Snowmachines are used by residents all across Alaska for everything from hauling freight to recreation. But when it comes to going fast, it's becoming apparent that the Kenai Peninsula has the need for speed.
Kenai's Mark Carr and Kasilof's Dusty Van Meter took first place in this year's Tesoro Iron Dog 2000, an annual cross-country snowmachine race that puts Alaska's top riders to the ultimate test by sending them screaming from Wasilla to Nome and back on high-powered sleds. For anyone keeping track, that makes six out of the past seven years that at least one member of the winning two-person teams has called the peninsula home.
Carr and Van Meter stopped in to speak on their winning ride Wednesday at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce. Carr said he believes the peninsula's varied terrain is perfect for making training runs for the race, which traverses a wide variety of country on the way to Nome.
"I think the reason local drivers from the peninsula do so good is because of our mountain riding skills," he told the chamber. "We go through downed trees and sticks and creeks and all the stuff that's out on the trail every time we go riding. It makes a lot of difference."
In addition to having good terrain to train on, Van Meter and Carr said they were helped out this year by the fact that local businesses stepped up to sponsor their run, which can cost teams as much as $30,000 or more.
"If it wasn't for the local sponsors, we wouldn't be able to do it," Carr said.
The two told the chamber about their race, which featured a number of bumps along the way. First of all, they were forced to start last out of 33 teams because their main sponsor, Ski-Doo, was late in committing to the race.
"We started dead last," Carr said.
If the slow start wasn't enough, Carr said he lost a windshield early in the race, making the next couple hundred miles especially challenging.
"Thirty-eight below without a windshield is pretty cold," Van Meter said of his partner's tough stretch.
Once Carr and Van Meter got moving, they had little trouble getting to the front of the pack. By the time they got into Nome, they had caught the lead pack, and by Kaltag they passed the leaders who just happened to be Scott Davis of Soldotna and Todd Palin of Wasilla, two riders Carr and Van Meter are very familiar with.
Davis is a six-time champion who won three times with Carr, while Palin is a three-time winner who won in 2000 and 2002 riding with Van Meter.
"It was kind of gratifying for both of us because they were our ex-partners," Carr said.
From that point on, Van Meter and Carr trusted their Ski-Doos to do the rest.
"Once we passed them, we backed off," Carr said.
Never seriously challenged again, the duo crossed the finish line in Wasilla in first place, something they said was largely due to the support they got from both their peninsula sponsors and their Ski-Doo 600s, machines Van Meter said he's still amazed by.
"I've never put a sled through that kind of abuse," he said, noting the team rode stock sleds the whole way and only had to make a couple minor repairs.
The sleds weren't the only things taking abuse, though.
Van Meter himself ran into a bit of trouble in the race. On the way into Nome, he hit a nasty bump that caused him to tear ligaments in his ankle. Once in Nome, Carr said Van Meter got some highly-technical medical advice from the local doctor.
"He said, 'Tape it up that's what John Wayne would do,'" Carr remembered.
Despite the injury, the still-limping Van Meter said he was able to continue the race and went the rest of the way a total of roughly 1,600 miles, with the bum wheel.
Van Meter and Carr never thought of dropping out, though, despite the fact that this year's Iron Dog trail was one of the most difficult in memory, they said.
"It was really, really tough," Carr told the chamber.
Asked if they did anything special to prepare that gave them an edge in the grueling race, Carr said there's only one way any team can prepare for a long-distance race like the Iron Dog.
"Nothing other than riding gets you ready."
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