Despite unseasonably warm temperatures, 28 pro-class teams from 8 different states and 15 different Alaska communities left the starting line in Big Lake to embark on the longest, toughest snowmobile race in existence.
Photos via Heather Sottosanti
Racers participated in what ended up being a ceremonial start a the Menard Sports Complex in Wasilla due to the fact that teams were required to cross Lucille Creek which was flowing and created an necessary risk for the teams. After a short trailer ride to Big Lake, the race was officially started and teams left the starting line in the normal two minute interval splits.
Out of the 56 racers, 30 of them are seeing the entirety of this trail for the first time being rookies to the Pro-Class field of the Iron Dog race. A notable exception to what is typically seen is Team 2, Jacob Dahle and Leah Bauer from Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively, who are not riding the same sled. Dahle is riding on a Ski-Doo Renegade XRS while Bauer, the only woman in the race, is riding her Polaris Indy Cross-Country.
In a sea of Polaris and Ski-Doo snowmachines, Team 4 from Northwestern Alaska (Kiana and Kotzebue) are the only racers riding Arctic Cat. With the market squarely pulling both Polaris and Ski-Doo to the top of the heap, leaving Arctic Cat and Yamaha a bit in the dust, it would be nice to see Team 4 run a solid race.
Teams left Big Lake to begin the 2,645 mile trek across South-Central and Western Alaska through 23 communities with the first stop begin in Skwentna, 80 miles from the starting line. Not surprisingly Team 7 of Tyler Aklestad and Nick Olstad with 5 championships between them made the fastest split covering the distance in just 79 miles.
Going a mile a minute (or much faster) isn't something that is out of the ordinary for these professional racing teams, and with that speed of travel, the news of breakdowns, parts issues, wrecks, and more seem to find their way to Facebook posts faster than anything. This was true for Team 8 with Chad Gueco's wife confirming that they were towing one of their Ski-Doo MXZ XRS machines back to the starting line with what is being reported as electrical issues which ultimately forced them have to replace the stator, flywheel and ECU and are now leaving Big Lake as of about 7:30PM.
It's worth nothing that typically each of these Pro-Class teams has purchased four machines for this race. Two of these machines are largely relegated to being 'practice sleds' and two of them are saved for the race itself. The practice sleds are where the teams do all of their 'testing and tuning' to figure out where the weak spots may be in their setup and use this time to also tune the machines to be as fast and responsive as possible. The only risk with this setup is that invariably it seems that a team is plagued by some unforeseen issue early on that they likely didn't encounter with their practice machines.
Just 10 minutes separated the top 4 teams as they left Puntilla Lake 149 miles from the starting line. It seems that the early section of the trail hasn't given anyone too much trouble and the teams are starting to swap positions and, as typical, its expected for the cream to begin to rise to the top. After a dismal weather week in South Central Alaska, the racers are really enjoying the blue skies and sunshine.
With not many issues on the trail so far, it also means that the entire field is packed together relatively tightly. Team 30, Kody Worley (rookie) and Blake Elder (veteran), learned what a bit of a technical error can cost as they arrived into the fueling checkpoint the wrong way which forced them to go out, turn around, and come back in correctly which cost them at least one position on the trail. Additionally, if you find yourself several teams deep at a checkpoint, you may find yourself waiting for fuel while teams in front of you finish topping off not only their main fuel tanks but also the auxiliary aftermarket fuel tanks that all of these teams have on their machines.
Photo via Shellina Irwin of Team 28 fueling in Skwentna
In light of 'the cream rising to the top' the screenshot below of the top 3 teams out of Nikolai are about as close as you could've asked for taking into account that they these teams are more than 300 miles into the race. All of these top level teams are certainly familiar names and faces in this event.
Teams are expected to be arriving into McGrath within the next few hours (between 8-10pm likely) and there is suspicion that some teams will declare some semblance of layover time soon as well between Puntilla Lake and McGrath.
Day one will be in the books very soon. If you have updates, please send them our way for inclusion in these postings. Race on!