TANANA, Alaska—2015 Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass was disqualified from the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Tuesday evening for carrying a device capable of two-way communication.
The device, according to Sass, was an iPod Touch that had wireless Internet capability.
Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman said he disqualified Sass, of Eureka, for a violation of Iditarod Rule 35.
The rule says, in part, "No two-way communication device, including cellphones, shall be carried or used unless provided by ITC [Iditarod Trail Committee]. Use of any electronic communication or tracking device shall not be permitted unless provided by the ITC.”
Sass, in an interview posted on the official Iditarod website, said officials had made it clear at the beginning of the race that devices capable of two-way communication were prohibited.
"It was a complete screw-up on my part,” Sass said in the Iditarod’s interview. “I bring it along for my music and my movies and I had no intention of using the Wi-Fi."
"It just didn't register that the Wi-Fi in the iPod Touch could be hooked into Wi-Fi at checkpoints and used to communicate," he said.
"I have to accept the consequences. I want to apologize to my fellow mushers, my fans, my supporters, my family, my friends, my dogs," a choked up Sass said in the interview.
Nordman, in an interview with the News-Miner in Tanana, described Sass as a well-respected musher with a great fan base. He said Sass was devastated and emotional when told he had broken the rule. Sass had been seen using the iPod Touch.
“It’s a very simple mistake that he made,” Nordman said in Tanana. “There were reports. There were no mushers pointing anything out. But we saw him with this piece of hardware.”
Nordman said Sass was notified of the disqualification about 6:40 p.m.
“He went, ‘Oh my god, what a mistake.’ You know, an emotional time for him,” Nordman said. “Just a mistake. Do I believe Brent was trying to gain a competitive advantage in the race? Absolutely not. That’s my personal opinion.”
Nordman said Sass was respectful upon being informed of the disqualification.
“He felt like he’d let his competitors down, his supporters and also was saying, ‘I’m so sorry, Mark,’ that type of thing. It was just one of those things that slipped through the cracks, but it was very clearly stated in our drivers’ meeting. It’s just too bad it happened. It’s a shame.”
Sass has gained stature in long-distance mushing in recent years. His successful trail battle with two-time reigning champion Allen Moore in this year’s Yukon Quest entertained fans to the end.
Sass was in position to win the 2014 Quest, just a couple hours behind Moore before the final checkpoint at Braeburn, when he fell asleep and tumbled off his sled. He sustained a concussion in the fall and could not continue. The injury forced him to withdraw from the Iditarod that year, too.
Tuesday’s disqualification put a quick end to any hope that Sass would become just the second musher to win both the Quest and Iditarod in the same year. Lance Mackey completed that feat twice.
Sass, in the Iditarod interview, noted that Yukon Quest rules permitted use of the iPod, which he said he also used as his trail alarm clock
"We were able to use them on the Quest. and this is a completely different race and the rules are completely different," he said of the Iditarod.
Sass said he knew of the Iditarod's rule barring mushers from having communications devices.
"I handed my cellphone to my dad before the race, going 'I can't use this thing,' here, dad, take it,'" he said.
Staff writer Casey Grove is the News-Miner’s Anchorage reporter and is covering the Iditarod this year. Follow him on Twitter: @kcgrove.