Iron Dog sleds are given TLC at halfway point wrenching
Shortly after each pair of racers crossed the Iron Dog Snowmachine Race’s half-way mark near Nome’s East End Park on Tuesday, Feb 23, they were quickly escorted to the Nome Public Works Building. There, some of the most well cared for, and expensive, racing sleds in the world would be housed for Wednesday’s scheduled maintenance session than many call “The Wrenching.”
To give racers a central place to repair their sleds, the shop is gutted and transformed into a giant sliding puzzle. Event organizers, race volunteers and team members worked together to move pairs of heavily decaled, sleek snowmachines a few feet at a time. As one pair of rigs finds a new position, others quickly fill the vacant space.
Shortly after noon, a small area had been cleared for Team 35. Fairbanks racers Tony Greene and Jon Tolley were carefully laying out a set of tools and assorted parts for their Polaris Switchback PRO-S 600 snowmachines on a white folding table. The pair had entered the half-way checkpoint in Nome the night before. Earlier in the day they had used their allotted 15-minute inspection time to determine they would put new carbides on each rig and replace the front track shock on Tolley’s machine.
A crowd of spectators donned in gray Team 35 hoodies anxiously looked on from behind the thick, yellow rope that kept the general public from wandering too close to the machines. Standing front and center in the group was Tony Greene’s wife, former Nome resident Alexa Greene, who is the daughter of Earle and Yvonne Martinson, and the sister of Adam Martinson.
Race rules allow teams to enlist the help of two mechanics for the mid-race wrenching. Greene and Tolley, who had recruited Team Five racer Chris Carroll and his mechanic friend Ivar Carlson, were putting the finishing touches on their wrenching choreography.
Iron Dog Race Marshall Lee Davis sat patiently on a nearby machine as the crew put the finishing touches on their plan. Before the racers set off working, the clipboard-toting Davis briefed the crew on the rules of the session, specifically, that time spent working on their rigs would be added to their overall race time, and ultimately effect the time they left Nome for the second half of the race.
As soon as Davis was given the signal to start the clock, Carlson helped Greene tip Tolley’s machine on its side, and went to work on the shock. Tolley and Carroll flew back and forth between the rigs working on carbides. Davis was given the nod to stop the clock after 16 minutes, 46 seconds. “My guess was 22 minutes,” said Greene afterwards.
Greene, who was running his second Iron Dog race, and Tolley, who was running his first, ended up having a nearly mechanical-free second half of the race. They did break a throttle lever 100 miles out of Fairbanks, but still took thirteenth out of the 23 teams to finish the race.
The Iron Dog could be thought of as a stage race if it were not for the pit-stop-like wrenching. The position a team enters Nome can be drastically different from it’s mid-race restart spot due to added mechanical time.
Team 10 racers Mike Morgan, a Nome-Beltz alumni, and his partner Chris Olds came to Nome in fifth place riding Polaris Switchback PRO-S 600s. The veteran team dealt with mechanical issues on their journey to Morgan’s hometown. “We had a mechanical out of Skwentna, the first checkpoint,” said Morgan. “We had a clutch blow apart on us.”
“It was kind of a fluke deal,” said Olds. “We were able to get some parts right there out of Skwentna.” So as not to use up valuable race time, the team went “ off the clock,” and took care of the problem during one of the race’s mandatory lay-overs. “You are allowed to get assistance in checkpoints only,” said Olds.
Morgan’s father Stan followed the team, and carried spare parts in his plane, but he had already gone ahead to get in front of inclement weather. “So, we were able to find a sled there in town that we could basically pull apart, and get some parts and pieces from.”
Team Ten had another mechanical glitch outside of White Mountain. Morgan said that the soft snow on this year’s trail was particularly hard on belts. The belt on Olds’ sled broke while at full throttle, which resulted in a busted crankshaft. Morgan said that he towed his partner back to Nome.
Morgan and Olds knew they needed lots of work during the wrenching, and had recruited Jason West, a mechanic at Morgan’s Sales and Service, and Franklin Harris to help. They were expecting about an hour and a half worth, and the actual time turned out to be one hour and 45 minutes. Morgan was quite pleased with the team’s repair efforts. “Changing a crankshaft in 1:45, that's pretty unheard of,” he said.
Despite the mechanical hiccups in the first half of the race, the pair entered Nome in fifth position. The crankshaft repair on wrenching day cost them two spots, and the team headed out toward Fairbanks in seventh place. Morgan said that the remainder of the race went well for Olds and him, and they were able to regain their fifth position along the way.
“You make a lot of your own luck,” said Olds. “Preparation is key to this race. You do your homework, and try to get your machine where it needs to be to make the 2,000 miles. There are still elements that are out of your control.”
“We’ll keep going until we win this thing,” said Morgan. “We just need a good clean run the whole way.”
Rookie racers Shawn Pomrenke of Nome, and his partner Amos Cruise of McGrath were driving Arctic Cat ZR 6000 R XC 600s. They were not the only team having issues with their sleds, and ended up being one of 18 teams to scratch from the race. Pomrenke said one of their machines burned up right outside McGrath, and they tried to rebuild the cylinders. “We went to Ophir and decided to go back to scratch in McGrath.”
“We learned a lot,” said Pomrenke. “It’s different riding down there than up here. Sort of like a snow cross race down there. We will be more prepared next time. We want to do it again.”
Nome’s John Bahnke, a race veteran, and owner and operator of Wilderness Ski-Doo, and his veteran partner Christopher Collins of Kotzebue finished the race in twenty-first place. Team 34 rode Ski-Doo Renegade X 600 sleds.