Racers preparing for this year’s edition of the Iron Dog snowmachine race can expect a lot of the usual dangers, as well as a few unpredictable surprises, both on the trail and off it.
For one, there is the weather. A recent surge in temperatures across the Southcentral region of the state have melted the already thin snowpack and exposed much of the land with dirt, mud and open water.
Then, there is the field of 37 Pro Class entries. One name that was originally left off the entry list but has since then been included is that of seven-time Iron Dog champion Scott Davis of Soldotna. Also entered is Davis’ son, Cory, an X Games medalist that is attempting to win it in his third try.
Another entry in this year’s edition is that of Soldotna veteran Mark Carr, who will be making his first start in a decade. Carr and Davis rolled to three consecutive Iron Dog victories in the late ’90s, and total 11 wins between them.
Davis has run the Iron Dog all but two years since its inception in 1984, but even with that type of experience, it is still impossible to be completely ready for what lies ahead.
The race — which totals 2,031 grueling miles across rugged Alaska terrain — is billed as the “world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race,” and this year’s event is the 32nd running. The race officially begins in Big Lake and takes riders through 16 checkpoints to Nome, then on a return route that eventually lands them in Fairbanks for the finish.
Competitors have been known to reach speeds of up to 100 mph in temperatures down to minus 57, creating a wind chill that can plummet into the triple-digit range below zero.
It is generally known as the largest motorized sporting event in the state, and with 74 Pro Class competitors in this year’s race, there is no shortage of talented competition.
The ceremonial start takes place Saturday in Anchorage, while the real deal begins Sunday in Big Lake. The Trail Class begins its journey to Nome today, starting from Big Lake.
Of the 37 teams and 74 racers, there are 27 rookies, four father-son teams, four all-brother teams, eight returning champions and one all-female team. The last all female team to compete was in 2011.
The following is a closer look at the Peninsula racers that will line up for the ceremonial start tomorrow in Anchorage:
Ashley Wood, age 26, rookie
Ashley Wood knows history is not on her side. The former Soldotna resident is teaming up with fellow Iron Dog rookie Rachel Kidwell in an attempt to become only the second ever all-women’s team to finish the grueling race.
If they can complete all 2,031 miles, they will join Jackie Page and Missy McClurg as the only all-female teams to successfully finish the race. Page and McClurg became the first to do it in February 2001 when the duo placed 15th with a time of 60 hours, 23 minutes.
“It would definitely be an accomplishment,” Wood said by phone from Anchorage. “The goal would be to start building from there, that’s the baseline. After that, you just progress from there.”
Wood and Kidwell, who met on the racing trails, are the only two women competing in this year’s Iron Dog. The last all-female team to compete in the race was 2011.
Wood, who resides in Wasilla these days, was born and raised in Soldotna and caught the racing bug early from her father, Rick Wood, and Scott Davis.
Rick Wood took up snowmachine racing starting at age 16 and was a regular on the trail, running in about a half-dozen local races a year. Wood won one of the runnings of the Petroleum 150 event in the mid-1970s, a race that used to run from the Carr’s parking lot in Kenai out to the Holt Lamplight road area in Nikiski.
“We lived to ride snowmachines,” the elder Wood said of his family. “Every weekend I’d take the kids out, we had a cabin in the Caribou Hills, and they’d start riding from about 3 years old.”
Wood said his work prevented him from ever running the Iron Dog — although he and Davis had off-and-on talks about teaming up for it — but now that his daughter is competing, his support is at 100 percent.
Ashley ran her first competition in 2005 as a teenager, and one year later, Davis was helping her get onto a competitive sled, something that father Rick has been grateful for ever since.
“Scott Davis put me on a sno-cross sled, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” Ashley Wood said.
Wood added that her experience competing in races that take riders across Alaska terrain similar to what the Iron Dog sees helped whet her appetite for the big one.
“I had been racing in local cross-country races, and I guess the Iron Dog was the next step after that, and things just fell into place with sponsorship,” she said.
Wood’s racing experience, as vast as it may already be, is in much shorter races, ranging from 150 to 200 miles. The Iron Dog is about 10 times longer than those events. To put it in better perspective, the longest single stretch between checkpoints in the Iron Dog — 120 miles — is nearly as long as one of the typical races in which Wood competes.
“In the shorter races, we don’t have to be as strict in making sure the sleds are mechanically sound,” Wood explained. “The races are a lot faster paced.
“In the Iron Dog, you have to have a machine that will last.”
In an endurance race like the Iron Dog, any time spent repairing and fixing components on the sled is time spent watching your competitors speed by. Wood and Kidwell may have picked a bad year to try the race, as the recent warm weather has put trail conditions into a spin.
Wood said she and Kidwell have put on about 2,600 training miles this winter preparing for the race, getting time on snow from Big Lake up to McGrath.
“I think it’s gonna be rough up there,” Wood said. “It’ll be a matter of keeping the sleds together.”
Scott Davis, 55, veteran
Davis is not as concerned with the trail conditions as most may be.
But when you are a seven-time champion of the race and have run it every year save for two, there’s not a whole lot that may come as a surprise.
“It is what it is,” Davis said via phone from Anchorage. “I’m sure we’ll figure out how to get through it.”
In a race that rewards experience over accolades, Davis will be reaping the benefits of 30 years of Iron Dog seasoning. He has learned that the real race is not against the competition, but against the elements, and one must be versatile to hold up in temperatures that could plummet to minus-50.
“You’ve got to have a really diverse skill level,” he said. “I’ve seen world-class racers come in and they can’t get out of their own way. You just need to be able to adapt to weather, adapt to your machine not working so good, adapt to no snow, lots of snow, rain, deep water and everything in between.”
Davis raced in the inaugural Iron Dog in 1984, then won it the next year at the tender age of 25. Since then, he’s racked up victories in 1989, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2007.
Overall, he’s notched 20 podium finishes and only failed to finish three times. The only years he has not raced are 1991 and 1996.
So why is Davis entered in his 30th Iron Dog race at the ripe old age of 55?
“I’ve got a short memory,” Davis quipped. “I forget how much work it is. I think I’m just a competitive guy, I’ve been racing over 40 years, and started when I was 11 years old. I got it in my blood.
“Plus, it’s one of the few things I can remain competitive at with age.”
Davis and company — which this year includes teammate Aaron Bartel, a 24-year-old from Anchorage— have been working on two snowmachines this winter for the race. Davis said Bartel’s young age does not concern him, adding that his riding experience will pay dividends.
“I break it down to riding ability and his ability to perform in big races,” Davis said. “He’s proven he can do it. He has a pretty diverse background in snowmobiles. For the Iron Dog, that’s important.”
Bartel has run the race five times before, with two DNFs.
Davis has seen massive changes in rider comfort, navigation and technology in his time. He said it used to take the leaders well over 30 hours to make the trip to Nome. Now, the leaders are rolling into Fairbanks in the mid-30-hour range.
Additionally, the jump in suspension technology has decreased the potential of shocks becoming brittle in extreme cold and breaking down.
“There’s no way of getting me on the kind of machine we ran 30 years ago,” Davis said.
Last year, Davis ended up scratching out of the race. This year, he expects to be in Fairbanks when it’s all said and done.
“It’s gonna be pretty hard,” he said. “It’s been seven or eight years since I’ve won, and I know there are guys that are top-notch racers that have never won it. It’s going to take the right combination of speed, preparation and execution.
“And some luck.”
Cory Davis, 26, veteran
Scott Davis’ 26-year old son, Cory, is partnered with Ryan Simons of Alberta, Canada, for the second year in a row. Unlike his father, however, Cory hasn’t had nearly the amount of time preparing for the Iron Dog.
That’s because he’s been busy winning medals at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado.
“I’ve got six medals, so at this point, I’d like to win this race,” Davis said.
Simons is also an X Games medal-winning competitor, so Davis said the preparation for this weekend has been singular.
“It’s been short and sweet,” he said. “With all the other stuff I’ve been doing, it’s pretty busy. I definitely haven’t been able to devote as much time to it, but every year it’s like that.”
Davis captured a silver and a bronze medal in Aspen four weeks ago to add to his growing collection of X Games medals, which now stands at six total. Davis’ podium spots came in the long jump and speed-and-style competitions.
Once the X Games wrapped up, Davis immediately set his sights on the Iron Dog, which gave him only a few weeks to prepare.
After the big race is over, Davis will be right back to business working as vice president of Davis Block and Concrete, his father’s company. And, at this stage of his life, Davis has no plans to curtail his national competition schedule in favor of putting together a full-out campaign to win the Iron Dog.
“Maybe when I’m older,” he said. “But honestly the stuff that keeps me going is doing these other things. It’s nice to have that. It’s nice when I have a bad weekend to come out here and forget that.”
After an injury sidelined Cory from competing nationally in 2010, he and his dad teamed up to finish third in the 2011 Iron Dog.
“We got third, and (Cory) said he’ll never do it again,” Scott said with a laugh.
Four years later, Davis is suiting up for his third go at it. Last year, he and Simons finished ninth.
Davis said there is nothing like standing on a podium at the X Games with the country watching on live TV, but the thrill and reward of conquering the toughest snowmachine race in the world would also rank pretty high.
“It’s grueling, it’s a long race, and a lot of long hours on the trail,” he said. “But it’s rewarding. It’s probably the most rewarding thing I do all winter, and crossing the finish line is great sigh of relief.”
Mark Carr, 56, veteran
If Scott Davis is heralded as the old legend still making track out on the trail, then Mark Carr must be the man behind the curtain.
Carr first ran the Iron Dog in 1994, then proceeded to win it in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2004. But Carr has not raced it since 2005.
This year, he’s throwing his hat back into the ring. Carr is teamed with Micah Huss, a 39-year-old rookie.
Of the four victories Carr has racked up in the Iron Dog, three of those came riding with teammate Scott Davis.
“I’m glad to see him back, he’s kind of stepped up quite a ways,” Davis said.