Victory by one second seemed inconceivable in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But in an astonishing finish marking the end of the 1978 event, that’s what happened. Dick Mackey and his team of huskies outran Rick Swenson down Front Street in Nome to claim victory by a single tick.
As fans lined the fencing along the town’s main street and cheered, Mackey, one of the race pioneers, and Swenson, soon to be its most decorated champion, sprinted alongside their dogs, chests heaving from exertion and sweat flying on the crisp March day.
Mackey stopped running the moment his lead dog crossed the finish line. Attempting to drop down on his sled bag, he missed and bounced off the frozen ground. Some fans feared he had suffered a heart attack, but he was merely trying to catch his breath. In a conclusion thick with drama, after more than two weeks on the trail, Mackey was decreed the winner of the longest sled dog race in the world with a time one second swifter than Swenson’s.
Called a photo finish, Mackey was ruled the victor because his lead dog’s nose crossed under the famed burled arch finish line. Swenson drove his entire team under the arch, causing temporary confusion with the result seemingly in doubt. Officials established a precedent with their decision that the winner was the musher whose lead dog first broke the plane of the finish line.
Mackey, then 45 years old, never won another Iditarod. Swenson, the defending champion that year, won three of the next four races and triumphed a fifth time in 1991 to become the Iditarod’s winningest musher.
– Lew Freedman