on the GPS tracker that they had slowed way down on the trail and eventually stopped while Robbie Schachle continued to the Rohn checkpoint, apparently grabbed parts, and is now backtracking to his partner, Brad George.
All of the ‘household names’ in this race put up impressive splits between Big Lake and Skwentna:
The teams leave the starting line in 2 minute intervals, and once teams leave the McGrath checkpoint, all race times will have been corrected for their starting position, leaving everyone on the same playing field. Why is the starting position so important? Let’s let one of the most well known racers tell us why…
Leaving it all on the Iron Dog trail, especially in this first half of the race, means the high likelihood of hitting a wayward bump, a frozen stump in the ground, shelf ice in several sections of the trail, or any other untold number of hidden mines that could ruin your day. It appears that Team 30 may have found one of these landmines as it sounds like Geoff Crouse got bucked into a tree which not only flung him from his machine, but also severely damaged both the upper and lower A-Arm sections of his Arctic Cat. Team 30 has now returned to Skwentna and declared a 6hr layover. They had parts in their assistance plane so they will be back under way after their layover and their repairs are done. There is also rumor that they may have some bulkhead damage too, but let’s hope we see them back on the trail late this evening.
What does the trail look like this evening for the racers? Take a ride with Bobby Menne and check out his helmet cam footage from last years race:
With several teams running into problems early on, coupled with the waning light and ever-difficult trail toward Nome, tomorrow could bring an entirely different field of racers. According to the GPS, both Team 12 and Team 25 are back on the trail and pushing toward the next checkpoint. As of writing this, the leaders are about 40 minutes from reaching McGrath where they will take their first layover. Without having 30 years of stats memorized, our resident Iron Dog Oracle (Tom Whitstine) feels this pace is about 3 hours faster than normal. Most of the teams are going 40+ mph across the burn without stopping this year, while last years pace averaged 10mph or even slower. By the unofficial clock, it looks like Team 16 will have about a 15 minute lead over the team in second place, which appears to be Team 8 of Aklestad/Johnson.
Speaking of last years Iron Dog winners, here is another clip from last years race highlighting Tyson and Tyler as they faced the difficult trail conditions, near disaster on the sea ice, and an eventual first place finish: