The sun had barely set over the vast Alaska Interior Sunday when Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad led the world’s longest, toughest snowmobile race into the tiny, outpost community of McGrath.
A less than 8-hour run north over the toughest 350 miles of the Iditarod trail by the two, thirty-something Iron Dog drivers from Wasilla was a testament to not only their skill but the relentless, ever forward march of technology.
Today’s snowmachine might represent the biggest tech revolution in the Great White North. If you’d 30 years ago told someone in a rural Alaska village you could build a snowmachine they could go out and start with the turn of a key at 45-degrees-below zero, they would have laughed at you.
Sleds in the ’80s were still finicky and unreliable. When the second Iron Dog ran to Nome in 1985, part of the challenge was just getting a snowmachine over the Alaska Range in one piece. The riders in the inaugural Iron Dog got off easy. Because of warm weather and low snow in 1984, the first race started in McGrath on the north side of the range and went to Nome.
The next year the race took on the full Iditarod Trail north from Wasilla and for the next seven years of the race’s existence – first as the Iron Dog Iditarod and then the Iron Dog Gold Rush Classic – the action ended in Nome because that was about as far as anyone could hope to take the snowmachines of the day before the pounding of the trail destroyed them.
Then in 1993, the Iron Dog, which has always struggled a bit in the shadow of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, decided to up the ante on its race by going from Wasilla to Nome along the Iditarod Trail and then back again, a distance of about 2,000 miles.
Just finishing became a victory for most.
Those early races were dominated by a small group of men who were master field mechanics, as well as good drivers. They could fix a machine as fast they could drive it. From 1984 to 1999, one of the two members of 14 of the 15 winning teams was named Scott Davis, John Faeo or Dan Zipay.
The Iron Dog then required competitors to travel in teams of two for safety as it does today. And Faeo from Wasilla, the hometown of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Davis from the Kenai Peninsula community of Soldotna are the two winningest drivers in Iron Dog history with Anchorage’s Zipay trailing in third.
More power, more maneuverability
Faeo and teammate Rod Frank won the first Iron Dog race atop gas-guzzling, fan-cooled, 50-horsepower Polaris Indy 440 Trails. The machines featured a trailing-arm front suspension that was then state of the art and a top speed of 75 to 80 mph in ideal conditions.
The motors were prone to failure. The trailing-arms bent upon impact with trees or other objects. The machines struggled in soft snow because of imprecise steering and lack of traction. And the low-boy riding position – think sitting on your couch while trying to steer a bicycle – proved exhausting over long distances.
“…The machine’s limitations made deep snow a dreaded challenge and hindered race progress,” Faeo told Iron Dog writer Justin Matley in 2013. “‘We were constantly leap-frogging and taking turns breaking trail because no one guy could break away,’ Faeo says. “There was no feasible way. It took a series of bodies out there to plug along and punch the trial open because even the villagers back then couldn’t commute as far and easy, and that’s what we rely on today, the local village traffic routes.’
“Today’s machines perform better and have made travel easier across bush Alaska. Faeo would rather ride 2,000 miles on a new snowmachine than 1,000 on the old one.”
The 2016 Iron Dog race was won by Tyson Johnson and Tyler Aklestad on Ski-doo MXZs which get 120 horsepower out of a reliable, fuel-efficient E-Tec engine that will push them to speeds over 100 mph, and feature a sophisticated A-arm front suspension that enhances maneuverability more than it alters durability.
Better steering translates into better chances of avoiding obstacles and a lot better chance of avoiding wreckage.
The seating on the sleds looks nothing like that of the snowmobiles of the 1980s and 1990s. The rider is now more upright and forward. Snowmobile magazine in 2014 credited that as the biggest change in helping Ski-doo unseat Polaris as North America’s biggest snowmobile manufacturer.
“Ski-doo re-invented the snowmobile,” wrote Jerry Bassett. Other manufacturer at first bad-mouthed the new design, but it proved so much better that all of them have since copied it.
The suspension and engine wars, however, continue to the benefit of consumers everywhere.
To really appreciate the difference between the sleds of today and those of yesteryear, you need to have ridden both. But not just racing sleds.
The trickle down from more than 30 year of Iron Dog has had benefits for everyone who rides a snowmobile in Alaska for fun or for work, and a lot of them get ridden for work – hauling supplies to remote cabins, gathering firewood to heat homes in rural villages, running traplines and more.
You probably don’t want a race sled for those purposes, but you can buy one if you wish. Ski-doo now sells an “MXZ X-RS Iron Dog.”
“Inspired by the Ski-Doo snowmobiles that have won the 2,000+ mile race three of the last five years, the MXZ Iron Dog is for riders who demand the highest performance and durability in cross-country type conditions,” the company says in a pitch that promotes “Iron Dog proven toughness.”
There are several major snowmobile manufacturers seriously trying to knock Ski-doo off that Iron Dog perch this year. Minnick and Olstad arrived in McGrath on a pair of new Polaris Switchback Pro-S600s. About 20 minutes behind them were 28-year-old Cory Davis of Soldotna, son of the aforementioned Scott, and 34-year-old Canadian Ryan Simons, a veteran Arctic Cat racer.
They were on a pair of Arctic Cat ZR 6000s. And six minutes behind Davis and Simons came Akelstad and Johnson on new 2017 MXZs.
Technology is all but unstoppable, but competition is what sets the pace in driving it.