A Beginner's Guide to the Iron Dog
What's the difference between a pit bull and a snowmachine racer? A lot more than chapstick. Three months after the race for the White House is decided, Todd Palin and teammate Scott Davis (pictured above) will join dozens of other competitors in Wasilla, Alaska, for the 25th running of the world's longest and toughest snowmachine race. While the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is older and receives more attention, the Iron Dog has been establishing its own legacy since 1984.
The Race: The Iron Dog begins on the second Sunday in February and ends the following Saturday. Racers in the pro-class division travel in teams of two, starting in Wasilla and following the Iditarod Trail northwest to Nome. From there, they motor east to Fairbanks, the terminus of the 1,971-mile journey over frozen tundra.
Rules and Strategy:
Racers are required to rest a minimum number of hours at a minimum number of checkpoints along the course, and typically spend 35-55 hours on their snowmachines. Deciding when and where to rest and how fast to travel can make or break an Iron Dog team's chances of finishing first "“ or at all. While snowmachines can reach speeds over 100 mph, higher speeds increase the likelihood of suffering a crash or mechanical failure. Racers are no longer required to carry any and all of the spare parts they might need from the start, but rules limit the amount of outside help that teams may receive.
Double the Fun: In 1993, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Iron Dog, officials doubled the race's original length "“ from 1,100 miles to 2,200 "“ by making it a round-trip from Big Lake, which is near Wasilla, to Nome. "It's too crazy," racer Dan Zipay ominously told the Anchorage Daily News before the race. "It's too far." Zipay and teammate Evan Booth were in the lead and nearing the finish when Zipay clipped a pine tree and crashed his snowmachine. Of the 21 teams that started the race, 12 had dropped out by the time Bill Long and Scott Davis capitalized on Zipay's poor fortune and crossed the finish line first. The round-trip format was later abandoned and Fairbanks introduced as the race's finish, with Nome serving as the approximate halfway point.
The Prize: The prize for the winner has grown and shrunk since the race's inception, but the 2008 total purse was more than $100,000, with $25,000 going to winners Marc McKenna and Eric Quam. The entry fee is about $3,000 per racer.
Iron Dog's Brett Favre: John Faeo, a Wasilla native, won six of the first eight Iron Dogs, including the first-ever race as a 28-year old in 1984. Even before he won his record seventh Iron Dog in 1996, Faeo was threatening retirement, only to return each year in hopes of adding to his impressive resume. He finally called it quits after the 2007 race. Faeo, 52, raced in a record 23 Iron Dogs and, at least so far, has given no indication that he'll come out of retirement in 2009.
Other Past Champions: Only 20 individuals have experienced the Iron Dog winner's circle. Davis won the Iron Dog five times prior to teaming up with Palin to win his record-tying seventh title in 2007. Davis and Mark Carr won three straight Iron Dogs from 1997-1999, while Zipay won five total titles with two different partners. No one has won both the Iron Dog and the Iditarod, but three-time champion Dusty VanMeter won the Junior Iditarod in 1987. Switching partners is quite common in the small world of snowmachine racing.
This Is Dangerous, Dude: No racer has died during the Iron Dog, but accidents "“ some of them serious "“ are prevalent. During this year's Iron Dog, Palin's snowmachine hit a barrel hidden beneath the snow, launching him about 70 feet over the handlebars. Davis loaded his partner onto his snowmachine and rushed him to a nearby clinic. Palin, who was wearing a helmet and body armor per Iron Dog rules, was released with minor bruises and would eventually finish the race with Davis, well behind the winners. While the competition is fierce, the Iron Dog code of conduct does suggest that all participants stop and render aid if they come upon another team in a life-threatening situation.
Battle of the Brands: NASCAR has Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Toyota; snowmachine racing has Arctic Cat, Polaris, Ski-Doo, and Yamaha. Since the race's inception, Arctic Cat and Polaris have dominated the winner's circle. The competing manufacturers have offered bonuses in the past to teams who win the Iron Dog riding their machines. Iron Dog's last five winning teams have raced Arctic Cats.
Up To No Good in Nome: Controversy rocked the Iron Dog in 1995. After defending champions Zipay and Evan Booth were initially penalized three minutes for using a pump provided to them by a race official to siphon bad gas out of their snowmachines, several teams threatened to boycott if a more serious penalty was not levied. As race officials met to discuss the incident, VanMeter commented to a local news reporter, "[It proves] they got some special favoritism going on. [Zipay and Booth] are going to win no matter what." Race officials ultimately decided to disqualify Zipay and Booth, as well as the team of VanMeter and Carr for VanMeter's disparaging remarks. The decision helped clear the way for Palin to win his first Iron Dog title with Drake.
Cancelled: A warm winter in 2003 left parts of the Iditarod Trail snow-less. Citing safety concerns and potential environmental damage, the Iron Dog board voted unanimously to cancel what would have been the 20th running of the event. Most racers, including Davis and Palin, were unhappy with the decision. "Gosh dang it," Davis told the Anchorage Daily News. "You probably can't print what I really want to say. Just when you think you've seen it all." Some lobbied for a shortened version of the race, while Palin argued to no avail that the poor trail conditions might actually lessen the chance of an accident.
The Song: Yes, the Iron Dog has its own song. Check it out:
[Images courtesy of IronDog.org.]