Scott FaEo of Wasilla and Eric Quam of Palmer were the first Iron Dog team into the Nome halfway point Tuesday night, where racers will hold until a Thursday morning restart sends them back on the trail for another 1,000 miles toward the Fairbanks finish line.
The Team 20 pair rode their Polaris Axys Switchbacks into Nome’s eastside chute around 6:20 p.m., traveling on average a blistering 66 mph on a trail that sped up as temperatures cooled down, slushy trail froze up, and the course moved back on the sea ice during the final miles along the coast to Nome.
Poor trail conditions with no snow south of the Alaska range, and course rerouting to avoid open water along the Yukon River and the Norton Sound coast, had slowed racers down during the first 1,100 miles into Nome. For Quam, the race’s 2008 winner who finished fifth last year, that made a veteran’s experience pay off.
“It’s been a very challenging trail,” he said. “I think being a veteran helps a little bit, picking the right speed out there, because you could override this equipment and tear it up.”
That means knowing when to go slow and steady but fast enough to beat the competition. “We’ve just been cruising along, trying to take care of the iron, keeping a good pace,” Quam said.
Quam and teammate Faeo said retracing that same trail along the Norton Sound coast back to Unalakleet and back up the Yukon to Galena—before the race reaches east to the interior—will be challenging given the conditions.
“When some of those water holes freeze up, they’re going to be pretty hard out there,” Quam said. “You really have to start paying attention [while] crossing that stuff, that overflow that’s just like concrete after it’s frozen.”
“It’ll be different,” Faeo added. “It’s starting to cool off a little bit, there’s a lot of open water, and we dropped off a lot of banks that’ll be pretty steep [on the way back,]” he said. “I’m not sure how it’ll be going the other way, so it’ll be interesting.”
Faeo and Quam agreed that, despite the difficult trail being notoriously hard on machines this year, their sleds are in good shape.
“Our sleds look good, we have no problems so far,” Faeo said.
“Knock on wood,” Quam said laughing, “we’re in pretty good shape. We just have to, call it ‘preventative maintenance,’ and we should be good to go.”
About 15 minutes later the team currently second in the Iron Dog race—Anchorage’s Aaron Bartell and Soldotna’s Scott Davis of Team 7—rode into Nome. Davis, a longtime Iron Dog veteran who has captured seven wins spanning four decades of running the race since 1984, came into Nome with a cracked windscreen and stepped off his sled wincing.
“I had a little digger here, on the other side of White Mountain,” Davis said, his snowmachine whirring in the background as he asked race officials for a quick exit out of the chute.
“Are you hurt? Where are you hurt?” a reporter asked.
“Everywhere!” Davis said before giving a slight laugh. “I’ll make it!” he said before speeding out of the chute.
Race officials confirmed the “little digger” was a sled landing on Davis outside White Mountain. They added that Davis walked away from the crash, but was still hurting 75 miles later in Nome.
As of Wednesday morning 20 pro class Iron Dog teams were in Nome preparing for “wrench time” with their machines and the midway banquet before the race restarts Thursday morning.