Leader of Alaska's Iron Dog competition has Merced County ties

The Tesoro Iron Dog started on the ice at Big Lake on Sunday, February 8, 2009, as competitors began their nearly 2,000 mile race across the Alaska wilderness from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks.
The Tesoro Iron Dog started on the ice at Big Lake on Sunday, February 8, 2009, as competitors began their nearly 2,000 mile race across the Alaska wilderness from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks.

After a couple days of rocketing along the Iditarod Trail at speeds up to 100 mph in temperatures down to minus-50, Tesoro Iron Dog race leaders Todd Minnick of Wasilla and Nick Olstad, who has family ties to Atwater, were enjoying the warmth of a Nome pizza parlor while preparing to dine on chicken-bacon slices Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm just ordering it right now,'' Minnick reported via his dad's cell phone hours after reaching the City of the Golden Sands. "It sounds pretty good.

"It's not so cold up here,'' he added, "maybe only 20 below.''

Twenty below may be frighteningly cold to most people, but compared to minus 50, it's nothing.

Minnick, 29, said he was reminded of that when he and Olstad, 26, went out to start their sleds in Kaltag early Monday morning after a 10-hour, mandatory rest stop.

The Polaris Dragons, which usually start on the first pull, took four or five pulls in the cold, but that wasn't what Minnick noticed most. The sleds simply didn't want to move, he said.

"I believe I heard it was 45 below in Kaltag when we left,'' Minnick said. At that temperature, "the belts are stiff. The tracks are stiff. You've got to let (the machines) warm up for a long time, and meanwhile the clock's ticking.''

And the two racers who have led the race since shortly after it departed Big Lake on Sunday knew that every second they lost in Kaltag was a second that hard chasing Ski-Doo jockeys Tyler Aklestad from Palmer and Tyson Johnson from Eagle River gained.

That pair -- Aklestad, 23, and Johnson, 29 -- have been hot on the snow flaps of the race leaders since Sunday. They arrived in Nome in second place, 36 minutes back.

It was a position amazingly similar to last year, when Aklestad and Johnson arrived 44 minutes back. That margin was cut to 24 minutes when race officials imposed a 20-minute penalty on the Wasilla-based leaders for allegedly getting some help on their sleds in McGrath from Minnick's old teammate, retired seven-time Iron Dog champ John Faeo.

"I'm hoping in a way this is (a repeat of last year), and in a way it ain't,'' Minnick said.

Last year, Minnick and Olstad controlled the 2,000-mile race for nearly 1,500 miles before running into a blinding snowstorm between Kaltag and Galena on the snow-covered Yukon River.

By then, Aklestad and Johnson were out of the picture, victims of mechanical problems. But a bunch of other teams joined Minnick and Olstad in the blowing snow, milling around trying to find the trail.

By the time the leaders arrived in Galena, Minnick and Olstad were back in sixth, while Marc McKenna from Anchorage and Eric Quam from Eagle River were in front.

Minnick said he'd be happy do without any snowstorms on the way to Fairbanks this year, but noted it was tough to expect the weather to hold along the volatile Bering Sea coast, where the sun or a full moon has held sway the past few days.

The moon was spectacular when the racers left Kaltag about 1 a.m. Tuesday, Minnick said, and the sun later in the day was so bright the glare made it impossible to see Koyuk coming across the Norton Bay ice from Shaktoolik.

"It was too bright,'' Minnick said. "You just watch your GPS (guidance system) and try to pick a straight line.''

At least the bright light helps drivers maneuver around rough spots, Minnick said.

"There was really nothing damage wise,'' he said of his sleds. "We're gonna let them thaw off for a couple hours and look and see exactly how they are,'' but he didn't figure much more than a little preventative maintenance was needed.

Minnick planned to spend part of his time in Nome showing his parents around town. They were visiting along with his niece.

"It's pretty neat,'' Minnick said, "they've lived here in Alaska their entire lives, and they've never been to Nome.''

"Every year, we say we're going,'' added mom, Dianne. "It's exciting to finally (do it). Nome is beautiful.''

Just behind Aklestad and Johnson in Nome were McKenna, 34, and new partner Dusty Van Meter. Van Meter, 39, of Kasilof, is a three-time Iron Dog champ. He and McKenna were followed into Nome by the other half of the winning duo from last year, Quam, 38, and his new partner Bradley Helwig, 35, from Anchorage.

Just behind them, only a couple hours out of the lead, were the established old dogs of Scott Davis, 49, from Soldotna and Todd Palin, 44, from Wasilla. Davis is a seven-time winner, which ties him with the now-retired Faeo for the most ever. Palin, the husband of Alaska's governor, is a four-time champ.

The nature of the race has generally made age and experience key components to victory, but Quam wondered if age may finally be catching up with some traditional race leaders while young guns like Minnick, Olstad, Aklestad and Johnson move to the fore.

A few more days will tell.

For getting to Nome first, Minnick and Olstad collect a halfway prize of $2,500. A much bigger payday -- at least $25,000 -- awaits the race winners in Fairbanks on Saturday.

Veteran racer Corey Cronquist of Team CC Ski-Doo in Wasilla and Eagle River said he's optimistic Aklestad and Johnson can make a serious run at the leaders this year. The duo stands to collect another $6,000 in bonus money from the Canadian manufacturer of their snowmachines if they get to the line first.

"The sleds have been holding together,'' he said. "They're (the racers) holding together.''

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