FAIRBANKS — The weather was delightful, the trail had mushers in the GCI Open North American Championship Sled dog race raving and the speeds put up had teams moving in the 20 mph range and faster.
The top four teams are within 49.3 seconds of each other after the first 20-mile heat of the 68th running of the “fastest sled dog race in the world” on Friday and today in downtown Fairbanks.
The next four teams are in a pack about two minutes off the lead and are separated by just 42 seconds.
“It was a gorgeous day for racing,” said 12-time champion Egil Ellis, the winningest musher in the history of the 68-year-old race.
Despite having a pileup on the trail when he came upon a closed gate leaving the Fairbanks Golf Course, Ellis finished the first 20-mile heat in fourth place, just 49.3 seconds behind lead Arleigh Reynolds of Salcha.
“They did exactly what I wanted them to do,” Salcha’s Reynolds said of his dog’s performance.
“They started out easy and settled into a nice pace for the rest of race.”
Temperatures in the high teens and low 20s made for excellent racing conditions and had most drivers raving about the trail.
“The trail was as good as I’ve ever seen it,” said Canadian musher Mark Hartum, a long-time North American participant, who is in fifth place.
“The main trail was fantastic, but there was some drifting on the golf course,” said second-place finisher Ken Chezik, of Fife Lake, Mich.
The second leg of the three-day race is another 20-mile run starting at 1 p.m. on Second Avenue between Cushman and Lacey streets.
The race concludes with a 27.6 mile run starting at 1 p.m. on Sunday
Mushers are competing for $25,000 in prize money with the top 15 finishers earning cash. If everyone who started on Friday finishes Sunday afternoon, they will all get paid.
The race is broadcast live on KFAR (660AM) and nightly updates will be televised at 6:45 p.m. on GCI Cable (Ch. 1).
Today, mushers will go out in the order they finished Friday, so Reynolds will go out first, followed by Chezik, Greg Sellentin and Ellis.
“That can be a good thing,” Chezik said. “It puts more pressure on Arleigh and the rest of us are in position to chase.”
Reynolds tends to disagree.
“I don’t mind going out first,” he said. “I get to run my own race.”
Reynolds, who won the Fur Rendezvous World Championship three weeks ago in Anchorage, cruised across the finish line in 61 minutes, 30.0 seconds, to edge Chezik, who finished in 61:36.5.
“They went out a little conservative, but they finished real strong,” Chezik said.
Greg Sellentin, publisher of Mushing Magazine, holds down the third spot in 61:52.1.
Ellis, who has six straight Open North American wins to his credit, had difficulty leaving the golf course when the gate somehow closed, crossed the line in 62:19.3.
“I had a pretty good run going up until that point,” said Ellis. “I think Kenny, Arleigh and I pretty much had the same checkpoint times until then.”
Ellis had another problem. His GPS failed to work. A GPS is used in sprint mushing to calculate a team’s speed.
“It was just one of those days,” Ellis said.
Canada’s Mark Hartum heads up the second group in 62:54.6, followed by Germany’s Michael Tetzner in 63:20, Canada’s Don Cousins in 63:32.8 and Tanana’s John Erhart in 63:36.4.
Erhart was the first musher out of the starting chute on Friday afternoon and the first team to finish.
"The team did really good and we didn’t get caught and passed,” Erhart said. “The trail was hard and fast. All the dogs ran really well.”
Contact the News-Miner sports department at 459-7581.