Team 7 Aklestad/Olstad wins 2020 Iron Dog
The 2020 Iron Dog is done and now the changes in the race will be debated around campfires, Toyo stoves and shiny boardroom tables. The extra 375 miles of the Kotzebue loop, added to deliver the race to a region crazy for snow machine racing, made a big difference. Team 7’s winning margin over defending champs and second place finishers Team 10 came on the Kotzebue loop.
Team 7 led the way the entire race.
Only 11 of the starting 29 teams finished, a testimony to the difficulty the riders faced this year. Tyler Aklestad and Nick Olstad can claim four wins between them, but with other partners.
“Now that it’s sunk in for a couple of days, I thought it was phenomenal myself,” said Kotzebue’s Claude Wilson of the loop through the region. Wilson organized the handling of the race on their trails. “The route complemented the Iron Dog.”
According to Wilson, Team 7 did a complete pre-running of the 375-mile loop. “The pre-running is what really paid dividends up this way. They already had a route established and they used that route. And they talked to locals like Chris Collins,” Wilson said. Kotzebue racer Chris Collins, half of Team 34, has lived in Kotzebue all his life and knows the trails. Team 34 scratched in Kiana after Collins’ partner and brother Jesse Crumbley crashed hard.
“I thought the Kotzebue loop was huge,” said Team 10’s Mike Morgan. Team 10, Morgan/Chris Olds finished the race in second place. “The people in Kiana, Kotzebue, Selawik, those villages there were all about Team 10. They were chanting ‘Team 10, Team 10, Go Mike!’ They’re diehards up there. It brought a new life into it. We took off from Kotzebue on Day 3 with a vengeance. We wanted to make time up. I was pretty pissed off and disappointed from Day 2. We were on a mission after that. We made up a lot of time from then on out, for the rest of the race.”
The weather was an issue but Morgan doesn’t blame the lost time on that. “It was down for us but it was also down for them,” he said. “So you can’t really say that. We just made some stupid decisions and got off on the wrong track and weren’t making very competent decisions. It was intimidating and tough to navigate. We lost probably almost three hours.”
Morgan spoke to the Nugget from his home in Anchorage, where he was still recuperating from the race. “I wish we could redo Day 2. I think the race would have been a little different for us. I think we could have pushed Team 7 and challenged them for the top spot. No issues. We spent four and a half minutes on the clock in Nome and that was it.”
“You can’t make up over two hours in time unless they have a catastrophic issue,” said Morgan. “They made up all their time on Day 2 when we got mixed up. That’s where we lost all our time. We got mixed up going across Norton Bay between Shaktoolik and Koyuk. We lost some time there. Not much, we only lost about 10 minutes there. And then we lost the rest of the time between Koyuk and Kotzebue.”
As Team 10 was on the line preparing to leave Nome they worked rapidly to repair the lights on Morgan’s sled. They didn’t manage to get them to work and Morgan blasted off with just the regular headlight. “We were having issues with the light,” he said. “I just said screw it and rode the rest of the race without it.”
Riding through the Alaska wilderness in the dark at over 100 mph without a bright light is not easy. “It works but it’s sketchy. You don’t have the hyper spot that shines out over a mile. It’s sketchy for sure.”
Team 36, Tre West and Daniel Stang, both of Nome, had fuel problems starting in Kaltag and they scratched in Koyuk. West said they still don’t know what the problem was but it was something to do with the fuel pump. “Haven’t got parts back yet to figure out exactly what it was,” he said.
What was the cause of all the scratches this year from mechanical problems? “I think a lot of it had to do with how the layovers were set up, how they made us run to each check point for a layover,” said West. “If we were able to pick where our layovers were we’d be able to scrounge around for 10 or 12 hours, find parts in the village or wherever. Instead of being on the clock trying to find parts.”
“The trail was really good, I thought,” said West. “I was hoping for bad weather on this side. That would help us a lot. It’s my back yard here. I heard it was pretty nasty going to Kotzebue.” West hopes to do the race again next year.
Cody Moen of Team 15 rode as a rookie. He’s originally from Washington but now lives in Nome. His partner Bob Gilman crashed. “The first day we took off pretty hot out of Fairbanks and my partner crashed about 20 miles out of Tanana,” said Moen. “He wiped out pretty good, got a head injury and broke some ribs and had some internal issues. So we had to scratch the first day but that’s racing and now I’m back home here in Nome and seeing all the guys in the shop is bittersweet but it’s good to see them all.”
“Your partner goes down in the race and that ends it for you,” said Moen. “It could happen five minutes out of the chute. Larry Levine and his daughter blew a motor five minutes out of Fairbanks. But that’s it, that’s the rule. Your teammate goes down, you go down with him. It would be kind of cool to team up with another guy from a team that had the same issue but that would cause some controversy if you went on to win the race.”
Zach Weisz of Team 5, the third place finishers, thought lacking experience on the coast was an issue. “So just trying to pick our way in navigational was pretty tough. We got lucky but for the most part it was pretty tough,” he said. He and his partner did not pre-run the Kotzebue loop. “Everything is frozen pretty hard,” he said of the trail. “There’s quite a bit more snow than what we were told it was going to be. We were told it was windblown and like riding over frozen bowling balls but on that Kotzebue loop, it wasn’t too bad. It’s taken out over half the teams so far so it’s definitely a lot rougher than they expected.”