Registration opened on Thursday for the 37th running of the Iron Dog, the World’s Longest, Toughest Snowmobile Race, which will feature a course reversal with the starting line in Fairbanks at Pikes Landing on Feb. 16 and 375 additional miles of course for a total of 2,409 miles before the Feb. 22 finish in Willow.
“Fairbanks has always given Iron Dog such a warm reception as a finish line venue, and they have some stellar ideas for the 2020 start,” Iron Dog Executive Director John Woodbury said in a Thursday press release.
Woodbury told the News-Miner on Saturday that, although it is not yet official, one of those ideas includes hosting the Flying Iron Freestyle Show, a freestyle snowmachine show featuring a group of accomplished X Game athletes. Woodbury said they are also considering putting together a series of venues where machines will be on display.
In addition to providing entertainment for local Fairbanks residents and Iron Dog fans, the course reversal also provides an exciting change for the competitors, which the board of directors hopes will “keep the race as fresh as possible.”
“In one sense, it levels the playing field as far as veterans and rookies are concerned. The old goats will still have their deep well of experience to draw from, but with the 180-degree difference in the course, some of the up-and-comers really have a chance to cause some upsets this year,” Woodbury said.
Although once having started in Fairbanks in 2004, the race has traditionally started in South Central Alaska, gone to Nome and then finished in Fairbanks. Woodbury, a past Iron Dog participant himself, explained that some of the veterans have very detailed course maps and know precise locations for short cuts and rough spots in the road, but looking at the course from the other direction will add a different element to their race planning.
“You know it’s just like driving a road. If you are only driving one way you really learn the road, but the minute you turn around and drive back the other way it’s a new road.”
In addition to the directional difference, the race will also include an additional 375-mile loop north of Koyuk toward Kotzebue and then back to Nome, a loop similar to the one used in the Archie Ferguson-Willie Goodwin Memorial snowmachine race. Woodbury said the goal of the loop was to help “keep the Iron Dog focused on the art of racing.” In recent years, due to faster machines, more time was spent at checkpoints and holds, so the additional loop will look to offset those rests.
Chris Olds, four-time winner and reigning Iron Dog champion, is particularly excited for the additional loop.
"Last year was my first year I did the Archie Gerguson race up there ... and it was one of the most fun races I’ve done,” Olds said by phone. “It’s different. A lot of high speeds and you go through a pass so there are some technical areas, too. I think one of the reasons why it was fun was because everyone there was really into racing. … It was really cool to see a lot of the people in the villages come out to watch the race and even when we were training up there. Just everyone was into it.”
Although the course has flipped, Woodburry still thinks the most challenging section will be the 350 miles outside of Big Lake.
“A lot of time we have carnage when we leave from Big Lake on that first stretch. ... We will still have that same stretch of trail when we finish. … It’s skinny trail and single tracked. There’s not many rivers to hop onto. It’s pretty technical. It gets a lot of snow sometimes. There’s just so many variables that it’s kind of anybody's game on that particular stretch of trail,” the executive director told the News-Miner. “The winning racer isn’t always the fastest racer. He’s the smartest racer, so he knows when to go fast and when to pull back and be conservative.”
The Aug. 1 registration start date is another adjustment the race made this year. In prior years registration began in October. In future years, Woodbury hopes to push registration up even further to immediately follow the conclusion of the race and to allow participants to get the best deals with sled manufacturers for the following season.
Additionally, it allows the race organizers to plan further ahead.
“We get a better feel on how much gas we need to buy. We will probably get better prices on gas, buying it in these summer months than in the middle of January. And transportation wise, we have the chance to bring the fuel in and land on airstrips that aren’t covered in snow,” Woodbury said.
Registration for the 2020 Iron Dog closes on Oct. 31.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMSports.