How fast can you go cross-country in frozen Alaska today?
Pretty damn fast.
Todd Minnick and Nick Olstad, a pair of 30-somethings from Wasilla, averaged a traveling speed of 52 mph for 1,000 miles from Big Lake to Nome to lead the Iron Dog snowmobile race into the City of the Golden Sands on Tuesday.
The near double-nickel speed of the short-lived “national maximum speed law” appears to be a record for the world’s longest, toughest and coldest snowmobile race.
Minnick and Olstad are riding 2017 Polaris Switchback PRO-S 600 and trying to unseat the Ski-doos that have come to own the Iron Dog in recent years. The pair hit Nome in the late afternoon with the sun cutting through high overcast and the temperature near 15 degrees below zero.
The tall windshields on their Polarises might have been something of an aerodynamic disadvantage, but didn’t seem to slow them down and probably helped to save their faces.
Some racers arriving at the Iron Dog halfway turnaround were suffering minor frostbite. Temperatures in the Interior and along the Bering Sea coast were dipping to below minus-20 in places on Tuesday. It doesn’t take much of an opening in a helmet or clothing for air to penetrate when hitting top speeds of 80 mph or more.
And at those speeds, the minus-20 degree windchill has the skin-freezing power of 62-degrees below zero. Exposed flesh, or any flesh exposed to the wind and cold, can freeze in five minutes or less in that kind of cold.
Jim Wilke, a long time Iron Dog observer who was at the finish line in Nome, reported the “top three teams, in fact the top seven or eight, look remarkably clean. A little crash damage here and there, some riders suffering frostbite but all in all, pretty damn impressive.”
In photos, the sleds of the leaders looked almost showroom new. Minnick and Olstad arrived about 15 minutes in front of defending champs Tyson Johnson from Eagle River and Tyler Aklestad from Palmer on their Ski-doo MXZ X-RS 600s.
Another 20 minutes back were Cory Davis from Soldotna and Ryan Simons from Camrose, Alberta, Canada on a pair of Arctic Cat ZR 6000 R XC 600s.
It might have been cold in Nome, but the brand wars were clearly heating up. Simons, a long time Arctic-sponsored rider, is vying to become the first Outsider to succeed as part of an Iron Dog team.
Because the 2,000-mile race from Big Lake to Nome and then from Nome to Fairbanks takes place almost wholly in a vast wilderness, racers are required to compete as teams for safety. The race has seen a variety of close calls in which racers have been saved by teammates.
Akelstad went through the Bering Sea ice one year and was pulled out by Johnson. He might not have made it out of the water without a partner, and if he had the odds are good he might not have survived.
Johnson loaded Akelstad onto his snowmachine and rushed him to the small, coastal village of Shaktoolik where Akelstad said he hugged the community boiler for a long time in order to warm up.
Racers enjoy a day-long layover and banquet in Nome before hitting the trail south and then east along the rivers of the frozen Interior to Fairbanks. The race finishes there on Saturday.
The small lead now held by Minnick and Olstand is considered pretty much meaningless given the distance to the finish.