Resourceful riders keep sleds moving forward during '17 Iron Dog

Seasoned Iron Dog competitors know that to finish The World's Longest Toughest Snowmachine Race they must save as many precious ticks of the clock as possible while keeping their rig’s mechanical issues to a minimum.

Team 41, Cory Davis and Ryan Simons, proved to be the most time-efficient and trouble-free riders during the 2017 Iron Dog, and were crowned as champions on Friday.  Team 41’s victory, however, was due to unforeseen circumstances. According to an Iron Dog press release, Team 8 drivers Tyler Aklestad and Tyson Johnson, who were frontrunners for most of the race and held a substantial lead over Davis and Simons heading out of the last checkpoint in Tanana, were disqualified for a rule infraction. Race marshals declared the pair had violated Rule 13.2.1, which states, “No other assistance of any kind, including physical contact with the pit crew will be permitted.” According to reports, unbeknownst to Aklestad and Johnson two spectators at ??? checkpoint touched their snowmachines while the riders were fueling up. The matter is under review. 

“We’ve had some mechanicals the last few years, and we wanted to make sure we finished the race,” said Davis while relaxing and talking with The Nome Nugget in the Nome Public Works Building on Wrenching Wednesday.

On Tuesday the pair arrived at the Nome halfway checkpoint in third place. On Wednesday they serviced their machines during the mandatory, full-day layover. “We’re riding a bit conservatively, but the sleds are in pretty good shape,” added Davis.

The race victors are versatile snowmachine riders. Both Davis and Simons will add the first place award to trophy cases that are already full of Winter X-Games medals.

To illustrate the feast-or-famine fortunes of the Iron Dog, the 2017 race completion was Davis’ third in five attempts. Simons has now finished two of the four races he has started. Overall, the 2017 Iron Dog saw only 14 of the 35 teams make the entire trip to Fairbanks.

While Iron Dog frontrunners typically have the cleanest runs, back-of-the pack finishers often return from the trail with the most interesting stories. Perhaps the best race-saving tactic in this year’s competition was the quick-witted, time-preserving action exhibited by the ninth-place Team 36. In the process of salvaging valuable minutes on their way from Anchorage to their homes in Fairbanks, these racing cousins took the term “overnight delivery” to new heights.

Due to damaged parts on their machines, Iron Dog veterans Troy Conlon and Ryan Folsom had been compelled to take an unplanned layover in Rohn on Sunday - the first day of the 2,000-mile race. In order to keep moving down the trail, several components on their sleds required replacement. Unfortunately, it was pitch black when they were forced to stop.

The remote Iron Dog checkpoint and layover location did not have runway lights, so the Team 36 support pilot Daniel Hayden couldn’t land to deliver what was needed. The pair made radio contact with Hayden and called for an “Air Drop.”

Iron Dog rules stipulate that racers are not allowed to handle their machines while on layover, so Conlon and Folsom coaxed several checkpoint volunteers into pulling their sleds out into the open to help guide the pilot.

While circling overhead, Hayden wrapped part of the front suspension called an A-Arm in one of the racer’s spare jackets, and bundled other needed parts in a second coat. He then jettisoned the packages out the window.

“The one coat was white, so it was pretty easy to see coming down,” said Folsom. “But we had one that was black and orange and you couldn’t hardly see it. We didn’t know where it went, so we were out there looking all over. That one took 15-20 minutes to find.”

Conlon said when their layover ended it took his partner and him an additional 20-25 minutes to change the A-Arm in minus 40°F temperatures. “We fueled up, put on our heavy gear, and went for it,” he said.

The Nome Public Works building was like a giant sliding picture puzzle on Wednesday as Iron Dog volunteers helped teams maneuver their rigs into position to perform mid-race repairs and carry out preventative maintenance. After the allotted fifteen-minute inspection period, Team 36 went back “on the clock,” as time spent “turning the wrench” is added to a team’s halfway-point restart.

“The best thing would have been no repairs. It’s kind of an unknown sometimes. You can get in there and find a bolt rounded off, or something,” said Folsom after he and his partner concluded servicing their machines. The duo was generally pleased that they needed only 12 minutes to change belts, shocks and fuel lines.

“They froze up on the way in,” said Conlon as he explained the necessity of the last repair. “I carried fuel all the way from Galena past Unalakleet. It wasn’t sucking it out of the tank, so I was carrying around an extra 50 pounds of fuel for 300 miles.”

Freezing fuel lines would be less of a problem as the racers left Nome on Thursday. One-by-one, teams headed out onto the Bering Sea ice into blizzard conditions. Temperatures at the halfway point hovered around 30°F, and were reported to have exceeded 40°F further down the trail. That reading meant competitors, and their machines, coped with an 80°F degree temperature swing during the race.

“You can never predict what the year is going to be like,” said Hayden, the pilot, as he and the Conlon/Folsom entourage watched Team 36 rapidly work on their machines. “It’s always new and different and exciting. Every year just varies, the weather, where the breakdowns are. So it’s really exciting because you don’t know what is out there.”

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