Wasilla duo wins Iron Dog

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Published on Saturday, February 14, 2009 10:53 PM AKST

FAIRBANKS — When he saw Tyler Aklestad’s body sprawled out on the Tanana River ice on Saturday, Todd Minnick prepared to do what any Tesoro Iron Dog racer would do — stop and help.

It didn’t matter that Aklestad and Minnick were battling for the lead of the world’s longest snowmachine race only 100 miles from the finish line and were separated by only a matter of seconds after almost 1,900 miles of racing.
If a fellow Iron Dogger is in trouble, you stop, even if the title is on the line.

Johnny Wagner/News-Miner Nick Olstad speaks to his grandparents over a cellular phone wedged in his balaclava after he and teammate Todd Minnick won the 2009 Tesoro Iron Dog on Saturday afternoon, February 14, 2009, at the ceremonial finish downtown on the Chena River.

“I seen Tyler laying on the ice and I turned to go over there to see if he was OK,” Minnick said.

The next thing he knew, Minnick and his snowmachine were “cartwheeling” down the river, having hit the same three-foot high wind drift that Aklestad did. He landed on the frozen ice not far from Aklestad.
“There we were, both laid out on the river,” Minnick said.

Like two boxers who had each landed a big punch and gone down at the same time, both Minnick and Aklestad pulled themselves up off the ice for one final flurry that will go down as one of the most exciting Iron Dog finishes in the 25-year history of the race.

Riding a pair of Polaris Dragons, Minnick, 29, and Olstad, 23, held on to win the Iron Dog in record time, edging the Ski-Doo team of Aklestad and Tyson Johnson by just 3 minutes, 18 seconds.

Their time of 37 hours, 19 minutes, and 8 seconds over the 1,971-mile trail shattered the previous course record of 38:07:57.

“We finally did it,” Minnick said, accepting a victory hug from Wasilla friend Gov. Sarah Palin, who was at the Chena River finish line in downtown Fairbanks waiting for her husband, Todd, who finished in sixth place with partner Scott Davis.

It was Minnick’s first Iron Dog win in 10 tries while Olstad, also of Wasilla, earned his second Iron Dog crown. The victory, worth $25,000 of the $160,000 purse, also broke a four-year reign by Arctic Cat racers. The last time a pair of Polaris riders claimed top Iron Dog honor was 2001.

“We rode ‘em hard,” Minnick said of the black, red and white 600cc Polaris Dragons he and Olstad drove to victory.

More than half of the windshield on Minnick’s machine was missing as a result of his crash between Manley and Nenana.

“It was pretty pristine before that,” Minnick said of his sled.
Davis, who with Palin set the previous course record in 2007, wasn’t surprised to see the record fall. Trail conditions were near-perfect this year with a layer of fresh snow cushioning the trail the entire way.

“I’ve never seen it that fast,” said Davis, who finished almost four hours behind.
The second team to leave the starting line, Minnick and Olstad led the race almost from wire to wire. They took the lead about five miles from the starting line held it for the next 1,700 miles. They led Aklestad and Johnson by 38 minutes at the halfway point in Nome.

“There was a lot of pressure leading the whole time,” Minnick acknowledged. “We couldn’t slack off at all.”

It wasn’t until  Thursday on the 120-mile run from Ruby to Tanana on the Yukon River that Aklestad and Johnson, who had been slowly closing the gap on Minnick and Olstad, caught up and passed them briefly.

Only 1 minutes, 42 seconds separated the two teams when they left Tanana on Saturday for the final 232 miles to the finish in Fairbanks.

Minnick and Olstad maintained their slim lead for the first 100 miles Aklestad and Johnson caught and passed them about 30 miles out of Manley while Olstad was stopped.

Minnick and Olstad re-took the lead after both Aklestad and Minnick crashed. Aklestad hit the snow drift first and he was traveling faster than Minnick. Aklestad estimated he was traveling about 80 mph when he hit what he described as “a really bad wind drift on an open section of trail that I hit way too hard.”

Aklestad’s Ski-Doo landed on upright on its back end and the impact stretched his track out, he said. After that, the track was “bubbling up” at high speeds, forcing Aklestad and Johnson to back off, Aklestad said.

Even so, Aklestad and Johnson managed to re-take the lead when Olstad was forced to briefly stop again.

But Minnick and Olstad caught up and passed them about 25 miles from Nenana and led into the final fuel stop. They left Nenana a minute ahead of Aklestad and Johnson and managed to stretch their lead by another two minutes enroute to Fairbanks.

“We pushed as hard as we could but we couldn’t catch them,” Johnson said. “Our only hope was that they blew a belt or something.”
Even when Aklestad and Johnson passed them on Friday and again on Saturday, Minnick said he and Olstad never panicked.

“We knew our machines were faster on top end speed and that’s how it worked out,” Minnick said.

For the soft-spoken Olstad, it was his second Iron Dog victory. He won with Marc McKenna as a rookie in 2005. Olstad has finished the race twice in five tries, both times as a champion, but he seemed happier for Minnick than himself.

“I’m glad Todd could get one,” Olstad said.
For the snake-bitten duo of Aklestad, 23, and Johnson, 29, it was their second runner-up finish in the last three years. They placed second in 2007, too, the only other year in the five they raced together that they have finished the race. They did everything they could to win, Johnson said.

“Any other year we probably would have been hours ahead if it wasn’t for those guys,” Johnson said of Minnick and Olstad. “We pushed it as hard as we could.”

The fact that they beat the course record by 45 minutes didn’t ease the disappointment of finishing second.
“That’s not what I enter the race for,” Aklestad said.
McKenna and Dusty Van Meter finished in third place, 47 minutes and 2 seconds behind the winners, almost the identical time they trailed Minnick and Olstad  at the halfway point in Nome. Their time of 38:06:06 also broke the old course record.

“We got a half hour behind on the first day and didn’t feel like pushing hard enough to make it up was the right thing to do,” said McKenna, who won last year’s race with Eric Quam before teaming up with Van Meter, a three-time champ, this year. “Those guys in front were running hard and clean.”
Quam and his new partner, rookie Brad Helwig of Anchorage, finished in fourth place in 39:02:46, fending off a late challenge by Fairbanks’ Tyler Huntington and Mike Morgan of Nome, who finished five minutes behind Quam and Helwig at 39:57:46.

Huntington and Quam actually caught up to Quam and Helwig about 10 miles from Nenana but Huntington ran out of gas and had to stop and pour more fuel into his tank that he was carrying on his machine. The same thing happened on Friday after Huntington and Morgan passed Quam and Helwig on the way to Tanana.

“It’s kind of a heartbreaker,” said the 23-year-old Huntington, “I’m a little disappointed.”

One of the race’s top up-and-coming racers with three consecutive top seven finishes, Huntington said will be taking a break from the Iron Dog following the birth of his second child in two years.

“This is it for awhile,” he said.

Johnny Wagner/News-Miner Race fans gather around Nick Olstad, left, and Todd Minnick after the duo claimed a victory in the 2009 Tesoro Iron Dog on Saturday afternoon, February 14, 2009, at the ceremonial finish downtown on the Chena River.