Soldotna's Scott Davis will hit the Tesoro Iron Dog race trail today on his Arctic Cat F6. Davis, who owns seven Iron Dog titles, is searching for consecutive crowns with partner Todd Palin of Wasilla.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Scott Davis wanted to go out on top. And he did.
After claiming his seventh Tesoro Iron Dog title, but first with five-year partner Todd Palin, Davis announced to the crowd at the awards banquet last year that he was stepping down from snowmachine racing.
"I've been doing it 25 years. I'm not a young participant anymore," Davis explained. "I'm 48 years old and maybe wanted to do something different. I know I'm close to the end of my career."
Close is the key word.
Following intense lobbying from Gov. Sarah Palin's husband, Davis was convinced to return for the 25th running of the Tesoro Iron Dog snowmachine pro-class race which begins on Big Lake at 11 a.m. today.
"I thought that was a great way to exit the sport on top because not many people do that. I didn't want to be one of those guys who stays and rides for 10 years without being competitive," he said. "If I don't think I have a chance of winning, I won't go. Years from now I may do it for fun. But right now I'm still competitive enough.
"I wouldn't be riding this if it wasn't for Todd."
Other local teams entered in the 1,971-mile journey to Fairbanks via Nome include the tandem of Seward's Dick Jimmer and Soldotna's Dusty VanMeter as well as Ninilchik's Chris Downs and Kenai's Ryan Swanson.
Placing second three years in a row with Palin, once by a single second, Davis' mind became clouded with seeds of doubt.
"I was beginning to think I couldn't win the race. ... That was starting to get to me a little bit," he said. "I certainly don't have anything to prove to myself. There's a certain amount of satisfaction to win that race, to be the best in the world in something, whatever that event might be.
"It kind of takes that never-say-die mentality to compete in that race for that number of years," he added. "It takes some determination to stick it out year after year and that wears on you."
With 11 titles between the two, including their first together last year, Davis and Palin are frontrunners to capture consecutive crowns.
"I try not to allow myself to think about that kind of stuff," Davis said. "I think about getting to the next check point or the next gas stop without stopping."
Admitting it would be nice to capture his eighth title and the $25,000 first-place prize, part of the $100,000 purse, Davis said being realistic is also part of the competition.
"There's a ton of good teams out there and every year it seems to get more teams that seem to be capable of winning," he said. "There's (40) teams and probably 10 of them who I would consider could win who have the ability to win if things go right for them. In the early years, there were three teams."
On paper, Davis knows he may be one of the favorites. But it's a vastly different outlook in some people's minds.
"I think for a while I just needed to put the bad memories behind. I enjoyed competing because I've been doing it a long time, but there is conflict and not everybody wants to see Scott Davis win the Iron Dog again," he said. "Not only is age against me, but there's other political things and things that happen along the way where people may not be as willing they're not as excited about me winning the race again is what I'm trying to say and sometimes that's obvious. Painfully obvious."
The biggest factor working against their team is age. As he and Palin grow older, the competition seems to get younger, forcing the heralded duo to make up time in other areas.
"It takes more effort every year to stay competitive and to stay in that top echelon in what it takes to win because we're certainly not the fastest team out there just because of our age," he said. "It takes a lot of work. You train harder, ride more miles, do more work on the sleds. ... We have to try to do other things better. We do navigate well. We have 11 Iron Dog wins between us. We have a lot of experience which is probably what keeps us competitive.
"The day of my team dominating the race is over. I think when we win now, it's because we're smarter, not because we're faster," Davis added. "There will be some point where some young teams will be faster and smarter, so there will be a point in time where they'll take over the reigns."
While the use of airplanes tracking the race and carrying spare parts has been widely criticized, Davis believes it's no different than having the fastest sled.
"Airplanes is just one of things that if you want to be consistently in the front, you have to do. Those means are available to all the frontrunners. I pay for the fuel every year," he said, adding he began using one in the early years when Yamaha parts weren't easily accessible in nearby villages. "If you're spending $20,000 a year and it costs you another couple grand to put an airplane in, that's a no-brainer. You have to use all your possible means to better your chance of winning the race.
"If that means you have an airplane that flies along, then that's what that means," Davis added. "We don't cut corners anywhere. We use the best navigation equipment we can find, the best Gortex suits, the best that we can of everything. We buy four snowmobiles just to do this even every single year."
The only year Davis hasn't participated in the race since its inception in 1984 was in 1996, when he injured himself during a 500-mile event in Minnesota.
He won the ensuing three races after the layoff. But going seven years without a victory after that, Davis said retirement crossed his mind, particularly while trekking across the state in last year's competition when just 12 of the 28 teams that started the race actually reached Fairbanks.
"It was just a hard battle along the way. Iron Dog is kind of an emotional roller coaster anywhere. You're either on top or in the hole. You try real hard not to let that get to you. You battle through all the issues," he said. "We had plenty of things go wrong. We didn't have a real clean run. I hadn't been able to duplicate those (clean runs). Those were kind of storybook years."
The big question now is whether he plans on announcing another retirement following this race?
"I'll probably save myself the embarrassment," he said with a laugh. "It would be easier for me to quit, to stop racing, if I won again. But I can't say."
Besides, he still loves doing it. And last year proved he can still succeed.
"I really enjoy the race and enjoy competing but I've been doing it a long time, so we'll see," he said. "Maybe I'll have some more to say at the end of the race.
"I like to say I do it for fun, but maybe next year fun will be vacationing in Hawaii."
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