While most have heard of the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska, fewer know about the competition that usually breaks the trail for that race each year.
The Iron Dog is the longest, toughest snowmobile race in the world. And this year, Calaveras County has a local contender.
David Wagner, 51, of Arnold, is headed to Alaska this week to train for the roughly 2,650-mile race, which will take place over only seven days in mid-February.
“I figured if I was going to start racing at this age, going after that one was better than going after small ones,” Wagner said on Dec. 31. “It’s an incredible race.”
Although the exact route that the riders will take is undetermined due to complications resulting from the pandemic, the plan is for teams of two, each rider on their own sled, to begin at intervals in Big Lake before heading across the Alaska Range to the Yukon River.
From there, racers will cut overland towards the coast of the Bering Sea before reaching Nome, which is the halfway point. After up to two days of rest, riders will turn toward Kotzebue and then head south, finishing back in Big Lake.
Racers face both the rugged terrain of the Alaskan backcountry and extreme winter conditions. Temperatures as low as -57 degrees have been recorded by riders during the race, and the wind-chill factor for racers is often in the subzero triple digit range.
“It’s a different cold up there,” Wagner said.
Although Wagner hasn’t competed in many snowmobile races, he is a highly skilled, veteran rider. He grew up riding snowmobiles and motorcycles in Kemmerer, Wyo., where his father ran a snowmobile and motorcycle shop and raced snowmobiles and motocross. His first ride on a snowmobile was at the age of 2 years old, and the first time he rode 100 mph, he was hooked.
“Dad had his race sled and we were going across the lake outside of Kemmerer,” he said. “I still can remember holding onto the handlebars, and that’s when it all started.”
Wagner moved to Arnold 23 years ago, where he now lives with his wife, Melissa. He said he rode his sled 87 days last year.
“Highway 4 is probably the best riding in all of the Sierra,” he said. “Right now, everybody’s coming from 108 and 88 to ride over here.”
Wagner entered the Iron Dog for the first time last year, but due to a suspected fuel leak in his partner’s sled about 800 miles into the race, he was unable to finish, though the team was doing well and leading for a good portion of the race.
“The sled lit on fire in the middle of the night right outside of Kaltag,” he said. “That was the end of the race for us.”
Only about half of the entrants finish the race each year. Few riders from the Lower 48 enter, and no one from the Lower 48 has ever finished.
“That was another challenge for me,” Wagner said. “I wanted to be the first one from down here to do something.”
Wagner’s partner this year is Eric Wellman, of Wasilla, AK, who is an Air Force veteran originally from Idaho Falls.
“Last year, he rode with another guy, and they just didn’t match up,” Wagner said. “They call it the ‘divorces of Iron Dog’ up there—people seem to bounce around from partner to partner.”
Wagner’s friend Todd Palin, the ex-husband of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and a four-time Iron Dog champion, has helped Wagner prepare for the race.
“My buddy Todd coached me through the whole thing,” Wagner said. “He is a great guy, a great person for the sport up there.”
Although the winning team will take home around $100,000, the race isn’t about the money, Wagner said. Last year, he spent over $60,000 participating in the competition.
“It’s all about going up there and having to race with these guys that are just incredible racers,” he said.
This year, various sponsorships, including a factory sponsorship from Polaris Snowmobiles, have helped cut down on costs for Wagner.
“We’ve got only the best sleds, and we’ve got only the best mechanics from Polaris working on our sleds,” he said.
In order to finish, racers have to cover hundreds of miles each day.
“A typical day is 500 miles, no matter if you’re going 30 mph or 100 mph,” Wagner said.
The speed of the racers depends on weather conditions, terrain and strategy.
“If you’re down on the river, you’re typically running 85 to 105 mph,” he said. “If you’re in a blizzard, you’re down to 10 or 15 mph trying to see where you’re going.”
The riders are required to carry certain emergency gear and safety supplies, including sleeping bags for subzero temperatures and two days of food. Riders often put duct tape or surgical tape on their faces to cover gaps between their goggles and helmet and avoid getting frostbitten.
Staying hydrated is important, but carrying water is a challenge in itself.
“About the only place you can carry that extra water is under your hood or inside your jacket,” Wagner said. “Otherwise, it’s just going to freeze.”
Wagner said he learned a lot from riding in the race last year.
“I used to think a race was going really fast, and I’ve learned after riding with these guys up there that it’s about consistency,” he said. “You can stay 30 mph and beat the guy that was running 100 mph in different places.”
Being able to make improvised repairs is an important part of the competition, Wagner said.
“(You have to be) able to MacGyver things, and figure it out,” he said. “You can’t carry every part there is with you.”
Checkpoints with fuel and oil will line the course every 60 to 100 miles, and teams are required to stop and rest for designated amounts of time during the race.
While the competition usually allows for chase planes that carry spare parts, that isn’t the case this year with the pandemic, though parts can be shipped to villages and will also be available at the halfway point.
Due to COVID-19, racers will also likely have less interaction with locals this year.
“Usually, we go to different villages, and when you pull into that village, somebody will open up their home to you,” Wagner said. “This year, it sounds like we’re going to be sleeping on floors in community centers and gyms and things like that along the route.”
Wagner said that local kids love seeing the racers come through.
“If you’re racing the Iron Dog, it’s like being a football star down here for the NFL,” he said. “These kids love to see you. I mean, their dream is to be able to go and race snowmobiles.”
Because Wagner has followed the race for the past 30 years of its 38-year history, he knew what to expect on his first attempt last year. However, he was surprised by the people he met in Alaska.
“The biggest surprise to me was how friendly everybody was,” he said.
Wagner said he feels confident about his chances of finishing the race this year.
“I’m positive I’m going to finish,” he said. “I’m really excited to find out where the new trail’s going to be, and can’t wait to get up there next week and start practicing and riding with all these guys.”
Wagner would like to see more riders from the Lower 48 participating in the race.
“My dream is to end up getting 20 teams from the Lower 48 to come up there and race,” he said. “I’d love to get more people from here going up there.”
During the race, the progress of riders can be tracked at irondog.org.
To follow Wagner’s team’s Facebook page, visit facebook.com/irondog11.