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Sorting out race leader in Iron Dog requires superior math skills

Craig Medred
Iron Dog racers arrive in Nome during the 2012 race. Photo by David Dodman, KNOM Radio Mission

When is the winner of a race not the winner? When the rules are so confusing no one can tell if the person who crosses the finish line first actually won. Ask the Iron Dog about it. Here is what the world's longest, toughest and most mathematically complicated snowmobile race posted on its website late Tuesday:

"Clarification of Teams Arriving into Nome

"After an amazing run up the coast, we experienced a very exciting finish with teams crossing the line just 23 seconds apart. Team #23 did cross the line first, but their course time was actually just under a minute behind that of Team #17.

"There was some initial confusion about who was in first place, but the simple answer is to look at who has the shortest course time. Team #17 has the least amount of time on the trail and is the fastest team to reach Nome.'' 

Still confused?

You're not alone. As one of the readers commenting on the Iron Dog page asked:

"How can the course time at White Mountain (the last checkpoint before Nome) have the team 23 ahead of (team) 17 and come across ahead of the 17 in Nome and be in second place?"

And, no, it's not because of the staggered starts on Sunday at Big Lake, 1,000 miles back along the trail. Those times are corrected in McGrath, about 350 miles into the 2,000-mile race, where racers are delayed to account for the time differences from the start. 

Some fans do not sound happy. But whatever the case, the official race leaders are Mark McKenna from Anchorage and Dusty VanMeter from Kasilof, as was reported on Alaska Dispatch on Tuesday, based on the official standings before eyewitnesses to the halfway finish in Nome started asking, "How is it the guys in first end up in second?''

The answer is somewhere in Iron Dog math, which involves 30-hours of mandatory and confusing rest stops between Big Lake and Nome. Not to mention checkpoint in and out times not always kept all that accurately by volunteers. 

The race is on hold in Nome today. There is a banquet and the action resumes tomorrow. The 27 teams left on the trail are competing for $210,000 in prize money. 
May the best mathematician win!

As reported earlier, defending champs Marc McKenna from Anchorage and Dusty VanMeter from Kasilof in the lead by about as long as it takes to blow your nose.

Only 23 seconds back were the duo of Eric Quam from Eagle River and Brian Dick from Thief River Falls, Minn., the home of Arctic Cat snowmobiles. The two were, somewhat predictably, riding Arctic Cats. Dick is an engineer for the company running his second Iron Dog. No rider from Outside has ever been part of a winning team, but Kirk Hibbert, an Arctic Cat engineer, was in contention a decade back.

A made-to-order durability test for snowmobiles, the Iron Dog has sparked a bit of competition between three of the big four manufactures. McKenna and VanMeter are backed by Ski-Doo. The Canadian company is looking to have a big year. Three more Ski-Doo teams -- that of 22-year-old Aaron Bartel from Anchorage and 18-year-old Brad George from Wasilla, that of graybeards Scott Davis, 52, from Soldotna and Todd Palin, 48, from Wasilla, and that of veterans Tyler Akelstad, 28, from Palmer and Tyson Johnson, 33, from Eagle River -- finished just behind Quam and Dick.

A 36-hour rest

By 6:20 p.m., the top six teams were in Nome, where they’ll rest for the next 36 hours.  Racers are allowed to spend time wrenching their machines at the half-way point, but every minute spent doing that counts against their elapsed time.

The new Ski-Doos are good enough that they lured seven-time Iron Dog champ Davis away from Arctic Cat just this year. Davis had a long, long association with the Minnesota company. He led Hibbert to a third-place finish back in 2001. But in a video for Ski-Doo this year, Davis raved about the company's E-TEC 600 engine and its sled design.

With seven Dog victories, Davis is tied with the legendary John Faeo, now retired, as the winningest driver in race history. Davis is hoping for one more before he hangs up his helmet, but at age 52 he's fighting father time as well as a tough trail. Still, he and partner Palin were good enough to grab third in Nome, only about a half-hour back of the leaders.

Tough race for Polaris

And while things were going well for Ski-Doo at the front of the Iron Dog field, things weren't going so well for Polaris at the back. The Roseau, Minn.-based company was once king of the trail. No more.

Of the five teams knocked out of the race by mechanical problems so far, three were riding Polarises. Meanwhile, among the teams still running at the back of the race, the second-to-last team was towing one of its broken Polaris Indys toward the Kaltag checkpoint, and the last-place team had returned to Galena to try to make repairs on its Polaris machines. Galena is about two thirds of the way to Nome. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com