The Iron Dog snowmobile race in Alaska is one of the World's most extreme races, as competitors battle through deep snow for over 2000 miles in brutal conditions. This year, two native Alaskans, Dusty VanMeter and Marc McKenna, took a new course record of 35 hours 39 minutes on Ski-Doos fitted with Öhlins shocks...
The event was originally devised to prepare the ground for the famous Iditarod dog-sled race, so that that the terrain wouldn't be deadly to the huskies needing to drive sleds through deep snow. But putting "snow-machine" (snowmobile) teams on the course, and having them ride from end to end is, well, a race. So it took only a few hours for the organisers to admit that and start handing out trophies, allowing the event to mature into a respected endurance race of its own, involving not barking huskies but 'iron dogs'.
It's an endurance race where broken parts can be more deadly than high-speed accidents and where a teammate is a life-saving requirement.
This year the Iron Dog started in Big Lake, Alaska, near Wasilla. From there the course headed North-West to Nome, then finally back east to Fairbanks. The race began this year on February 19th, at 11am. That means that there was a glow of twilight in the southern sky when the race began and also the amazing dancing Northern Lights.
About 30-40 teams compete in the Iron Dog each year and they are required to have two sleds and two riders for safety. During the race nothing is allowed to be abandoned out on the trail and the event is carefully regulated to protect the wild environment of Alaska. The fuel stops are about every 100 miles and all are manned with hardy volunteers.
Winning driver VanMeter said at the finish "I've been doing this race for 17 years, it's an addiction. Any stupid thing can take you out. Last year we had a lead like this year and it was 20-below with blowing snow. They'd dug a hole into the river and down I went into it. I was soaked up to the waist and my partner got me out and to a local village. We lost six and a half hours and lost the race by about 90 minutes.
We've got two good riders and the proper equipment, we know what to do to win, but anything can happen in the middle of nowhere. I do all of our suspension work to make them ride properly. I've been running Öhlins since 2009 and no one can keep up with us. We're literally doing 80-90 mph over two foot bumps, and if you don't have good suspension you're going to break the sled or crash.
It was rough over the ice, which can rip your machine up. I set the shocks up and valve them to get the best oil flow. They never fade, they never fail.
In some sections you can hold the throttle wide open for miles. We headed down a river for a while and we averaged 98 miles an hour!"
Ron Zugg, owner of Zugger shocks in Palmer, AK, (zuggershocks.com), told us, "This is a big deal for us as it's only the second time that Ski-Doo has won this race. This event is so rough and the conditions are so hard, a failure takes a team out. Reliability wins this race which is why most guys are on Öhlins now.
It's a safety thing as well as a winning strategy: better parts can keep you alive. Your equipment needs to be really solid, so your odds go way up and you'll have a good race if you put Öhlins on your machine. Suspension is the first thing you want to improve for an Iron Dog. The winners of this year's race did their own thing; modify the shocks, re-valve them, they have their own tricks."
The Iron Dog is a mix of speed, deadly temperatures, high wind, rough terrain, endurance, surprise obstacles, moose, and the dark of a never-ending night. Is there a more grueling test of man and machine? It's doubtful!
We await a competitor to do both the Dakar and Iron Dog, then report to us; which is worse; the rock and sands of arid deserts, or the snow and ice of the arctic sled race…