Iron Dog
The Ultimate Test of Man and Machine

The Iron Dog snowmachine race – known variously over time as the Iron Dog Iditarod, the Gold Rush Classic and the Tesoro Iron Dog – is Alaska’s best known motorsport event. The northland equivalent of the 24 Hours of Le Mans strung out over the course of a week, the Iron Dog is the ultimate test of men and machines in a land where there are still more trails than roads.

Once those trails were owned by teams of sled dogs and people on foot, but over time they have come to be ruled by gasoline-powered sleds. In places where Alaskans now travel regularly from village to village by snowmachine, Iron Dog racers follow on carefully prepped racing sleds capable of hitting speeds of 100 mph or more.

Speed has made the Iron Dog one of the most dangerous organized sporting events in the state. A number of riders have been seriously injured over the years. It takes a brave man or woman to sign up for this competition.

When the first race was organized as the “world’s longest cross-country snowmobile race’’ in 1984 by a gang of racers and fans of the sport, no one was sure quite what to expect. Racers that year set out on a 1,000-mile journey from Big Lake to Nome on snowmachines still in their technological youth.

A lot of those snowmobiles never reached Nome. The first races were won by competitors who were as much mechanics as drivers. John Faeo, Scott Davis, Dan Zipay, Bob Gilman and other early champs were as good at rebuilding the snowmachines on the trail as they were at racing them. That changed over time.

Much of what they learned about the design weakness of snowmobiles along the Iditarod Trail (the Iron Dog follows the same route north as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race) went into improving the snowmachines people ride all across North America today. And the machinery has improved.

Thanks to technological improvements in equipment, what started as a 1,000 mile race from Big Lake to Nome evolved into a demanding 2,000-mile race from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks tying together most of the state’s motorheads for a week of gasoline-fueled excitement in the dark days of February.

— Craig Medred