The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has lost its most benevolent fan, Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep president Rod Udd.
He was 78 years old and had been struggling with health issues in recent years.
Friend and business associate Chuck Talsky said Thursday that Udd died peacefully at home surrounded by family. He’d led an interesting life. Born in Washington state, he moved to the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Cong0) in Africa with his missionary parents when only a year old.
There he attended the Rift Valley Academy Christian Boarding School in nearby Kenya. He moved back to the states, according to Talksy, to attend Seattle Pacific University where he earned a degree in nuclear physics.
After school he came north to Alaska in the mid-1960s. The new state was then very much the nation’s Last Frontier. Jobs were sometimes hard to come by. Udd ended up working as fleet manager position at Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Center.
He worked his way up in the company and by 1989 was able to buy it. Udd became highly active in community affairs, Talsky said. He helped save the Alaska Aces hockey franchise and became one of the owners, and boosted The Alaska Raceway Park and the Boys and Girls Club.
But his true love was the Iditarod.
After the death of Iditarod founder Joe Redington, Udds put up the funds to create the Joe Redington, Sr. trophy awarded Iditarod winners. He had been a key supporter of Iditarod for more than two decades.
A Dodge pickup truck has for years been a big part of the purse for the race winner. The trucks have been donated to Iditarod thanks to Udd’s support.
“Udd,” reporter Brian Phillips wrote in ESPN Grantland, “is known as ‘Idita-Rod’ due to his obsessive love of the race.”
The great truck giveaway
Udd started giving away trucks as Iditarod prizes in 1991 when a Dodge Dakota went to the first musher to reach the Skwentna checkpoint only 150 miles along the trail. The truck was won by Joe Garnie from the village of Teller, the best dog musher never to win the Iditarod, who told reporter Mitch Albom that “all I have to do (now) is get a driver’s license.”
But Udd’s aid to the Iditarod hasn’t been confined to the winner’s circle or the winners. He has also donated trucks for twice yearly Iditarod raffles, the profits from which go to help fund Iditarod operations.
“In addition to the donation of a Ram pickup for the winner each year and other sponsorship arrangements,” Talsky told Alaska Business Monthly in 2015…”Udd also provides the Iditarod Trail Committee with two of the four Ram pickups raffled off in winter and spring,” and makes two more available to the committee at dealer cost.
In 2010, Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley pegged Anchorage Chrysler’s contribution to the Iditarod at a quarter-million dollars.
“The Iditarod’s four biggest sponsors — Anchorage Chrysler Dodge, GCI, Exxon Mobil and Wells Fargo — contribute about $250,000 a year each,” Hooley told the now defunct Anchorage Daily News.
Iditarod was at the time going through one of its periodic financial struggles due to canceled TV contracts and a weak U.S. economy that caused Chevron, among others, to cut back on sponsorship.
“We’ll still support the race,” Udd said at the time. “You just can’t close down because the economy is a little bit rough. We’ll ride through it.”
Tough times again
His passing has left some with connections to The Last Great Race worrying about whether the new leadership of Anchorage Chrysler will stay the course with the Alaska economy now sliding into recession.
“There are tough economic times,” said Rod Perry, a competitor in the first Iditarod in 1973, a filmmaker, a long time Iditarod supporter and the author of “TrailBreakers – Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod.”
The Iditarod has lost major sponsors or sponsorship money in the past when company management changed. Timberland, a New Hampshire based outdoor apparel manufacturer, was a $1 million per year Iditarod sponsor in the 1990s when the race came under attack from animal-rights activists.
Timberland abandoned the race after the company leaders who were Iditarod fans were trumped by those who thought a better marketing move was to side with Iditarod opponents.
In 2010, Cabela’s – the big outdoor equipment retailer – went from a $250,000 per year supporter to a $65,000 a year sponsor – after a key executive left for another company.
According to the late Greg Bill, for years the Iditarod’s chief fund-raiser, the executive was an Iditarod fanatic who stayed up all night during the race to monitor checkpoint in and out times as mushers moved up the 1,000-mile trail from Willow to Nome. He convinced Cabela’s an association with Iditarod was a good marketing move.
But after he left, Cabela’s decided marketing funds could better be spent elsewhere. There are now legitimate reasons for Iditarod to worry that whoever takes over management of Anchorage Chrysler might make a similar decision in a tough economic environment.
The race is already looking at something of a replay of the Timberland years when it struggled to fend off the efforts of animal-rights activists to kill the race. The movie “Sled Dogs,” which features spectacular footage of the Iditarod and makes the race appear a grand adventure, has once again raised questions about the treatment of dogs used for mushing.
Udd left some big shoes to fill. A memorial service is planned for Feb. 4 at the Anchorage Baptist Temple. He is survived by his wife, Carol; daughter Tamera Schuman and husband Robert Schuman; Carol’s daughters, Kelli Hyden, and son, Brent Mun,and numerous grandchildren.